Objectivity in art

About five years ago, there was a big story in the news about a child artist named Marla Olmstead.  She started painting at two and by the time she was four  she was selling large abstract oil paintings for tens of thousands of dollars. The paintings were bold and colourful and were quite impressive.  They wouldn’t look out of place in any modern art exhibit.

Her story was  documented in the 2007 film My Kid Could Paint That.  Her parents had always maintained that she painted the works herself but a 60 Minutes special in 2005 suggested that her father either helped her or painted the works himself.  Immediately after the episode aired there was a huge uproar.  Many of the patrons that bought her art became quite angry and the gallery where her art was shown stopped showing her work for awhile.  The documentary was mostly neutral on whether or not she actually painted the paintings.  She was filmed painting two of the paintings but the results seemed different from the other paintings.

One of the messages of the film was that perhaps modern art was somewhat of a hoax.  The gallery owner that first put on her shows, painted detailed realistic pictures that took months to complete and he had quite a bit of bitterness towards abstract artists who throw a bucket of paint against a canvas and sell the work for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Promoting Marla was partly his way of making a statement to the art establishment.

I took away two messages from the film.  The first is that abstract random patterns are often pleasing to our eyes.  I thought many of Marla’s paintings were quite beautiful but I also think some of the art my four year old daughter brings home from school also looks quite nice.  We basically see what we want when we look at a mass of colours and patterns.  It is why a dried river bed, a forest scene or swirling clouds can be so awe inspiring.  We find beauty in randomness.

The second was that I found it odd that no one questioned why it would matter who the artist was.  Why would a painting be less beautiful if it was painted by the father instead of a four year old?  It made me think that perhaps art should be presented anonymously.  It is interesting that the value of a painting by a famous artist vanishes the moment it is discovered to be a forgery. What exactly changed in the painting to cause it suddenly to be worth so much less?  Why is it so important that a Vermeer or a Cezanne be painted by Vermeer or Cezanne?  If someone had the skill to forge a piece of art so perfectly that it could fool anyone, how is that different from the original?  The fact that we put value on things because of their history says a lot about how our brains work and how our priors strongly determine value.

3 thoughts on “Objectivity in art

  1. “One of the messages of the film was that perhaps modern art was somewhat of a hoax.”

    Somehow I agree with you. Sometimes I cannot find the good thing in pieces what they called “art”. But I guess it depends on the appreciator.


  2. Hi Carson,
    I would tend to agree with you but the remark on nature scenes confused me. I guess I like swirling clouds or dry river beds because they were not made by men. I guess someone could spend hours manufacturing rock or constraining the river flow so as to obtain some beautiful shapes that resemble those of nature. But I would not be as much inspired in front if them.
    Thus, maybe knowing the artist (nature, whatever the details of its definition, in this particular case) is sometimes crucial when judging the beauty.


  3. Romain:
    My point was simply that we can find beauty in random patterns and to me at least, clouds look like random patterns. However, that is not to say that others, like yourself, find beauty in natural things for other reasons.

    There are many examples of modern art that I very much like. Mondrian is one of my favourite painters (although his work represents perhaps the opposite of random patterns). However, I also recognize that the craft and skill aspect of some modern art just doesn’t compare to that of painters like El Greco or Vermeer. Some modern art is just about the concept and not about the craft. It sill takes talent but not of the same form as a classical painter.


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