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The Art of Children
What can we say about the art of children? How is it different from art made by adults? What do we mean when we describe these works as naïve or free or untrained? Where exactly is the place of childhood art and with whom does it wish to communicate? For whom is it made—if for anyone at all?
Relentless in its pride, the audacity and perfection of childhood art seems to come from nowhere. Adult art is usually bad and there is too much of it. A chronically insecure commodity, it is rarely sure that it even has a right to exist. Children have no such nervousness regarding to their art. And isn’t our very title here a weak unresolved contradiction? An Art of Children does not truly exist. But the abyss from which these creative acts spring is certainly real. Subject to the most rigid constraints, this orphaned epoch accepts without question the forward progression of time as its decisive limit. Childhood art is a commons, though each child enters it alone and when he leaves this strange locale, he departs with a loneliness so absolute that it seems nothing less than a first death.
We are never sure that children are particularly interested in us, now that we have left the fold. But we remain fascinated by them, if only for selfish reasons, and out of this thrall comes all the affections and severities we desperately employ and all the warmth and coldness we call love. We imagine two crude concentric circles, one marked ‘adult’ and the other ‘childhood’. Despite a certain questionable guilt, we know that these territories are mutually exclusive. We know also that we must not sever all ties completely, despite all the antagonism and silence. One must always leave an open line of communication to the enemy, as von Clausewitz advises.
Children are full of tricks, jibes, jokes, deceits. Standing before their colorful creations, the best an adult can manage is weepy nostalgia or stupefaction. Thinking only of himself and his own lost childhood, the images evaporate into inscrutable scribbles and lines. It is as if something taunts us from behind the frontiers of age, a supreme joke from an entity which sets inexperience as the highest virtue and sees respect as the final bluff of a towering fraud. And this is why childhood art produces an apprehensive anger in us, as does the art of the insane. From this anger comes the will to correct and make sense. But correction and sense belong to an entirely different order of the world. They are posthumous operations, and the art of childhood is nothing if it is not electric and alive.
Think about the deep seriousness with which children play and paint and draw, huddled over the paper for hours with no thought of anything else. It is not in order to show the image or to reproduce it that the child draws or paints or molds with such furious concentration, but to replace an original with a substitute that is also exactly the same thing. Images come into being at the same instant, curving time in a way that for an adult is conceivable only though the alienated contortions of analysis or theory. For the child and his art, nothing is simpler than this immediate apparition of things. As child-artists we lived in a magical realm, and it is precisely this realm which must be destroyed in order that our later artworks come to be. If this does not happen, all that will remain is a ruinous landscape which grows impossibly younger while we get older. Most people stop before this crucial point; they will paint and draw no more. Others will still make artworks, it is true, but these works cannot really be things in the same manner that childhood creations once sprang to life. This is the sacrifice: the real must die in order that the reproduction may live. Or rather—the division between the real and the representation must become complete and effacing, as inevitable as a one-way street. Anything else is childish. Or it takes off to fly on wings of madness.
The awe which overcomes us—there is no other word for it—part envy, part rage at something that is now beyond us, places childhood art far ahead of even the most pious religious masterpieces. This awe is so total that it must be countered with superstition. Why else are we charmed by a little animal or a wild staring face scrawled by a child? The patronizing comment conceals a battered defense which must take age into account because it can account for nothing else. But there are adults who do not accept this pathetic surrender. They should be recognized for an act of bravery few dare commit.
Think of the indoors and the outdoors. For the child, indoor space is infinite and parts to reveal depths like folded origami. Outdoor space is a series of horizons to be breached, barriers on a plane that is likewise infinite. Look now at the illustration at the top of this article. A house is not a simple flat edifice facing the viewer (and know that this viewer has yet to become a real pedestrian). It is a square circle whose empty center has a width spanning everywhere and a periphery which encompasses nowhere. Expansion and contraction are synonymous. Depth is a very real three-dimensional property, not a trick via inference or outright fakery like trompe-l'œil. But this depth exists only in the child’s eye. For the adult, this deep only makes us mimic Narcissus.
The rooms of the child’s house are completely whole behind the flat façade. They are so real that they do not need to be shown, which, in childhood art, is exactly the same as showing them. The solid front is cut away in the mind, analogous to the admirable way in which Persian classical painting depicts indoor space. There is a paradox which adults can only reconcile by making analogies, by making appeals to the imagination or deduction or facts. For the child, every room is as truly there as the walls he has drawn without. Everything has been portrayed. Nothing at all has been left to the imagination, whether we see it or not.
A child’s art has no darkness in it. No subject, even the most cruel, bears a trace of malice when a child pictures it. It is the only human expression that is full daylight, without the terror which daylight exposes in adult art. This is perhaps a question of an old and trite word: equality, the extreme leveling of everything. Every element in a child’s art is equal, hence the wisdom of ignoring or skewering perspective (this is not a decision; it may not even be a reflex, but something which has no name). Distance and nearness are interchangeable, as if even objects far away were still very close at hand. The idea of entering into the picture, as in the famous story of the painter Wu Daozi, is very real for children—especially young children. Later, this tale will become a mere parable. But all of us at an early age could have been China’s greatest artist.
All childhood art is work. All adult art is a mere hobby, even the greatest of paintings. Yet this childhood work is more of a devotion, and its labor does not so much produce anything as exist wholly for itself. The goal is not the artwork and the process is likewise unimportant. It is work disconnected from result; an occupation of time so serious that it blots out the world. One could call it a game with time which only children are permitted to play. For the rest of us, time catches us unawares while it allows children the only real possibility of escape.
We have used the house as an example for many reasons. In a child’s mind, these mysterious constructions have no history. All houses come to be in an instant. The cracks and scrapes on the walls are not due to human actions but are part of its sentient being. And when a child moves out, he forgets his old house immediately in favor of the new one, which then paradoxically becomes a strange extension of the old. Only later do we recall the separate entities of the apartments where we lived, with their new tenants and improvements or their uninhabited decay. All of this is then subsumed into ordered time. We fill time with a nagging certainty that we will eventually be evicted from it.
Perhaps in the end, childhood art points toward something which, for our own sake, we must never truly look upon. This secret is guarded by the free images that children produce so obsessively, working as if they were charged with a mission from a god who rules over a different world. It is an enigma which is neither supreme nor superfluous, but rather particular to one pathway whose final outcome never varies and whose very existence is an accusation issuing from the other side. There is a hint of this strange charge in every child’s art, a remote sign of something catastrophic which is now less than an echo to us. All that can be certain is that after the secret has been disclosed, he who knows it will be destroyed—shattered totally by the forms by which a false innocence now returns to face him.
Note: The author would like to thank Rem and Bennett Lynn for kind permission to use their artworks. And to NAC.