Absurd expressionism: pretension, parenting and exposing kids to art

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101TOKYO Final day with kids — An Epic EducationArt is such a loaded word. It can soar off the tongue showered in reverence, or be spat out of the mouth like a bitter pejorative. There will never be a consensus on its definition, and I’ll skip any pretentious pondering of what art “is” or “isn’t” — after all, everyone has their opinion. But when an art-world darling recently said that people shouldn’t take their children to galleries because exposing kids to art was a “waste of time,” well, it tapped into a small artery of anger that I didn’t know was bubbling inside. I wanted to punch this pompous blowhard in the groin.

I’m not anti-artist. On the contrary. In fact, I’ve spent a quite a bit of time in their company when I covered the Tokyo arts and gallery scene for the Japan Times. In 2009, I even directed a small contemporary art fair for fun (it certainly wasn’t for the money), with galleries from all over Japan, as well as from America, South Africa, China, Hong Kong and Europe. As my kids have grown, I have spent a significant amount of time seeking out places and spaces for my kids to encounter art — from Renaissance painting to graffiti. So when this guy basically said that kids aren’t “human” enough to appreciate art yet (his words), I went through several stages of emotion:

  • First was the anger and incredulity: how could this jackass be so obtuse? I sent the links around, telling all my friends and networks what a jerk this guy was.
  • Then came the shock and embarrassment: I had been duped. In my rage, I looked up his show, looked up his bio and looked up his recent interviews. I had fell for the controversy and then foolishly helped spread the word about this shmuck. I became an unwitting assistant in his PR machine.
  • Then it was anger again, but a different kind, now mixed with shame and grudging admission that I was tricked: tricked into learning more about this guy, and tricked into spreading his name. It was so easy. I’m sure tickets for his new show — and YES, by coincidence, he does have a new show coming up — those ticket sales will triple, as everyone will want a taste of the “controversy.”

Fi at 3331 Arts Chiyoda — An Epic EducationThe idea that children should be exposed to art seems obvious and not even worth debating. That said, I do believe that there actually are some kids who shouldn’t visit museums and galleries: children whose parents have not taught them how to behave respectfully in revered public institutions. Parents like these bozos. Kids like this shouldn’t go to galleries. Come to think of it, neither should their parents.

I also don’t believe that every child will respond to art. Nor do I feel that children should be repeatedly forced to visit the same trough of creative endeavors if he or she doesn’t want to be there. Children like my boy Jamie. His sister and I can spend the entire day wandering though museums and galleries (and I hope that never changes), but my son would rather chew off his own arm than spend an hour looking at paintings. I’ve accepted this, and no longer drag him to exhibits that I’m fairly certain he’ll hate. Instead, I only require him to join me for things where I’m fairly certain that there’s something he will latch onto.

Despite what snobby, Turner-prize wielding nitwits might say, the reasons that Jamie hates galleries and his sister Felicia loves them has very little to do with “understanding” the art in front of them. Art is mainly about experience, not academics. Layers of meaning and nuance can come later. At this stage, exposing kids to art is for seeing, hearing and feeling. Let them interpret if they care to, but they usually won’t (and I’m not so different). Critics at the Guardian, the New Statesman and the Times have done a better job of breaking this down, so I’d rather not expend any more energy on the topic.

But I will say this: exposing kids to art doesn’t always have to happen in the Louvre or the newest gallery in Chelsea (although those are two great resources). Local exhibits and work found on the internet can often inspire interest. I have also found — and this is very important — that stressing the act of creation, more than the meaning behind a work, really helps my brood gain interest. As I’ve said before, Jamie, now 11 years old, has until recently shown zero interest in art. His sister and I were once drawing at the dining table and I asked him to join us. “Why would I want to draw a picture?” he asked. Yeah. He honestly didn’t understand the point of it all.

But this was the wrong approach. We’ve recently discovered that he really enjoys working with tools. Pliers and soldering irons. Hammers and chisels. Once this discovery was made, we’ve tried to find opportunities to use as many tools as possible — most recently with wood carving, silversmithing and the potter’s wheel while in Bali. Now when we encounter art, I focus less on what it means and more on how it was made: what tools were used, how did the creator get this or that effect, and so on. It seems so obvious now — like forehead-slapping obvious — but now when I talk about art with him, I focus more on the process than the product. If you have similarly inclined kids, you should try this, too.

What is your kids’ relationship to art? And yours? How do you expose your children to creativity?