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.