Even children know bad art when they see it

I wrote the following post this past summer but never got around to publishing it, for some reason or another. In any event, the thoughts of June Trent Demarest seemed to withstand the November Trent Demarest’s scrutiny (that’s me, in case you were wondering) with little reworking, so I’m just posting them as-is, rather than changing verb tenses, etc.

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Originally composed June 2011

When working with children you really have to be on your toes. You must be vigilant not only on behalf of their safety, but also on account of those sanguine truths which can only be elucidated by their native precocity and naivete. If you’re not careful, you’ll miss them. I know that parents will corroborate this, and know it better than I. Still, my job this summer consists of taking care of the children attending Immanuel Lutheran School’s summer day-camp, and for the nine months preceding consisted of educating them, so I know something of what these little creatures are like. Yesterday’s venture to Old Town Alexandria with the children was no exception, as our trip to the Torpedo Factory Art Gallery provided an unexpected opportunity for reflection on the nature of art. I’m excited to report that I have culled a single sentence from my mental meanderings that adequately summarizes the experience:

Even children know bad art when they see it.

I’m aware that sounds far too neat, too absolute, and too inductive: Trent, after spending time with subset “Immanuel children,” infers from his observations that set “children” are good judges of the relative merits and demerits of art. Inductive leap! Converse accident! Hasty generalization!

Maybe so. Perhaps I should modify my statement so that it reads, “Certain children seem to agree with me with respect to what counts as ugly.” That much is indisputable. Just how much of a subjectivist measure this is, however, we shall have to see.

As you’ve doubtless discovered for yourself if you’ve clicked the above link, the Torpedo Factory Gallery is something of a mixed bag of different schools of art (there is a little flash gallery on the linked page which displays various artists’ work). To be sure, there are definitely artists whose work is more or less classical, i.e., they seek to discern and express the perfections of nature in their work, imposing order upon experience and at least attempting to harmonize their particular projects with various and sundry of the aesthetic norms found in nature. And, to be equally sure, there are others who are far more modern, i.e., they see it as their job as artists to provide ever novel, often radically unique, perspectives.

Perspectives? On…? Towards…? Don’t these prepositions need an object?

Well, I happen to think so. But it seems that even saying “perspectives on nature,” or “perspectives on reality,” or some suchlike, begs too many epistemological questions these days. Much of the art we looked at today was unrecognizable, not only in its form but in its intention, too. And the children smelled a rat. They may have smelled several rats, actually.

(Thank God for idioms, or that would be a huge non-sequitur. In my brief editing digression I just learnt [ha!] that “smelled”and “smelt” are not synonymous. So, had I not edited, I would have departed outof the safe haven of metaphor and told you that the children extracted metals out of superheated rodents, which they did not do. Oh, English…)

Per my discretion, we did not stop into each and every booth we walked past, but that did not stop the children from looking in the windows. It wasn’t necessarily on account of obscenity that I chose not to visit some of the shops (though there was at least one artiste peddling some weird fetishistic stuff that I had to steer some six-year-olds away from); no, some of the art was just ugly. Unrecognizable. It was like the “Emperor’s New Clothes” all over again.

“What is that? I can’t even tell what that is!”
“I could do that!”
“Ewww! That’s gross! What’s it even supposed to be anyway?”

While I was quick to hush such comments (so as not to bruise the ego of a nearby gift-to-unenlightened-humanity), I sometimes had to smirk to myself and think, “Yeah, no kidding.”

With the children, there was no pretense of enjoyment of the various pieces, whether ugly or beautiful. Some of this was due to the fact that their tastes are not educated. Some, but not all: there is a chasm of difference between a painting whose order is present but not immediately discernible, and random chaotic splatterings of paint on misshapen clay busts. Both may be opaque in some way to the young mind, but the former can be explained, and very often recognized in part even if not fully understood, whereas quite often the latter variety cannot, apart from the airheaded “it means whatever you want it to mean.”

A child’s initial fascination with good art can be cultivated and brought to fruition as various harmonies of shape, color, and perspective are elucidated. And lest we get too heady, let us remember that an explanation of the structural intricacies of a piece of good art often in no way enhances the delight which it cannot help but give often even in one’s first encounter with it, but provides a separate kind of appreciation. Just as the musical technicalities of Beethoven’s 5th need not be explained for one to be delighted by its beauty, so also a beautiful work of visual art need not be rationally grasped, at least not in a self-conscious way.

As we walked through the gallery, the children would brighten and exclaim when they found the exhibits pleasing to the eye. They were wont to linger longer at the booths of artists who seemed intent on offering high delight to their viewers. This was heartening for me to witness, and I was moved to thank more than a few artists for their part in enriching the imaginations of my young charges that day.

I’ll end with the following quotation from C. S. Lewis which – at least to me – epitomizes the problem with most “modernist art,”so called. It needs no further comment from me.

Until quite recently – until the latter part of the last century – it was taken for granted that the business of the artist was to delight and instruct the public. There were, of course, different publics; the street songs and oratorios were not addressed to the same audience (though I think a good many people liked both). And an artist might lead his public on to appreciate finer things than they had wanted at first; but he could do this by being, from the first, if not merely entertaining, yet entertaining, and if not completely intelligible, yet very largely intelligible. All this has changed. In the highest aesthetic circles one now hears nothing about the artist’s duty to us. It is all about our duty to him. We owe him ‘recognition’ even though he has never paid the slightest attention to our tastes, interests, and habits. If we don’t give it to him, our name is mud. In this shop the customer is always wrong (C.S. Lewis, “Good Work and Good Works,” in The World’s Last Night; Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt, 2002).

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