Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Call that art? Well, Daddy does

I have forgotten how to watch a 'grown-up' film. Sit me down in front of a street-raw depiction of urban alienation, say, or a sensitive charting of the emotional undercurrents that tug at the shell of a splintering family, and I will find myself asking, Where are the singing chipmunks? Why no intertextual references to classic fairytales? Is this movie really not interested in indoctrinating me into the moral values of the Disney/Pixar co-operative? Family life, and family viewing, have reduced me to a kind of dyslexia of the silver screen. I would once rush to watch Kieslowski or Todd Solondz; now I need things spelled out for me, preferably with plenty of acrobatic song-and-dance routines. If movies are texts, as the cultural studies pundits like to tell us, then I have forgotten how to read them. 

It doesn't help that I live in a part of the world that is poorly served by cinema. To catch a recent release, I have to trek to Gateshead's Metro Centre, where cinema seems to be less about watching films and more about talking, sleeping and eating pungent food in sociable darkness. Frustrating, because there is one film that has caught my eye but doesn't yet seemed to have found its way up north. Amir Bar-Lev's 'My Kid Could Paint That' tells the story of four-year-old Marla Olmstead, whose colourful paintings famously took the New York art world by storm. The story interests me for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it seems to be as much about the adults who are trying variously to protect and exploit Marla as it is about an ostensibly ordinary little girl. It touches on the question of whose interests are being served by bringing children's activities into the public eye in this way, and it reminds me that some of the side-effects of my own project—thrusting Athena, and to a certain extent Isaac, into the limelight—raise ethical questions which I cannot completely resolve. 

The other interesting thing about this film is that it asks whether children's creations can truly be described as artistic. Artists through the centuries have, of course, taken children's artworks seriously, both as inspiration for new works and as creations in their own right. Some of my favourite examples come from the work on children's crib speech, such as that produced by a two-year-old girl called Emily, studied by a group of psychologists and linguists in the 1980s. Many of Emily's bedtime monologues are startlingly beautiful. She uses self-directed language to replay significant events from the day that has just ended, and to plan ahead to what she will do and experience tomorrow. Reading little Emily's self-talk, and that of Anthony, another famous proponent of crib speech, makes us concur with the great linguist Roman Jakobson's judgement that such monologues are outstanding examples of infant art. 

In The Baby in the Mirror, I ask what Athena's various imaginative creations can tell us about the cognitive-developmental story behind children's art-making, as well as her wider understanding of the social functions of art. Much of the most interesting recent work in this respect has been conducted by Paul Bloom, whose excellent Descartes' Baby is partly concerned with what children's understanding of the art they produce and consume can tell us about humanity's broader relation to all things aesthetic. Particularly interesting is the way Bloom relates children's understanding of art to their ability to read the intentions of their social partners. Not only do you have to understand the creator's intention to depict a particular entity, but you also have to comprehend that the artist intended the result to be taken in a particular way: as a work of art, rather than as a factual document or an impertinence. In the chapter 'Lightning Ridge is Falling Down', I explore this two-level model of artistic intentions in relation to Athena's home movies, drawings, jokes and narrative songs. Perhaps of most interest to me is the question of whether, in these aesthetic experiments, Athena intends to represent her experience for herself. Does art have a personal function, for the maker, as well as a social function, for its audience? I would like to have said more in the book about the fascinating work of Peter van Sommers on this topic. Van Sommers found that adult participants in a psychological study would use private drawings for some of the same reasons that they use self-directed speech. People apparently use private artworks—doodles and scribbles, as well as more elaborate creations—to regulate their emotions and plan their behaviour, with no intention that the drawings will ever be seen by anyone but themselves. How much of professional (and amateur) artists' work has a similarly self-serving function? Is art really a gift to society (as Lewis Hyde has argued), or is it at least in part a treat for ourselves? 

It will be interesting to see how Marla's story fits in with this intention-reading account of children's artistic understanding. I suspect that she appreciates enough about the social functions of art to comprehend at least some of the fuss that has surrounded her. If anyone is planning a northern release for 'My Kid Could Paint That', they will have at least one guaranteed viewer. I may be slightly out of practice, but I'm sure that, if it has kids in it, I will understand most of what's going on. 

1 comment:

  1. Charles FernyhoughMarch 25, 2008 at 2:21 AM

    Good point. She enjoys looking at them and will happily sift through the boxes of pictures we have kept. I haven't observed her responses to her own finished work very closely, but there is evidence (work by Richard Jolley at Staffordshire, for example) that children's sensitivity to emotional expression in pictures increases steadily as they get older. This would run alongside their increasing understanding of artistic intentions, of the kind I touch on here.

    As far as changing functions are concerned, I'm not sure whether there is any research on when children come to have a 'theory of art' of this kind. Although she uses art for different purposes (there is an awful lot of private drawing which is never intended to be seen by us, for example), I'm not sure how conscious she is of these purposes. There's certainly scope for some new research to be done there.

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