Saturday, July 12, 2008

Introducing Children to Art

Several friends have asked me how I would go about introducing a child to art. What follows is a combination of what I did with my daughter, and what (looking back) I wish I’d thought of doing. The suggestions are geared to any age from infant to adult: pick up wherever you feel is appropriate. For me, the point of looking at art is not to learn history or sociology, and it’s certainly not to wow other people with your knowledge. At its best, looking at art is pure pleasure. Even when it’s not pure pleasure, I enjoy figuring out why it’s not. Incidentally, if you’re looking for advice on teaching a child to appreciate abstract works, you’ve come to the wrong person. You can read my thoughts on such pieces in the essay I wrote a couple years ago on Christo’s Gates. 1. Learn to look. Teach your child to observe what’s around him by pointing things out and commenting on them. You can do this walking down the street (buildings, cars, public sculpture), with the pictures in children’s books, or any number of other ways. My father used to drive through open countryside and point out what crops were being grown. That’s what interested him, and to this day, I can’t drive through Upstate New York without noticing what’s growing … and looking at the way the hills roll, the rivers meander, the mountains fade into the distance. This is despite the fact that at the time, I thought playing gin rummy with my siblings in the back seat was much more fun. Don’t feel that what you say about what you see has to be your final word on the subject. Nor does it have to express the accumulated wisdom of centuries of scholarly research. Just saying, “My, that bear looks very happy!” is a fine place to start. 2. Think and talk. Translating images and feelings into words helps you understand and remember what you see and feel. After you’ve made some comments, ask “What do you think?” Your talking is giving the child the words to use; eventually he’ll come up with his own, and get his opinion in even before you offer yours. 3. Evaluate and compare evaluations. Talk about what you like and dislike about whatever you’re looking at, and (this is important) what you specifically like or dislike. Just saying “Eeuw, that stinks!” isn’t enough. But (this is equally important) don’t impose your own views on your child. When you look at one of Raphael’s paintings of the Madonna and Child, you may think of the story of Christ, the influence of Christianity on the Western intellectual tradition, or how Raphael compares to Michelangelo. Your child may love a Raphael Madonna and Child just for the affection shown between the mother and child. Within your child’s context, that reaction is just as legitimate as yours. Don’t roll your eyes. Don’t say, “You like that? How can anyone possibly like that?” Maybe he likes it because it’s a pretty color of blue. Ask him, and listen to the answer. Remember this kind of conversation doesn’t have to be about art. You can talk about buildings, high-tech gizmos, cars, or whatever. The point is to get your child in the habit of looking, thinking, and talking to you - not just to get him to look at art. 4. Use a camera. Give your child a cheap digital camera and let him take photos of whatever grabs his interest. We once took our daughter to a sculpture foundry; what interested her was mostly flowering weeds. The weeds were prettier than some of the works that had been cast there, so you could argue that she was showing good artistic taste. If you spot a pattern to what your child likes, try to find ways to see more of that. Let him put together a folder of photos for the grandparents or aunts and uncles. Use them as a screensaver on your computer. Print them out for a changing display on the walls of your home. If you want to talk with your child about art, he needs to know that you’re interested in what he likes - not just in teaching him to like what you like. (Liking what you like may come later, if you can explain why you like what you like.) 5. Visit some art. Take your child to a museum, a gallery, or a place with lots of outdoor sculptures. Don’t plan to give an art history lecture. Don’t plan to spend more than 2 hours there - make it less if your child’s a restless type. If you’re in a mega-museum like the Metropolitan in New York, pick one room with pieces that you like, and plan to just meander through other rooms, letting your child decide which rooms to spend more time in. Pause often to talk about what you see. Let your child take photos, if the museum allows it. See if you can find a couple works on similar subjects that are hung side by side, and talk about how they’re different. I like to compare notes as we go along of which works are my favorites, in a particular room and later in the whole visit. It helps me keep them in mind, and what my husband or child choose as favorites often reveals sides of them that I never suspected. Notice that a concentrated look at art is the last step in this list of suggestions, not the first. You can take your child to the great museums of the world for hours on end, but if he can’t focus on what he’s seeing, and if the two of you can’t talk about what you’ve seen, what’s the point?