Who gets to call it art? Two new docs chronicle artists struggling against claims that their work is not what it appears to be. For Steve Kurtz of the cultural-activist collective Critical Art Ensemble (and SUNY Buffalo), the stakes are Patriot Act-high. A pointed hybrid of reenactment and doc, Strange Culture recounts Kurtz’s 2004 arrest as a bioterrorist after medics arriving to revive his heart-attacked wife found the biotech supplies for his latest art project about GM foods. Artist-filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson, who directed Tilda Swinton in the nutty Teknolust, substitutes Thomas Jay “Henry Fool” Ryan and Swinton for Kurtz and his late wife and partner, Hope, but also features Kurtz himself. The articulate, goofy-toothed artist, still awaiting trial, is moving, persuasive and courageously grounded for a man whose wife’s body was confiscated by the government. The prosecutor, who locked up the Lackawanna 6, represents what comes off as a larger rights-chilling power grab.
Leeson’s film partly imitates Kurtz’s reality-reenacting art, and if the results are mixed, it’s far preferable to the copouts of My Kid Could Paint That. Director Amir Ben-Lev noodles around with the 2004-5 rise and fall of four-year-old painter Marla Olmstead, whose artworks sold for thousands of dollars. Her parents hide behind family pieties and media victimhood and dismiss suspicions about freaky Dad’s hand in the art. When the requisite directorial entrance into the drama occurs, the pseudo-insight fails to obscure the film’s lame, fundamentally antianalytical stance (despite deploying fig-leaf theorizing by art critic Michael Kimmelman).