Friday, October 05, 2007

Kids' art update

As the co-proprietor of the North Country Academy for the Excruciatingly Fine Arts (which has not changed its name, nor will it, for the same reason that the East Village Inky did not change its name: You can take the excruciatingly fine artist out of the North Country, but you cannot take the North Country out of the excruciatingly fine artist) I was interested to read that a movie had been made about Marla Olmstead, the child artist whose paintings sell for thousands of dollars. NYT reviewer A.O Scott rightly points out some troubling aspects of this story. The fame Marla garnered was probably not good for her, and her parents were probably not thinking about her best interest. However, Scott clearly knows nothing about the nature and value of art. He describes children's art this way:
The value of these artifacts is personal and sentimental, but they can also have an aesthetic power that goes beyond parental pride. The untaught sense of color and composition that children seem naturally to possess sometimes yields extraordinary results, and the combination of instinct and accident that governs their creative activity can produce astonishing works of art.

Except that these magical finger-paint daubings and crayon scribblings aren’t really works of art in any coherent sense of the term, but rather the vital byproducts of play, part of the cognitive and sensory awakening that is the grand, universal vocation of childhood. The urge to commodify and display them is, primarily, an adult expression of appreciation and nostalgia.
Surely being by products of play does not disqualify something from being art. In many cases, it is an asset.* If a work of art by an adult was a part of a story of their cognitive and sensory awakening, it would contribute to calling the work a masterpiece.

I have no doubt that Marla Olmstead's work is art in the highest sense of the term, if perhaps, a little overpriced. I would display her work prominently, if I owned any, and wasn't already quite busy displaying the work of artists known more personally to me.
* In general I buy the expression theory of art, rather than the currently popular institutional theory . However I will not try to relate my claims about children's art to any broader theory here.

1 comment:

Stroll said...

I read about that movie, and I'm a little bit fascinated. Especially the accusation that the father does some of her painting. I think people have this all wrong though. The girl is viewed as being a super-talent, on par with the great abstract artists of the world. But I think this just shows that the great abstract artists of the world are no more talented than a 4 year old playing around.

At your academy however, true genius shines.