'Child Prodigy' Film Revives Question: What Is Art? My Kid Could Paint That follows the painting and controversy over four-year-old Marla Olmstead's abstract works. Some critics believe her parents encouraged, if not altered, her work.

'Child Prodigy' Film Revives Question: What Is Art?

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My kid could paint that. You might have heard someone say that about some piece of abstract art. But it's also the name of a new documentary. And the story of the film, "My Kid Could Paint That," boils down to this: When Marla Olmstead was around four years old, she may or may not painted large colorful abstract paintings. Those paintings have sold for many thousands of dollars.

And as NPR's Elizabeth Blair report, the film also raises a lot of questions about the value of art.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: "My Kid Could Paint That" begins with filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev playfully interviewing little Marla Olmstead just before her fourth art show.

Mr. AMIR BAR-LEV (Director, "My Kid Could Paint That"): You don't want to talk at all about your new painting?

Ms. MARLA OLMSTEAD (Painter): No.

Mr. BAR-LEV: Why not?

Ms. OLMSTEAD: Because I don't.

Mr. BAR-LEV: Do you want to talk about the show?

Ms. OLMSTEAD: No. I don't.

BLAIR: But a lot of people want to talk about it.

Amir Bar-Lev's film shows the mainstream media's obsession with Marla.

(Soundbite of news reports)

Unidentified Woman#1: With her abstract painting already flying off gallery walls.

Unidentified Man#1: And wait till you see how much her paintings go for.

Unidentified Woman#2: Abstract painting have already been sold for thousands of dollars.

Unidentified Man#2: Bringing some big bucks herself.

BLAIR: Amir Bar-Lev spent almost a year filming Marla Olmstead and her family. He spent hours interviewing her parents, her dealer and Marla collectors. He also shot footage of Marla getting nice and messy as she plays — and paints — on her big canvases.

Mr. BAR-LEV: The fact that she was being called a prodigy in abstract expression raised a bunch of questions in my mind. Who decides what's great art, how does art get valued, what is art?

BLAIR: Marla was already selling paintings for $5,000 to $6,000 when Bar-Lev began filming. As a result of a story in the New York Times, a tidal wave of requests for Marla came in, from media outlets and from potential collectors. Within a few months, her paintings were selling for $20,000 to $25,000.

Mr. FRANKLIN BOYD (Director, Boyd Level): I though that some of them were certainly nice. The word that comes to mind is decorative.

BLAIR: Franklin Boyd is a consultant to Art Collectors. She says something the film did not address is that most serious contemporary art dealers would not let prices for their artists' work skyrocket so high so fast, for fear of losing customers. People who can afford $6,000 paintings are in a different league than those who pay much, much more.

Mr. BOYD: That's a very different stratum of people who are able to routinely buy art work that's in the $20,000 to $25,000 levels. And they don't want to alienate a solid base of collectors. Also there may be a flurry of attention around, and initial solo show, but that attention could quickly dry up.

BLAIR: And for Marla, it did.

(Soundbite of video clip "60 Minutes")

Unidentified Man#3: We begin tonight with something of a mystery. It involves a four-year-old girl who lives in Binghamton, New York.

BLAIR: Just as sales were booming, "60 Minutes" aired a story that cast serious doubt on the authenticity of Marla's work. A psychologist who specializes in gifted children watches a video of Marla painting and then speculates…

Dr. ELLEN WINNER (Psychologist): Either somebody else painted them start to finish, or somebody else doctored them up.

BLAIR: Sales of Marla's paintings plummeted. In the documentary, her dealer and her collectors fret that their reputations to be on the line. But for people who work in contemporary art world, Marla should never have gotten so much attention in the first place and they're not very interest in this film.

Jonathan Fineberg, director of the Center for the Study of Modern Art at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. He says the only thing that might set Marla apart from other kids is that her parents gave her high-quality paint.

Mr. JONATHAN FINEBERG (Director, Center for the Study of Modern Art): The work of little Marla is actually no different than probably half a billion children in the world except that the materials are a little different. And some people get fooled because they don't know the difference between that and the really serious stuff. So that's where there's a problem.

BLAIR: Problem or just a matter of taste?

"My Kid Could Paint That" explores a classic divide about art: Modern art insiders who think the marketing of Marla is a scam, and people who like realist painting enthusiasts who think all abstract art is a scam.

Michael Kimmelman, art critic for The New York Times put it this way in the film.

Mr. MICHAEL KIMMELMAN (Art Critic, The New York Times): There is this large idea out there that abstract art and modern art in general has no standards or truth and that if child can do it that it pulls the veil off this con game.

BLAIR: The common ground for these two groups of art consumers could be museums, where education and dialogue are usually encouraged. But Jonathan Fineberg says the reality is that museums can't afford to buy art when collectors have made it into a billion-dollar market.

Mr. FINEBERG: Because there's so much money in the hands of some very wealthy people who are after commodity value, they've driven prices up beyond reach of museums and some of them are serious collectors. Most of them are just people who are buying expensive goods.

BLAIR: One final note. Even thought "My Kid Could Paint That" questions the authenticity of Marla's work, after the documentary premiered, offer for some of her paintings were higher than ever.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

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