|Child painters Aelita Andre (above) pictured this past week, and Marla Olmstead (below) from 2005|
Then like now, the conversations appear to circulate around the anxiety that many individuals unfamiliar with the history of modern art have when it comes to the assessment of abstract painting. How is it that an art form that appears so "easy", deskilled, and non-figurative can continue to garner such ridiculous prices at auction and serious sustained attention? Why is it that most art critics privilege this kind of art above the realist paintings of the past? No doubt abstract art touches on all of these nerves, and then some. It is an area of art making that carries a kind of polarized response, especially when placed within the context of a child producer. On the one hand, there are those who find it remarkable that a child could create paintings with such force, individual expression, and dynamic composition, while on the other hand, there is an audience smirking about the serious attention paid to art works that appear less than difficult to produce. Afterall, these are art works created by a child... right? And does it matter that both Marla Olmstead and Aelita Andre have at least one parent that is, or has been, a practicing artist? What about the serious financial gains that can be made from the story of a child prodigy who can paint? Is the entire situation just one massive spectacle about the problem with the state of contemporary art?
In discussing these very questions over the years with students, I have found that one of the very best explanations about the phenomena and massive public interest in child artists and the question of abstract and modern art emerges with an interview given by New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman, one of the key consultants on Amir Bar-Lev's documentary about Marla Olmstead. Embedded here below in two parts (it also appears as a special feature on the DVD version of the documentary), Kimmelman's remarks are very timely and reminds us once again of a far more important discourse brought about by the spectacle of a child painter, concerning both the expectations and constraints many individuals bring to the experience of looking at art. Now I just wonder how long Aelita Andre's 15 minutes are going to last.