First of all let me just say I think critical analysis of all of the liberal arts is such an important part of human life but is incredibly undervalued in our society. We value creativity, and so teaching our children about art is an active exploration of their own desires, fantasies, and abilities. However, that completely misses the true point of art, which is to expose salient parts of our life that would otherwise be hidden, and learning how to do this is almost impossible without constant critical analysis. Erik Satie went back to learn how to properly play music after a successful musical career because he said he started trying to break all the rules in music only to find out that you can’t break the rules until you know them. Picasso claimed that he had been able to draw like an adult as a child and spent his adult life trying to learn how to draw like a child. That doesn’t mean that every child can draw like Picasso though because they still lack the critical insight necessary to make those childlike drawings mean something.
Here is something else to think about…
Matthew Arnold wrote in 1864 a brilliant essay called “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” in which he argued that to be an intelligent person you must be able to think critically. Without the proper vocabulary and thought processes a person is limited in their intellectual capabilities. It is not just factual knowledge that give us intelligent thought, but the romantic sensibilities that come from artistically evaluating life that creates true intelligence:
My husband and I always argue about this because he says that fiction and art have no intrinsic purpose since they are often not precise representations of life, but I would argue that this is exactly what good art is, and why it is so important to people no matter what their career or interests are in life. Learning to properly rearrange the blatant facts of life so that they make sense with our inner eye is what all good art, science, philosophy, etc does. It is not just about creativity, or bringing imagination into other aspects of life, although that certainly is important. Criticism is about seeing things as they really are, knowing what is important and what is not.
I had the opportunity to speak with scholar and author Adrian Jones, whose work mostly focuses on the unrealized connections that make historical events possible. I asked him how he could tell which aspects of history were important to any given event and which weren’t. In other words, how could he decipher a strong connection and a weak connection. He kind of just shrugged and said, “Oh you just kind of can see it when you study the subject.” This is exactly what criticism does. It gives people the intellectual ability to see what is really there and what isn’t, or what is important and what isn’t. It’s the kind of intelligence that makes the Steve Jobs of the world so revered. And nothing can help your child learn this better than art because it really is a function of art.
Ok enough with the lecture. So here are some easy, daily things you can do to help your child achieve an artist eye:
- If you see something beautiful, tell them! Describe what you find beautiful about it, talk about light, color, texture, and how you like how all of these things combine in what you are seeing. If it’s something you read talk about how you like how this word feels to say, or how it creates a picture in your mind, or how what this character said you’ve felt many times as well. Too often we are moved by something but only indulge in it personally. When you have a young, influential child, sharing is very important. Don’t feel like you have to be an expert or use big words, just tell them what’s going on inside your head. Sometimes just saying “I can’t even describe this” is very descriptive. Or be like Anne of Green Gables:
- Visit your art museum. Or get a book from the library. Spend time talking about what you like and dislike about paintings. Copy some of them.
- When reading a story, ask them to draw a picture to accompany what you’re reading. Or if you’re looking at a painting, ask them to tell you a story about what is going on in the picture.
- As children get older talk to them about artistic principles: Movement, unity, harmony, variety, balance, contrast, proportion, pattern and rhythm. My daughter is six (almost) and we’re starting to talk about this. She’s learning to draw people proportional to their settings, and we talk about how artists create movement through diagonal placement and repetition. If you need help with these yourself, here is a good website.
- Don’t forget talking about art elements too. Line, shape, color, texture, value are all things that even small children can grasp and see.
- Some great artists to start children on are Jackson Pollock, Picasso, Toulouse-latrec (he draws like a coloring book!), and egyptian art. Modern art is actually a bit easier for children to understand than adults I find. They are more likely to make connections between shapes and colors and feelings.
- If you are reading biblical stories find some great artistic pictures of them. It is always interesting to me how different artists will draw David, or how they are inspired by some stories that we don’t always follow anymore, like Judith. Talk about how artists use art elements differently to tell the story of these characters. Ask which one you think is most accurate.
- Coloring books can be great friends to the artist. Many people talk about how coloring books stifle creativity but I feel like they help children learn to control their utensils. They can also be used creatively to focus on just coloring like a certain artists (ask them to color a picture using only blues, or in black and white, or try shading) or, like my daughter likes to do, you can always cut them up and rearrange them to create a Picasso-esque drawing, or to emulate Matisse. Asking them to make their own coloring book is also a fun idea.
- Whatever they are learning in school, find an artist from that place and time to look at. Art always reflects the time and setting in which it was created. Talk about what was going on during the time that lead the artist to make the choices he did in his artwork.
- Don’t forget that art is everywhere. Interior design, landscape design, architecture, industrial design, book covers, furniture design…all of these can be talked over and thought about. Anytime my children tell me they like or don’t like something they have to tell me why. Critical evaluation doesn’t always just happen in art museums or atop mountains. It can happen anytime and anywhere.