Body Art & Art Fraud (Yes? No? Maybe?)

If you haven’t discovered the website Brainpickings, you’re missing out. It’s a trove of fantastic articles on creativity, education, science, writing and other topics. My favorite new post from them is one on Keri Smith’s book, How to Be An Explorer of the World.  

My favorite piece of Smith’s advice? “Everything is interesting. Look closer.”

And I did get to watch the documentary Here’s Looking at You: A Celebration of Body Art (2005) this week. It was fascinating. If you’ve read Studs Turkel’s Working, a collection of interview accounts of people and their jobs that Turkel transcribed in the first person, I would say this documentary takes a Turkel-ish approach to body adornment. Subjects talk about their tattoos, hair color, piercings, and other choices without mediation from the filmmakers. You get access to individual voices in an interesting way. However, as the subtitle suggests, this is a positive look at body art–no stories of disappointment or regret–just people talking proudly about their choices.

 I also watched the My Kid Could Paint That (2007) about the controversy surrounding child artist Marla Olmstead. Acclaimed for her abstract paintings at four years old, the authenticity of Marla’s work was later called into question by CBS news during the filming of this documentary; Charlie Rose’s 60 Minutes broadcast essentially accuses Olmstead’s parents of faking her work themselves. As the scandal unfolds, the filmmaker and interview subjects grapple with the implications of being accused of cheating and you see various reactions–denial, grief, opportunism. This documentary was more painful to watch than someone being tattoo’d, actually.

Little Marla is shown as being confused and sometimes seems anxious at gallery events, while the stress surrounding the film highlights the differences between her parents. Her mother wants her to have a normal life, while her father seems more attracted to the attention and fame his daughter is receiving. One thing I found irritating was the filmmaker’s repeated reliance on Elizabeth Cohen, a local news reporter who first covered Marla, to give perspective and context. My issue with Cohen is that she seems a little too self-satisified, frequently proclaiming that she saw this all coming. I don’t think anyone could have honestly anticipated either the success or the scandal surrounding this little girl.

What could be anticipated, however, is the art world’s fascination with fame. There’s a scene in My Kid Could Paint That where the gallery owner representing Marla talks a rich older couple into buying a particular work. He keeps reassuring them, “this one is in the movie {a film of Marla painting a work, done to prove that she was doing the work herself}, so it will be really famous.” Despite the fact that the couple doesn’t seem to actually like that painting, they give into his pressure and buy it. What’s interesting is that the scene implies that Marla’s fame as a child prodigy–not the individual works of art–is the thing that really matters, even to buyers. As you watch the couple drive off in a flashy Hummer, you suspect that they bought the painting so they could say they owned “a Marla” to impress someone else rather than buying something for their own enjoyment. The “Marlas” are status pieces, at least for many of their buyers–and that is reflected in their behavior towards Marla herself. They want to get close to her or ask her about her opinions, despite the fact that she is obviously a normal preschooler. It’s alarming to watch.

This resonated with a book I read this week, Aly Sujo and Lainey Salisbury’s excellent Provenance: How A Con Man and A Forger Re-Wrote the History of Art. By focusing on a famous British case, the authors reveal how much fraud and forgery is at the heart of the art world. They describe how this hunger for famous art allowed John Drewe, a con artist, to falsify provenances for work by a struggling single father and pass them off as Braques, Picassos, Matisses, and Giacomettis.

What about Marla? Was her art real? Does it matter? My Kid Could Paint That avoids a simple answer. She’s now twelve years old. And she’s still painting.

2 thoughts on “Body Art & Art Fraud (Yes? No? Maybe?)

  1. hopebordeaux says:

    Hey, Kara!
    I felt such sympathy for Marla’s mom, too. The director’s note on the film’s website actually says something like “to believe the paintings were being faked, Mark would have had to paint them while Laura was out of the house…”

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