Thoughts On How People Respond to the Media, Part II

In Part I, I discussed my reaction to the documentary My Kid Could Paint That. In Part II, I respond to the sadly uncritical reaction of many commentators and commenters.

The Failure of Many Commentators and Commenters to Think Critically

I went into my viewing experience with opinions; I came out of my viewing experience with altered opinions. And I did some research after the fact. Which is all to say, I find it irritating how many commentators and commenters accepted whatever was placed in front of them without reflection or debate: the beginning of the film says she is a true artist: How sweet! The middle of film is all about the 60 Minutes documentary: Evil parents, bad dad! The end of the film expresses the documentarian's doubts: Frauds! Put them in jail!

A specific example: a lot of commentators (and the father!) accept 60 Minutes description of the dad's urging (in the "hidden" camera part) as "harsh" even though 60 Minutes played the dad's statement, and it didn't sound harsh at all. It sounded exasperated. It was the equivalent of a dad saying, "Stop putting Fruit Loops in your brother's ears!" Actually, it was the equivalent of a dad saying, "You sing for me and mom all the time. Why won't you sing for grandma?!" And yet 60 Minutes said it was harsh, ergo, it was harsh. 60 Minutes created an image of "stage" parents: Ooh, I hate those kinds of parents, let's make nasty comments about them on someone's blog.

Another example: her paintings now are less sophisticated. Why? Because 60 Minutes and the documentarian say/imply so. And maybe they are less sophisticated, but lots of people accepted the Vermeer fakes because they were told they were Vermeers. Gullibility works both ways: people tend to see what they want to see, and a thoughtful person questions his or her own sight, not just other people's. I ran across several comments that went something like, "I'm an artist, and all you people who say you are artists and say she is good—or did this herself—must be bad artists!"


"I'm an artist" may be a valid statement. "Those paintings aren't good" is a debatable but still valid statement. "All you people who disagree with me must be bad artists" is about as huge a leap in logic as anything I've come across. The assumption is: my eye is automatically better than your eye because I say so. I may believe my eye is better than everyone else's—there are some Marla paintings I wouldn't buy—but the claim by itself doesn't make a valid argument. Again, the dearth of any actual critique (as opposed to people slinging statements around) is a huge void in the documentary.

It's as if viewers get locked into one little box, NOT because the documentarian or CBS or the family locked them there but because they won't unlocked themselves. One of the "you are all bad artists" commenters was responding to L.A. Harvey's statement that he paints all the time and sometimes he produces good paintings and sometimes he produces bad ones. I think that's an interesting statement about artistic output and the function of creativity. But instead of responding to the interesting statement, the commenter got right back on the "she's a fraud/no she isn't" bandwagon.

One little box. Even commenters who have defended the family have used the claim on the documentary that a documentary is as much a creation of "truth" as art itself. Semi-interesting idea. But why would you defend your position using a statement by the guy who created the evidence that you wish to debate?

The worst are the commenters who think they have "seen through" the parents: "The father couldn't answer a question in the last interview. So, the parents were lying! They fooled you but not me!!"

To me, this is as pointless as anyone accepting the situation or documentary at face value. It shows a complete inability to understand the complexity of human communication or to understand the issue at any other level than "Me smart. You stupid."

It reminds me of some of the more frustrating moments in my master's program, usually caused when students who felt they were lied to in high school adopted either reverential attitudes towards our professors ("Everything THEY say is true") or cynical ones ("Everybody is controlled by Disney. Nobody knows anything.")


I didn't believe or disbelieve my high school teachers. I didn't believe or disbelieve my professors in my master's program. I don't believe or disbelieve the documentarian of My Kid Could Paint That. This doesn't mean I think truth is relative. What am I suggesting instead is that viewers should not: (1) abrogate their understanding of an issue to someone else's opinion or media presentation; (2) waste their time "outsmarting" all those horrible liars out there and then preening about it (talk about narrowing one's life to a single, rather boring purpose), and (3) rely on one news source.

Here's my libertarian take: In a democracy, it's a person's job to be skeptical but not cynical. And there's no point blaming one's lack of skepticism OR need for skepticism on the government or big business or whatever it is this week. Citizens of democracy, you don't know how free you are! Think for yourselves instead of blaming other people for what you think or don't think.

And think means think--as in, don't judge people on 83 minutes of their lives. That's not thinking; that's just rude.

Final Thoughts on Marla Omstead

Okay, the big question: Do I think the dad helped his daughter produce abstract art that sold in an art gallery? Yes, but I'm not sure exactly what I mean by that. I think he may have told her when to stop (my dad has sometimes done this with my artist mother!). I think he may have presented her with a choice of colors. I think he may have urged her to continue with a certain look or style. He may even have touched up the paintings. I don't believe he actually painted them. His own art looks completely different. There's an interesting issue here about production versus eye--a person who doesn't necessarily create but can make a created thing better; there's also an interesting issue of art and community--few artists throughout history have created in isolation or without input.

Unfortunately, both 60 Minutes and the documentarian made it impossible to explore these issues. The moment they turned their subject into FRAUD/BAD DAD/MY SAD DISILLUSIONMENT, they closed the door on a whole host of way more interesting questions. I thought the father reached the point where he was terrified of saying that he did anything to help his daughter: buy the paints, prime the canvas, anything.

If he were an editor (and she was an adult), nobody would care. We accept that editors do (and should) edit their writers' works, but a painting . . . even when the overall concept and composition is completely unique to a particular individual . . . that shouldn't be touched at all! Especially, the pure unfettered freethinking of a child!!

In the end, it is a pity that the documentarian wasn't a more perceptive person willing to think in bigger terms than the rather puerile ones of controversy and scandal. 

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