Teaching Kids About Art

Cezanne’s “Bend in the Road”The Wall Street Journal had an article recently about child art collectors, whose wealthy parents supply them with the cash to buy works by classic artists like Cezanne, Pissaro, and Rembrandt as well as contemporaries like Jeffrey Koons, Nao Matsumoto, and Michael Vasquez. We are treated to the somewhat unseemly sight of art gallery owners fawning over their 9-year old clients’ “eye for art” and a 14-year old who collects work with a candy theme because it’s “his favorite food”.

Learning to relate to art this way is a valuable skill for the children of the upper classes, for whom the consumption and display of art is part of the way one gains and asserts status. But for the rest of us, it seems rather shallow and unfortunate — it’s hard to see whether these kids are learning anything about the art itself, or just how to work the art market.

And that’s sad, because art is a crucial part of the human experience, and can be a source of great pleasure and even wisdom when approached as an expression of the human soul rather than as a commodity to be bought and traded. Since we now live in the era of No Child Left Behind standards which have utterly marginalized art as a significant part of a children’s education, art is being abandoned more and more to the children of privilege.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though. Teaching kids to enjoy and appreciate art is not difficult — the wealthy and powerful have spread the story that understanding art is too demanding for the ordinary guy, but it ain’t so. With a little patience and attention to detail, anyone can find something of value in art. Children’s natural curiosity makes it even easier to share art with your children, even if some of the “heavier” meaning goes over their heads.

Here’s a few pointers to help you and your children develop an interest in and understanding of art. First, take them to a museum or gallery, or get a big art book from the bookstore or library. We like to go to our city’s First Friday festivals at the beginning of each month; Google “First Friday” and the name of your city (or the closest big city) to see if there’s a First Friday in your neck of the woods. However you manage it, once you’ve got your child or children in front of some art, follow their lead — let them pick something that appeals to them.

Then ask them some questions. Ask them what they like about the work, what grabbed their eye, and what it reminds them of. Use further questions to direct their attention to the subject, symbolism, and style of the piece:

  • Subject: What is this a painting (or drawing, sculpture, etc.) of? What story does it tell? (Feel free to help your child make a story up if the work lends itself to that.) If there’s people in the painting, what are they doing? What sort of feelings are they expressing? If the work is a landscape or a picture of a city or building, what features can you make out? If the work is abstract — that is, it doesn’t represent anything identifiable — what feelings does it call up? Does the work look angry, or sad, or peaceful, or excited?
  • Symbolism: A symbol can be simply defined as something that means something else. A skull as a symbol for death, a dove as a symbol for peace, and so on. Pick out different objects depicted in the work and ask waht they might stand for. You don’t have to guess what the artist had in mind — what’s important is what you have in mind. Is an object scary, or warm, or cute, or disgusting? There’s an etching by Rembrandt that shows the Good Samaritan from the Bible helping an injured man into an inn; in the bottom corner of the painting, there’s a dog relieving itself. Look for parts of the image like this that seem out of place and ask why the artist would have included them. In the Rembrandt, the dog reminds us that this is real life, bringing the stories of the Bible down from the realm of divinity and into our own everyday reality.
  • Style: Style is the artist’s expression of individuality in his or her work. Some painters use wild, ecstatic brush strokes; others use tightly controlled strokes. A sculptor might leave large pieces of unworked stone around his or her subject (as Rodin did) or might work hard to mimic reality so closely that their finished work looks like it could get up and walk around. What does the way they worked tell us about the artist? Why did the artist make the work this way? How does the work make you feel?

Brueghel’s Tower of BabelObviously you have to pitch the questions you ask to the child’s level. The point is that it’s possible to approach an artwork with no previous knowledge of the artist, the historical setting in which they worked, or the nature of the subjects they depict in their work. If you know any of that, by all means share it — it can only add to your enjoyment of a piece — but if you don’t, forge ahead by looking at the subject, symbolism, and style of a piece, and don’t worry about being “right” or “wrong”. You’re not writing a book on the piece, and there won’t be a test at the end.

If you find an artist whose work you really like, go ahead and learn more about them. There are really great books for kids about almost every major artist that include lots of beautiful color pictures and kid-level stories about the artists’ lives and ideas — check your library. You can also find lots of information on the Internet; the WebMuseum and the ArtChive are great places to start, as well as Wikipedia.

One last note: don’t worry about whether a work is “great” art or not. Experts disagree profoundly on what makes a work or an artist “great”; you don’t have to. Andy Warhol said that if you want to be able to recognize a great painting, first look at a thousand paintings. That is, your sense of what works offer more to their viewers will grow as you look at more and more art. The goal here isn’t to create little art scholars or, God forbid, little collectors — the goal is to develop an interest in art, and the skills of looking at and thinking about the world around us. And if your child should develop a passion for art that they want to explore, all the better.

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