The movie's narrative is pretty straightforward: a four-year-old girl in Binghamton, New York, Marla Olmstead, paints large and mature abstract expressionist paintings, and gets hailed as a genius. Media interest increases to a frenzy until an episode of 60 Minutes calls into question the authenticity of the work -- is the father involved? The parents adamantly deny it. It ends ambiguously, though it's clear the parents felt betrayed by Bar-Lev's editing choices and lack of unconditional support.
Bar-Lev has a privileged place, having started his documentary on the family before the allegations surfaced and having been accepted as a friend. The mother and father seem deeply sincere and surprised by the attention -- and the money -- but everything changes after the 60 Minutes pieces airs, and Bar-Lev turns skeptical. Bar-Lev reluctantly becomes a part of the film, as his motivations are as suspect as 60 Minutes's were.
The whole story plays into the common fear that modern art is a big scam, a hoax perpetrated by a conspiracy of snickering intellectuals and a duped audience who continue to see the emperor's new clothes. Finally, the "regular folk" seem to say, proof! I always said my kid could do that crap!
There was a period, shortly after I visited SFMOMA for the first time, when I felt the same way. I couldn't get it, and some of the pieces seemed extremely simple in concept and simple to make. Fortunately, I ran into a colleague who collected modern art (and later "dropped out" of the business world to attend art school). He gave me a great explanation that formed part of how I think about art now. I was happy to see, in the special features of the My Kid Could Paint That DVD, the NY Times art critic Michael Kimmelman touch on some of the same ideas I've been dragging around for many years now.
In addition to speaking about ideas like effort, insider status, intention, and other aspects, Kimmelman mentions story. Specifically, that some modern art is effective because of the backstory it carries. Thus, a single black dot on a white canvas might seem stupidly simplistic and something anyone could do, but if we know nothing of the artist's intention or body of work, then we miss a vital ingredient in the piece's story. Out of the context of this back-and-forth dialogue with the rest of the art world, your black dot is just a black dot, but the one in the gallery is (to use another analogy) like a fragment of a cellphone conversation overheard on the subway -- it's essentially meaningless without the rest of the story.
Are Marla Olmstead's paintings real? The best of them (like the 3'x3' "Asian Sun" seen here) seem to have a compositional intention that is (almost literally) larger than Marla could have done on her own -- her early technique involved her sitting directly on the canvas as it lay flat on a table. On the other hand, if she did do them alone and achieved that result unconsciously, is the art less real because if it? Because of her age, they have no context beyond our shared cultural recognition of expressionist paintings. Is the story behind the art more important?
Some of the most interesting scenes involved the people on the periphery. The primary gallery owner, a hyperrealist painter who gives his true opinion of abstract art in an unguarded moment; the buyers of "Ocean," agreeing to pay $20,000 for a work the wife is clearly ambivalent about before driving off in their ridiculous Hummer; and the original reporter who broke the story, regrets having done so, and who remains the most clear-headed person in the documentary.
It all reminded me of the questions raised in Errol Morris's series in the NY Times, "Bamboozling Ourselves," about Han van Meegeren, an extremely successful art forger who made "newly discovered Vermeers" that fooled many experts despite what appears to be their complete inferiority to the master's true work.
To be sure, the Van Meegeren story raises many, many questions. Among them: what makes a work of art great? Is it the signature of (or attribution to) an acknowledged master? Is it just a name? Or is it a name implying a provenance? With a photograph we may be interested in the photographer but also in what the photograph is of. With a painting this is often turned around, we may be interested in what the painting is of, but we are primarily interested in the question: who made it? Who held a brush to canvas and painted it? Whether it is the work of an acclaimed master like Vermeer or a duplicitous forger like Van Meegeren — we want to know more.