“It’s kind of like a painting within a painting,” said the child, in an American twang, as she stood in front of Manet’s Olympia in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris last week. “No it bloody isn’t,” I thought. “It’s nothing like a painting inside a painting. She’s just trying to sound clever.” But no one corrected her. Her mother looked extremely proud. The guide grimaced, but wasn’t about to lose her tip for contradicting a precocious eight-year-old.
“There are elements of this painting,” said the guide, “that could have been painted by a child.” She gestured towards the bunch of flowers. “See? You could have done that.” She had obviously not yet got round to reading Why Your Five Year Old Could Not Have Done That: Modern Art Explained (an actual book).
“My child could have painted that” is probably one of the most enraging things that you could say to an artist, or an art historian, and is, I think, the kind of attitude that Jake Chapman was getting at when he said that taking children to art galleries is an insult to the greats. “It’s like saying … it’s as moronic as a child,” he said, of plonking your kid in front of a Pollock. “Children are not human yet.”
Yet I was disappointed that Chapman – a member of the Arts Emergency service, a charity working with underprivileged young people from diverse backgrounds – thinks appreciating art boils down to education. Presumably, father-of-three Chapman lives by his word and does not take any of his non-human children to art galleries, including his own exhibitions, believing them to be incapable of understanding the art. I do not believe that the rest of the country should follow suit.
Viewing art is not about being able to place the work within an art historical context, or being able to loudly spout post-structuralist soundbites as you meander around the gallery (it’s just this kind of attitude that puts people off going in the first place, even though many are free). Instead it is about how it makes you feel. And if it makes you feel angry, or baffled, or as though your kid could have done better, then that’s fine. At least you’re feeling something. As Antony Gormley said, in response to Chapman, art is not about understanding, it’s about experience.
In Anglo-Saxon nations, there is an inverse snobbery about parents taking children to galleries that does not seem to exist in France, where there is no shame in expressing a desire to learn. In Paris, I watched a mother gently explain a Monet to her three fascinated children in a way that, in the UK, would have seen her dismissed as pretentious. By contrast, when I was in New York recently, children in the Museum of Modern Art were encouraged to stand next to Van Gogh’s Starry Night and have their photograph taken, barely even glancing at it. It saddened me that this incredible picture was being ignored, that these parents did not encourage their children to look, or think. Cameras should be banned from galleries but not children.
I was taken to art galleries from a young age and barely understood anything I saw, but it instilled in me a passion for art that has lasted into adulthood. I loved Cornelia Parker’s exploding shed, and the weirdness of Magritte. I didn’t quite grasp the Situationists at the ICA, but then I was three. Having just discovered capitalism, I opted to humiliate my oh-so-liberal parents by lying on the ground and screaming “give me all of your money” repeatedly. Guy Debord would not have approved, or perhaps he would: the situation I created was certainly disruptive, not least to the bourgeoisie.
And although this may land me in Pseuds corner, I do not care. Access to art has made my life better, and you have only to see a child engaging with a painting to realise that it is the same for many. Chapman has it that you must be human to understand art, and would exclude children from that category, but he has got it the wrong way round. Art teaches us what it means to be human, and children should be allowed to get in on that, lest they end up a generation of robotic culture secretaries who believe that art is a luxury for the chattering classes, not, in fact, for everyone. And, above all: a necessity.
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