As a professional art critic for more than 25 years, I saw a lot of art — everything from cowboys in leather to nude men dressing themselves in raw meat. But none gives me such consistent pleasure as children’s art.
Mostly, I’m thinking of art made by first-, second-, and third-graders using humble tempera paint and large skeins of paper on which to flow their ideas.
You only have to watch a first-grader in the process of painting to know how deeply committed an artist he is. Every muscle is involved — his very toes are poised in relation to how the tip of his brush moves. He is not distracted by questions of style, of whether the painting will be marketable, of whether his is better or worse than those around him. There is only the fundamental necessity of getting down on paper whatever it is that needs expression.
Curiosity and joy are inseparable. Which is more than you can say for many adults out there trying to make a living.
I used to be one of those people who condescended to children’s art. Charming, I thought, but not really art. I have learned better. A child artist is in no respects any different from an adult one; he does the same things, goes through the same processes and creates something as worthy.
Some artists and critics with open minds have recognized just such. Alfred Stieglitz hung children’s art in his New York art gallery in the 1920s. The Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Va., has also done so, without any belittling labels. When the art is properly framed and presented, no one could suspect that the works were not by a respected artist with a New York name.
A direct link
Children pursue the creation of art with a purity of heart, and a courage that fails many as they grow older. It is a rare artist who recognizes that his duty to art is the duty that the child accepts without question.
I am not talking here about that god-awful ”project art” that some kids are forced into making — like tracing your hand and making a turkey out of it, or building a golden macaroni Parthenon. When all the children in a class are forced to make the same art, or are shown the accepted method of solving an art problem, all the joy — all the genuine art — is sucked out of it.
I am talking about that direct link between experience and expression that comes when a child is given a bunny to hold and then given a paintbrush. The child cannot but attempt to express the experience in the most truthful and direct way. He does not need to be taught about design, theory, or worse, art history, to paint the rabbit. He finds his own “adequate means of expression.”
Consider what happens when the teacher takes a turtle to class, lets the children handle it and play with it, give it a name and study its anatomy and its habits. Here are some of the results. Notice how varied their approaches, and how beautiful the designs and the color harmonies.
Bad children’s art — just like bad adult art — is most often made using formulas; good art is made when artists discover their own solutions. No good tree was ever painted using a sponge; all good art is reinventing the wheel.
Creating a well to draw from
Using art to understand experience is what it is all about. It is how art comes to enrich, inform and deepen the child’s inner life. And that inner life is important because it is a sanctuary and a source for the rest of his life — a place he can draw strength and resources from.
Formulaic art informs that inner life no more than television — it is busy work.
Solving the art problems, learning to see and to express experience, are all a part of the process of growing. Art is no different from reading or arithmetic in this. Children do it enthusiastically. We should take a lesson from them.
After all, we are not supposed to stop growing simply because we’ve reached adulthood.
The bottom line is that children are the heroes of their own lives. So should we all be.