The New Yorker has a weekly cartoon contest, giving readers a chance to submit captions. Today, unable to pick between two ideas, it occurred to me I could enter one in my name, the other in my son’s. Would it be a “copycat crime,” a response to having just seen My Kid Could Paint That, the documentary on four-year-old Marla Olmstead, whose abstract paintings were compared to Picasso and Pollock and were selling for outlandish sums until a 60 Minutes segment challenged the authenticity of the work and suggested that her father, an amateur painter, had a hand in them.
The film makes no conclusive statement about the authenticity of the art. The director admits he struggled with the issue of whether people may be capable of doing things you wish they wouldn’t, but concluded it was unlikely these people could have been passing off the father’s painting as their daughter’s. But whether the con is in contemporary art or with Marla is left up to us.
My husband and I imagine it may have begun as a prank with the father musing, “I bet there are people out there who wouldn’t know the difference between a professional’s abstract art and Marla’s paintings. Let’s get her a show and see.” He may have spruced up the paintings a bit, rationalizing that it’s not unlike giving a little help with a college application essay. The mother chose to trust, or perhaps hope, there hadn’t been a significant amount of “help.”
What do I, as a contest entrant with a moral dilemma, take away from this story? First, The New Yorker sells for $4.99 a copy, far less by subscription. Nobody would be bilked out of thousands of dollars because of me. If you were to poll the readers, I doubt you’d find one for whom the contest is a priority. Aside from the editors and other entrants, who gives serious thought to the contest?
Our son is twenty-four, old enough to be above suspicion. I’m not trying to pass him off as a prodigy deserving of a documentary. This would be less risky than his having gotten served with a fake I.D. that put his age at twenty-two with a picture of a Bar Mitzvah-aged boy. Okay, it’s fraudulent, but not nearly so damaging as those mothers with Munchausen’s Syndrome By Proxy who repeatedly bring their kids to doctors for unnecessary medical procedures.