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Spoiler Alerts…. Teaching Intro to Aesthetics with Some Recent Documentaries
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Jeanette Bicknell

website containing the relevant images including those referred to above. You can also google my painting website. Then you will know what I am like as I mentalize myself in art. In case you dont, here is a new self- portrait. For the past couple of years I’ve taught an Intro to Aesthetics course at OCAD University, Canada’s main institution for art and design education. Few of my students have much formal background in philosophy, and they tend to have even less patience than the average undergraduate for the abstract questions that typically engage philosophers. No matter the issue, they insist on knowing its relevance for art and design practice. I’ve been fortunate to come across a number of recent feature-length documentaries that bring to life some important philosophical issues in an engaging and compelling manner.

Some practical matters: There are typically around sixty-five students in a class. I spend roughly the first half of the 12-week course on the problem of defining art and going over some of the major theories. We read Plato, Aristotle, Bell, Tolstoy, Danto, Dickie and others. For the rest of the course I choose from a variety of topics related to art and design, including aesthetic judgment, value, creativity, ethical evaluations of art, public art, and outsider art. We read classic sources (Hume and Kant for example), as well as contemporary articles. I announce ahead of time on the course syllabus which days I’ll be showing a film and place the DVD’s on reserve in the library. That way, if any students miss a class they can arrange to view the DVD at their convenience in the library. I usually tie films to essay assignments, or at least to a question on a quiz, in order to emphasize that I regard the film showings as an integral part of the course. If the film will be tied to an essay assignment, I distribute the assignment before the film in order to help students focus their attention while viewing.

I’ve used the following films in the course:

1. My Kid Could Paint That (Bar-Lev, 2007) This film tells the story of Marla Olmstead, a pre-schooler from Binghamton, New York whose large and colorful abstract paintings sell for thousands of dollars. Marla and her family receive enthusiastic world-wide media attention. Then an episode of 60 Minutes casts doubt on the authenticity of the paintings, suggesting that the girl’s father, an amateur artist, had a hand in their production. The rest of the film is part puzzle, part psycho-drama. Did the father in fact do the paintings? Was he in cahoots with the family’s gallery-owning friend who provided exhibition space? The gallery owner is later revealed to be a talented photo-realist painter with ambivalent feelings towards abstract art. Were Marla’s paintings intended as a hoax in order to send up the world of modern art? If this was in fact a scam, was the girl’s mother involved? Viewers will find themselves scrutinizing facial expressions and vocal inflections for signs of insincerity. The film offers no conclusive answers.

My Kid Could Paint That works well in getting the students to think through some of their intuitions about the nature of art and of artistic value. Are Marla’s paintings formally excellent, and is this why so many have found them appealing? Is it the case that the quality of a painting depends on its formal qualities, as Bell argued? The film provides an opportunity to discuss issues raised in Tolstoy’s writings. Certainly, Marla’s paintings seem strongly expressive and many people claim to have been emotionally moved by them. How significant is this for their status as artworks and in determining their value as artworks? Tolstoy famously argued that the artist’s sincerity is crucially important. But what is the significance of “sincerity” when the artist is a child or otherwise untrained and so at some level incapable of anything but sincerity? The issue of sincerity is all the more pressing when we consider that Marla may have been aided by her father, whose motives and intentions can only be guessed at. The film also raises questions about the nature of artworld institutions. Children’s drawings and paintings are not usually treated as art. They are rarely displayed in public places, they are not reviewed by critics or discussed in specialist magazines and journals, and they are not bought by collectors. Is the fact that Marla’s paintings have been recognized by the artworld sufficient reason for us to accept them as artworks?

2. Who the (beep) is Jackson Pollock? (Moses, 2006) is a film that has it all: a crusty but lovable working-class heroine, snobby artworld gatekeepers, reformed felons, friends and associates of the late Jackson Pollock, and a splattered canvas that just may be by his hand. Terry, a plainspoken truck-driving woman, buys the painting at a thrift store for a few dollars. When she puts it in her garage sale, a local art teacher tells her that it looks like a Jackson Pollock. She finds out who Pollock is then sets upon a quest to authenticate the painting, only to be dismissed and undermined by haughty artworld insiders. Her son hires Peter Paul Biro, a self-styled scientific expert, who puts forensic technology to the service of art authentication. Along the way we hear from Thomas Hoving, Pollock collector and art advisor Ben Heller, art forger John Myatt, painter Nick Carone (a friend of Pollock’s from his New York days), and various colourful bit-players.

