Usually, I've been trying to avoid writing reviews of movies from my Netflix queue because I rarely keep up with my theatrical release reviews. But every now and then I see a film that I just want to discuss with people because it brings up so many interesting points, and well, I use my blog as my sounding board, because, let's face it, one-way conversations are much easier to have. My Kid Could Paint That is a movie that opens so many cans of societal worms that it's difficult to know where to begin, but I'll do my best to organize my ideas.
Can #1-What is Art? Amir Bar-Lev, the director of the documentary, dips his toe into the shallow end of this question, but never says the words out loud. It's as if this question is the elephant in the room that no one quite discusses. And with good reason. This question would be too all-consuming. The story needed to be simplified, but it is a question that you can't avoid asking yourself during and after seeing this film. I think that there used to be such a thing as a definition of art; but that was back in the times when the Pope was paying the artists to make those decisions. Art was only good if it could be sanctioned by a higher power. That's no longer the case. The question is more likely to be "what's NOT art?" Modern art has rendered former definitions useless. Nowadays everyone can find a certain kind of art in just about everything they encounter. There are very few things that CAN'T be considered art by SOMEONE, and it's that sell-ability factor that lead to popping the top off of Can #2 Can #2-Who decides if it's art and how much it's worth? Back when he was alive and still could hear out of both ears, Van Gogh couldn't sell "Starry Night" to pay off his bar tab (at least that's what Dr. Who taught me, but it could be a slight embellishment). Exaggeration or not, the truth is that Van Gogh couldn't make a living as an artist. Art used to be a struggle. I'm not so certain that's the case anymore. I think with the boundaries of art disappearing as they have, more people than ever before can be seen as "artists". I'm also not certain that should be the case. Marla Olmstead, the 4-year old at the center of the documentary, is selling her pieces for thousands of dollars. Doubling the price of most oil paintings done by artists 5-10 times her age. Who is truly to say what art can be valued at? SHOULD art be valued? Why is Van Gogh now worth so much more than when he was painting? Is it simply the supply and demand factor? Since Picasso and Van Gogh are no longer available to be commissioned and their supply is limited, are people simply paying for the exclusivity? Certainly this seems as good of a reason as any, but is there truly a canvas with oil paint on it that's worth 20 million dollars? Ultimately, the only worth a painting truly has is to the person who is viewing it, and those values are only derived from what we, the audience, can read into it. At one point in the documentary, there's a man explaining how he bought two of Marla's paintings and placed them near a Renoir sculpture, so the old master and the young master would surround each other. He goes on to explain how one of the paintings "Bottom Feeder" is so amazing because there's one section where there's a blue door with one man on the outside and one woman on the inside and there's what appears to be a baby's outline above the door. None of this can be easily seen by anyone except him, because that's what he wants to see. He can't truly believe that a 4-year old would really have the capacity to put something that ethereal in a painting. He's doing the grown-up, rich man version of seeing a turtle in a cloud. And then he'd be angry if he found out a 4-year old hadn't actually painted that, which brings the can opener to number 3.
Can #3-If it's art, does it matter who the artist is? At the heart of the documentary is a twist, a fork in the road of the perceived vision of the documentary. While Bar-Lev began making a film about a "child prodigy" (we'll get to Can #4 in a minute), what ends up happening is a change of focus, from the child to the parents. Due to some inflammatory suggestions, Mark and Laura Olmstead become the, well, essentially the targets of the documentary. It's suggested that perhaps Mark has "polished" his daughters paintings, perhaps Marla is not, in fact, a pint-sized Pollack. There's a particularly disheartening scene where letters from angry outsiders are read. Threats are made against these people, lawsuits loom on the horizon, hatred and promises of punishment in hell, all for...a painting? WHY?! In art, truth is always said to be the goal, but let's face it, most art is no longer that high-minded. We have become a society where the most money to be made is in lying. Why should it suddenly matter WHO painted something, if it's a painting you liked enough to buy it in the first place? If someone had enough money to spend 14 million dollars on a Van Gogh, does that mean that the actual value of the canvas and the paint would change if it was suddenly discovered that it wasn't painted by Van Gogh, but by his arthritic grandma? Would people truly feel lied to when the origins of a painting can hardly be proven? Why such hatred, actual hatred, of a family whose story may or may not be true? I understand anger at "using" the children, but honestly, there are so many people in society who use their children these days that I have to wonder, do those parents whose kids are on those horrifying shows about baby beauty pageants receive equal condemnation? Does TLC get hate mail about putting cameras in front of women and men who have 19 kids? If the paintings were good enough for someone to buy, why does it matter who painted it?
Can #4-Why are we a society obsessed with child prodigies? This is a question that could probably have been asked since the beginning of time. There are famous child prodigies, Mozart, Bobby Fischer, Doogie Howser, (yes, I know he's fictional, but my brain is slowing as it nears 1 am) but these days it seems like there's no end to children who dress up in adults' clothing. While the term prodigy may not be correct in most of these situations, the fact remains that we are still a society obsessed with youths who succeed. This is probably partially because there are billions of advertising dollars to be made on selling a certain youth to the teen demographic, Justin Beiber and Miley Cyrus being the latest to ride that wave, but parents have, for several decades now, made great money off of pimping out their children. And I believe that many of the parents who so callously wrote to the Olmsteads regarding their parental inabilities would also happily sign a contract for a reality television show featuring their children, if the price were right. Just look at John & Kate plus 8. Now there may be a lot of people who say "but that's just one bad case", but it's not. There are thousands of families a year, I'm sure, who are not acting in a child's best interest, they're just lucky enough not to be the subject of a documentary, or on the cover of US Weekly, but I'm sure that's not for lack of trying, they probably just have a crap publicist.
Can #5-The Role of the Media While the first half of the documentary is a celebration of a phenomenal young artist, the second half resembles a witch-hunt, led in large part, by an "expose" by Charlie Rose and his 60 Minutes segment. It pretty much turns in to what the original local journalist who broke the story, Elizabeth Cohen, feared it would. As she states, in order for the story to stay in the press and fill the time slots of the 24 hour news networks, the story had to change. It had to turn ugly, because, and this is my opinion, what we love, more than almost anything, in this society, is to build someone up, just to be able to tear them down, and then watch their comeback moment on VH1. It's astonishing, really, if you sit down to think about it, but this is what media has become. The media is no longer the watchdog, but the attack dog, catering to a society who simply yearns to see people in worse positions than they feel themselves to be.
Ultimately, My Kid Could Paint That was saddening and heartbreaking and brought up more questions than it answered, at least for me.