Thoughts On How People Respond to the Media, Part I

I am moving this post from 2009 (now split into two parts) into the more current list since I recently discussed it with my artist mother.

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I just finished watching My Kid Could Paint That, a documentary about Marla Olmstead that came out in 2007. This post and the next is not going to focus on Marla Olmstead's work (except to say that I really like Bottomfeeder, see right). What it will focus on is people's responses to the media.

Part 1: My Response to the Documentary

After watching the documentary, I Googled "Marla Olmstead" and came up with her official website plus a number of blogs, posts, and articles from when the documentary came out. I read through some of the comments and was reminded, all over again, why I don't usually read comments anywhere except on my blog (where the commenters are generally very pleasant and insightful whether they agree or disagree with me--thank you, wonderful commenters!). I am bemused by individuals who seem to exult in passing negative judgment on people they have never met. Passing judgment on movies: I get that. Passing judgment on books: I get that too. Passing judgment on politicians: well, that's kind of a given. Passing judgment on a family viewed for 83 minutes and out of context: naaah, I don't get that.

Yet many writers, posters, commenters have accepted the documentary as THE TRUTH--with one major exception: Doug Harvey from the LA Times.

I find this unquestioning acceptance of a media production bizarre.

Here is my response to the documentary:

As it started, I said, "Nah, the kid didn't paint those" even though, at that point in the film, the documentarian did accept the "authorship" of the paintings. At another point, I said, "Wow, she's really smart" about the hometown reporter, Elizabeth Cohen (frankly, I think she's the best reporter featured in the documentary). I twice made positive comments about the parents. I really liked the mom, who made thoughtful observations about her role as a parent. (More about the dad later.)

Half-way through the documentary, the child's "authorship" is "debunked" by 60 Minutes. I cringed; I've never been a huge fan of CBS news. I agreed that the painting the child created for the "hidden" camera (note the quotes: children are like animals; they know instinctively when an environment has changed [if you don't believe me, watch Mythbusters' animal episodes, especially Jamie trying to get a duck to quack]) was different than the others although I thought, and still think, it resembled Bottomfeeder. (Later, the parents did their own documentation of the child painting.) I accepted the child psychologist's statements on 60 Minutes but decided later that one child psychologist isn't enough to convict anyone (child psychologists are capable of saying really dumb things). I noted that the 60 Minutes piece wasn't balanced. I was completely unphased by the father "losing" his temper: he didn't (more on this later). Besides, what is this obsession with children having pure, untainted childhoods where the parents are so good, they are inhuman? (Has anyone ever met parents like that?)

I was highly amused by one buyer finding "meaning" in Bottomfeeder (the kid's an artist, not a philosopher), but he framed and hung the painting beautifully. I had mixed feelings about the art dealer. He seemed to be distancing himself at one point, giving off a kind of "Hey, this has nothing to do with me" attitude which annoyed me since it seemed like a betrayal, and I think betraying people who have made you money is tacky. I also thought his comment about abstract art being a con because it doesn't take a lot of time to produce to be silly in the extreme. Taking a long time on a piece of art does not, ipso facto, make it good. It's like those Idol try-out singers who think they should get accepted because of how long they practiced, not because they can actually sing.

But I reminded myself that interviews in documentaries are often out of context (we don't always hear the questions asked by the interviewer). In any case, the art dealer is very good at his job as when he persuaded buyers to purchase the "proven" (documented) art piece rather than an art piece (by the same child) that they liked better. I think the purchasers did it because they were on camera which struck me as rather expensively touching: a $20,000 or so effort to demonstrate their belief in the artist!

I thought the documentarian breaking the wall between him and the audience was interesting, but I thought he failed to ask the right questions, namely, what does his obsession that he must "catch" the child producing great art say not only about how news is made but about fandom? (Elizabeth Cohen, local reporter, made some insightful comments here.) I also thought he was remiss to bring up the question of "fraud" without interviewing (1) other child psychologists; (2) a variety of art critics. In other words, he seemed to be caught between an objective look at the child's work and a subjective examination of the child and her family. He started both threads; he didn't finish both.

To continue: I had no trouble at all believing that the child painted differently when the camera crews were around from when they weren't. I had no trouble believing (I thought it was self-evident) that the father's anxiety to show what his daughter could do sans camera led him to push the whole painting thing on camera (at which point, like a normal 4 to18-year-old, the kid balked and went, "Do it yourself, Dad!" or  refused to cooperate). I thought one of the saddest parts of the documentary was when the child invited her father to paint with her, and he self-consciously declined: I didn't see it as proof that he had helped her in the past but as evidence of how much the accusation that he was helping her had boxed him into a particular role: spectator rather than participant.

I read absolutely nothing into any of the daughter's comments one way or the other. I have nieces and nephews. Kids are the kings and queens of non sequiturs. I personally am opposed to the use of child "witnesses" in legal situations--children can be coached to say anything and will change behavior based on outside expectations, including the expectations of a documentarian. (At seven, I would read slowly or quickly depending on what I thought my teachers wanted from me: proof that I was a good student or proof that I had trouble reading.) P.S. Cynics, don't read too much into this (see comments below).

I was impressed by the parents as parents. I was also intrigued by their decision to video their child painting (clips are shown on the documentary and on the website). It intrigued me because it underlined the parents' basic "naivety" (as the father put it); if we just SHOW the world what we see everyday . . . It also intrigued me because it backfired (to a degree). As an insightful commenter to one of Harvey's articles pointed out, the believers were actually disappointed by evidence that the painting process is mundane, not magical. (The child didn't go into a trance and sing "Kumbaya.")

I, however, found the parents' personal movie better than magical. The clips, though brief, showed that the child did behave differently when only her family was present. They also showed that she looked over the painting as she worked: where to place a yellow blob, where to add another batch of color. Forget prodigy, people! Doesn't anyone appreciate how amazing a talent/eye that is? The only abstract art I ever painted (in high school) was a drab mess--and at the time, I could produce fairly good representational drawings.

More differences: in one scene where outside cameras were present, the child squeezed out several tubes of color and mushed the paint together. "She doesn't do that when no one is here," the father said, exasperated, and he was right, she didn't. Later, when she was more used to the documentarian, she painted a rather ordinary picture in his presence. As she painted, she carefully selected which tubes she would use, varied her colors, and filled her canvas.

And yet all the documentarian saw was "She didn't produce a work of genius in front of me!" Here we have a four-year-old who sees color, actively chooses which colors to use plus fills her canvas, and all this guy sees is that he wasn't witness to some cataclysmic event? Talk about only seeing what one expects!

Am I open to the possibility that Marla did it all herself (except prime the canvases)? Actually, yes, more than I was before I watched the documentary.

Do I like the paintings? Absolutely. I was a tad surprised since I'm not a big fan of child prodigy singers and such, but hey, art is art is art.

Would the paintings have received as much attention and money if they weren't marketed as painted by a child? I have no idea. I mostly ignored all the stuff on the documentary about abstract art except for Michael Kimmelman's very interesting remarks; I happen to like (some) abstract art, and I don't believe that representational art is intrinsically worth more simply because it is representational.

Should art pieces, in general, be sold for as much as they are? Why not? If the market will bear it . . . (Take stamps. Or Hummel dolls. Those make a lot less sense to me than abstract art.)

Which brings us to the whole issue of capitalism and the free market and the point of these two posts--in a capitalistic society with a free market and free press, it is the job of the consumer to decide what something is worth; similarly, it is the job of the viewer to critically respond to information.

See Part II

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