The film sets up a contrast between art and science, connoisseurship and empirical evidence, artworld authority figures and plucky outsider upstarts. Many viewers will be dismayed by Hoving’s arrogant-sounding dismissals of Terry and her paintings, and heartened by the film’s ending, which reports that Biro has found a match for a Pollock fingerprint on the back of the canvas. However the film’s conclusion (and its entire narrative arc) is considerably complicated by information that came to light after the release date. An article by David Grann in the July 12, 2010 issue of the New Yorker provides a compelling case that Biro may not be all he seems. In particular, Grann discusses evidence suggesting that Biro may have faked the fingerprint “match” on the back of Terry’s canvas. (The entire article, well worth reading, is available on the New Yorker’s website). So the snobby artworld experts may have been right all along.

I like to show this film after the class has studied David Hume’s classic essay “Of the Standard of Taste.” I ask the students to consider whether anyone in the film meets the criteria for being a “true judge” of art. To do this they will likely have to set aside both their sympathy for Terry (who clearly lacks the relevant education and experience to judge the painting) and their discomfort with the arrogance of artworld experts (who do not present congenial figures). I also like to discuss the nature of evidence for aesthetic judgments. If anyone in the film does approach the status of a true judge, to what extent should he or she be obliged to explain his or her judgments to others? Hoving’s airy dismissal that Terry’s canvas doesn’t “sing like a Pollock,” may turn out to be vindicated, but it would be nice to know how and why he arrived at it.

3. I have an interest in outsider art and I’ve had good responses from students to two documentaries about outsider artists: In the Realms of the Unreal (Yu, 2004) and My Name is Alan and I Paint Pictures (Boston, 2007). The first is about Henry Darger, a reclusive hospital custodian who lived in Chicago until his death in 1973. When Darger moved from his apartment to an institution shortly before his death, his neighbors discovered an elaborately illustrated manuscript of several thousand pages telling the story of the “Vivian Girls” – child-leaders of a rebellion against a repressive regime on a distant planet. Since his death Darger’s work has been widely exhibited and has influenced other artists. The story of Darger’s early life – he was orphaned then sent to an Illinois asylum – is quite moving. We don’t know why Darger turned to making art, or what his intentions for his work might have been. This is the mystery at the heart of the film, and to their credit the film-makers resist offering easy answers.

We get a little more insight into the motivations of street artist Alan Russell-Cowan, whose life and work is featured in My Name is Alan and I Paint Pictures. Russell-Cowan is a British-born painter who lives and works in New York City, painting street scenes outdoors in all kinds of weather. The film recounts Russell-Cowan’s life and upbringing, his decision to drop out of art school, his struggles with mental illness, and the eventual peace and stability he seems to find as a working artist. The film-makers endeavor to be even-handed. We’re shown people who respond to Russell-Cowan’s art for its formal and expressive qualities. But the film also raises the possibility that the work’s value as art is eclipsed by its therapeutic value for the artist. Viewers are left to come to their own assessment.

When I discuss these films with students, I try to get them to think about the term “outsider artist” and its value as a label. While the French term “art brut” emphasized the qualities of an artwork, “outsider art” emphasizes the maker’s isolation from a mainstream society and in particular from the artworld. In calling Darger and Russell-Cowan “outsider artists” we imply that the proper comparative class for their work is that of other outsider artists. If we eschew the label and refer to them simply as “artists” it implies that their work should be compared, favorably or not, with that of other artists. Female painters used to be designated as “woman artists,” thereby implying that their work was in a separate (presumably lesser) category that the work of real (male) artists. Does a similar mindset drive the use of the label “outsider”? Do the artist’s intentions matter for the classification and evaluation of their work? We have no way of knowing Darger’s intentions. Russell-Cowan’s conception of his own artistic practice seems to change over time and shift with his moods.

All of these films, in their different ways, touch on the question of the value of art in human life. The people who admire Marla’s work claim that it puts them in touch with innocence and the child-like joy of creation. Terry eventually turns down an offer of nine million dollars for her paint-splattered canvas. At a certain point, the hold that the painting seems to have on her is no longer about its potential monetary value, nor about her desire for acceptance from the artworld. The painting and her quest to authenticate it have come to structure her life. The making of art similarly seemed to structure the life of Darger, and to play a comparable role in Russell-Cowan’s life. What is it about art, and about our relation to it, that makes this possible?

While none of these films is a cinematic masterpiece, each dramatizes some crucial questions about art, and any of them should spark discussion among students. It has been my experience that when it comes to capturing students’ attention and motivating them to reflect, the most carefully constructed thought experiments are no match for “true stories” – especially those presented with a little dramatic flair and engaging visuals.


2011 © Jeanette Bicknell

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