"The American malady is a spiritual one, the commercialization of spiritual goods on an enormous scale, in the same way as material goods are commercialized. Everything which sells has to sell on advertised merits which are not its true quality, everything which is made, is made to satisfy a demand artificially stimulated by sales propaganda."
The English poet Stephen Spender wrote these words in 1949 following a visit to the United States. By "spiritual goods" Spender was referring to works of art. It was true more than half a century ago, and it's true today: works of art and sales figures, creativity and commerce, rarely jibe (unconventional entrepreneurship excepted)
We all know American culture is consumer driven. By and large, Americans live in, by, and for the marketplace. And in today's age of global business, the effect of the marketplace is a great leveling out of culture, a homogenizing of experience. The marketplace likes broad appeal, it likes high sales figures, it likes a mass audience. It does not thrive on slow contemplation, individuality, eccentricity, or introspection. All of these things, which are at the core of real art -- both creating it and experiencing it -- are in fact a threat to the happy clatter of the cash drawer.
Thus, strange things happen when that which is spiritual, personal, and irrational meets that which is profane, collective, and statistical -- in other words, when art meets commerce.
This phenomenon is explored beautifully in the transfixing 2007 documentary My Kid Could Paint That, by director Amir Bar-Lev. The film focuses on Marla, a four-year-old girl who loves to paint. Marla lives in upstate New York with her parents and her little brother, and her life is much like that of any other healthy, delightful four-year-old who loves to paint -- except for one thing: Marla's colorful creations have made her famous.
Where most child artists stick to butcher paper and fingerpaints, Marla creates large vibrant canvases using fancy acrylics, brushes, and a variety of application techniques ranging from smears to splatters to complex overlays of colors. Marla has exhibited her work in exclusive shows at numerous galleries in the U.S. and abroad. Her works have sold for upwards of $20,000.
"The paintings are incredible," says gallery owner Anthony Brunelli in the film. Brunelli was the first to curate Marla's paintings in a solo exhibition. That show, highlighted by the New York Times, sparked widespread interest in the petite genius's work. Soon TV networks began calling. Marla became a media darling. "Even if a four-year-old didn't do [the paintings]," says Brunelli, "you'd like ‘em. The fact that she is four makes it really incredible."
The kid's canvases are gorgeous, to be sure (see the online gallery at MarlaOlmstead.com), and there is something indescribably moving at the thought of such beauty flowing so easily and unselfconsciously through the brush of a girl yet to lose her baby teeth.
"When I am in Marla's presence," says Brunelli on Marla's website, "there's a weird feeling ‘cause I know there's something inside this girl that many artists look for their whole lives and never have."
Marla's paintings vibrate with the mystery of childish wonder, of magical freeness and unhampered creativity, and this mystery is the lyrical heart of My Kid Could Paint That. The film makes us linger on questions like:
-- Where does such purity and ease disappear to later in life?
-- At what point do we surrender the productive freedom and harmonious accidents of play for result-driven work -- and why can't we retrieve what we've surrendered?
At one point in the documentary, New York Times chief art critic Michael Kimmelman comments:
There's a spiritual element to it which appeals to people ... People could read all sorts of things into her pictures. That there was some force at work, something larger than even Marla. That this child is speaking almost as a medium. And her innocence also says something about the ultimate cynicism of the art world.... [where] probably the worst thing you could say about an artist is, ‘Everything this artist does is joyous and wonderful and openhearted and just simple and great.' ... Some of the appeal ... of the Marlas of the world is that it seems pure innocent joy, no cynicism, no irony, no sarcasm, none of that kind of stuff that goes along with modern art. Nobody's saying ‘f---- you' in this picture. They're just saying, ‘I'm a happy girl who loves painting.'
With increasing media attention came a fervor for Marla canvases in the art market. Her prices soared. As of February 2005, after less than a year in the limelight, wee Marla's work had earned her more than $300,000. But that same month brought a blow that sent the family of this miniature master reeling.
Though Marla herself was the embodiment of innocence and spirit, her bright canvases -- those reverberant spiritual documents -- had nevertheless become commodities. And the commodification of a thing, given the unavoidable cynicism that attaches to money, is necessarily a cynical process. So with widespread commercial attention came a qualitative shift in the public's fascination. The clamor surrounding Marla went from adoring to suspicious when TV journalist Charlie Rose hosted a 60 Minutes segment examining the Marla craze.
He interviewed Marla's first curator, Anthony Brunelli:
-Charlie: So what do we have here?
-Brunelli: You have a genius.
-Charlie: (leaning forward, bearing down) Is there any other explanation?
Rose also interviewed a child psychologist, an expert in gifted children who'd observed Marla painting. The pyschologist's remarks were a mother lode to a primetime program lusting for an exposé:
I don't see Marla as having made, or at least completed, the more polished-looking paintings, because they look like a different painter.
The art world was unnerved. Major media hungrily took up the possible scandal. Was the kid a fake? Were her parents pulling the wool over the eyes of art aficionados? Was this four-year-old girl no more than a public stand-in for her dad, a brush-wielding trickster?
If it was all a fraud, the stakes had become very high. Large sums of money had changed hands, after all. People got nasty and Marla's parents were harangued with hate mail.
Personally, I believe the girl's for real (what kind of four-year-old could pretend to be a painter without, at some point, spilling the beans?). But whatever the truth, a peculiar thing had occurred. While in the wake of the 60 Minutes bomb people still appeared to be talking about Marla and her work, the engine of the conversation was no longer art and beauty, it was money. The market had intervened in Marla's creations, and people had begun to buy -- not Marla's paintings themselves, so much as the story of Marla's paintings. And as buyers began to suspect that they weren't getting the story they'd paid for, trouble ensued.
Recall Stephen Spender's words: "Everything which sells has to sell on advertised merits which are not its true quality." Was the art still beautiful? Of course. But money had muddled that truth. The "value" of the paintings had become an exclusively monetary matter. Aesthetics were suddenly irrelevant.
The story of Marla's quasi-scandal epitomizes the clash of commerce and creativity, two often uncomplimentary forces. For anybody seeking the fulfillment and spiritual enrichment that comes of art or creative work, the crucial trick is to remember the natural opposition of spirit and commodity -- and perhaps to rebel quietly against the American mindset author Morris Berman calls "the reduction of values to commodity fetishism," a mindset so money-warped that it can fail to behold the still evident beauty of a painting regardless of its authorship.
Toward the close of My Kid Could Paint That, journalist Elizabeth Cohen observes:
The whole story, really, is about grownups. It's really not about this kid. She's just a little girl painting in her house.
Marla's art did not begin from the base concerns of the dollar. No child's art does. We start from joy, exuberance, inquisitiveness, and serious play. And to the extent that we maintain and cultivate these attributes as creative adults, the more life our creations will possess -- and the more readily we will recognize beauty and be inspired by it.
The dollar is a different matter altogether.(This post also appeared at Soul Shelter.)