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The Desire to Be Tricked: Aelita Andre and the Art World

The Desire to Be Tricked: Aelita Andre and the Art World

Binoy Kampmark
August 31, 2011

News stories tend to resemble a recycling device in due course. Take this sample by Clare Kermond in the Sydney Morning Herald (Jan 8, 2009). ‘Is this a story of a child prodigy or a joke at the expense of the art world?’ The director of Brunswick Street Gallery in Fitzroy, Melbourne Mark Jamieson had to confess: ‘I was shocked and, to be honest, a little embarrassed’. Embarrassed as he was, he complied – and duly showed the works of this ‘prodigy’, then two-year-old Aelita Andre. Perhaps we are bearing witness to what Oscar Wilde pointed out: one can never be young enough to know everything.

Father of Aelita Andre is predictably dreary on this, flattering to the point of being tedious. On one painting, ‘It immediately leapt out as defined representation of something in abstract form.’ A child’s art might merely be dribble and carelessly applied daubs, but the parent’s role is already defined: they will sing the praises of the Gods.

Will there be a call that the emperor has no clothes on? That depends on who is listening. Colleen Stufflebeem (Death and Taxes Magazine, June 6) saw a scam in the offing, wondering whether the toddler even painted those samples. ‘She occasionally smacked the canvas with a paintbrush. She looked bored.’ The obvious alternative: the father ‘using his daughter as the medium through which he created abstractionist “masterpieces”.’ Fraud, trickery and deception are all props that that demand complicit support. Innocence is itself a fiction when it comes to the law of misrepresentation – it takes two to tango on the dance floor of trickery. We are all there to purchase, to flatter, to engage, even in matters where the object of our affection is false. That we realise it all too late is simply a reflection of the scorn we subsequently heap.

There is little doubt that her paintings have an interest to them, packing form and body in a way that shows an active child’s mind at work. Life, abstraction, rich colour, lashings of life on canvass. Refreshingly, they show a child as a child, rather than an artist of adult years pretending to be one. But one wonders what would happen if the name and age were removed. Some people, as the barrister Rumpole in John Mortimer’s series Rumpole of the Bailey shows, are more interested in signatures than the actual painting.

Now, Andre’s influence is spreading, moving across oceans. She is now a tender 4 years old, and exhibiting in a Tony Chelsea gallery in New York City.

There is little doubt that Andre should be encouraged, along with other young figures (remember 7-year-old Leilah Poulain’s ‘abstract penguin’ at the Saatchi Gallery?). If she is making a monkey out of the establishment, it is only because they were deaf and dumb primates to begin with. We might or might not be descendants of apes, suggested the French aristocrat Arthur de Gobineau, but we are fast returning there.

A moderate view on this is best expressed by a more even tempered Germaine Greer, who argues that, ‘What the child did was probably better than anything either of her parents could do simply because she was a child’ (Guardian, Jan 26, 2009). You are buying the work of a toddler – not a prodigy, but a child. ‘There is no reason to believe that Aelita’s hand-eye coordination was better than that of other children her age, or that she had a vision of the finished work.’

Some people give their overly pampered children extortionately expensive toys and teeth-rotting candy. Others give them resplendent art shows ahead of other artists. If the art world is willing to be deceived, to embrace something they can barely measure, interpret, or understand, then they well and truly deserve it. What the public do, on the other hand, is another matter. A beast it might be, but on this occasion, a more sentient beast could not be found.

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

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