Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Both Sides Now. Really?

Just below the online Boston Globe's latest story on Kaavya-gate is another on the removal of an art show at Brandeis University. Curated by student Lior Halperin, the exhibition displays paintings solicited from young people living in a Palestinian refugee camp, and was pulled by the university administration after complaints that the show was "one-sided."

One (this one, anyway) thinks, of course it was, and then, and thank God for that. Art--whether graphic, narrative, etc.--isn't about balance, or even fairness, taken either one work at a time or as collected into a compilation or exhibition. (Do all the anthologies we've been seeing of "stories for boys" need to have "stories for girls," too?) Give me a point of view anytime.

A more interesting question is one about the political uses of children's art. It kind of bugs me that such exhibitions rely on the artist's youth and lack of talent and/or training for their impact. Isn't this exploitative? Not of the child artists, who probably enjoy the attention (although I wonder if they were paid for their work), but of our myth of childhood's innocence: the more awkward, unskilled, and unsubtle these pictures are, the more "authentic" and thereby "truthful" we take them to be. It's the everything-you-learn-in-kindergarten-is-enough school of thought, which lacks respect for both grownups and kids.

I'm reminded of a comment Horn Book reviewer Susan Dove Lempke made to me years ago, when we were both working at BCCB. We were looking at a picture book that employed a faux-childlike style for the pictures, where the sun is a yellow circle and the sky a blue line. Susan said, "you know, kids wish they didn't draw this way."


Andy Laties said...

Remember the time back in Chicago in the late 80s when a student exhibit at the Art Institute had a painting of late Mayor Harold Washington wearing ladies' underwear and a city council member stormed in and removed the painting? (I think I've got this story correct.)

At least this sort of tempest in a teapot shows us that Art Matters!

Anonymous said...

The Jewish Museum in Prague houses a heartbreaking collection of children's art from Theresienstadt, the camp where Jewish children were housed until they were transported for extermination.

One-sided? Damn right.

Monica said...

Interesting. I too thought immediately of the Theresienstadt art which got me also thinking about Jerry Spinelli's Milkweed, a Holocaust story told by a naive narrator. (I haven't read yet The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, but I gather it too is from the POV of a naive child.) I wonder if we will one day see such naive narrator stories about other more recent horrible events, say those in the Middle East. In fact, perhaps they are already out there and I just don't know of them.

I think the impulse to present children's art this way or to create faux children's art (be it illustration or by using a naive young narrator) is puzzling. I'd be interested to know more from those curating/creating these exhibits as to their intent. I'm especially curious about writers for children as so often some will tell me they do not think about their intended reader when writing. I do wonder about that when they are writing works for children set in a real time of horrror be it recent or not with a naive POV.


Andy Laties said...

As to the "child-like" image as created by adult artists, don't forget the parent cynically commenting about Picasso, Matisse or Miro: "My kid could draw better than that!" But -- those artists were inspired by African and Polynesian traditional art! I don't think it's particularly objectionable for fine artists to take their inspiration from any given source -- alternate cultures, naive, folk, little children. What matters is if the work they end up having produced is somehow really transcendent! I mean -- Pollock and Rothko simply aren't the same as my five-year-old's Waldorf-School-era work.

KT Horning said...

I once heard Anne Pellowski say, based on her years working at UNICEF, that children living in wartime or under other violent conditions, generally draw the same pictures as children living under peaceful conditions (e.g. family members, flowers and trees, and those houses with the smoke curling out of the chimney). She said any time she sees a children's art showing tanks and bombs, she suspects they have been coached by an adult to draw those things.

Roger Sutton said...

Wow, K. T., that Pellowski story is quite incendiary! I wonder, too (where's Barbara Kiefer? She would know)how much the subjects of children's pictures are influenced by the pictures children see. A blue line for a sky is a diagram or a totem or a symbol but it's not how the sky looks to anyone. Why do they do it that way?