Hanging children’s drawings on the wall seems like a very strange thing to do. Art was, traditionally, meant to show a command of technical skills and sensitive fidelity to the real appearance of things, proportions, perspective, and so on. Yet now children’s drawings are everywhere, from fridge doors to the walls of office cubicles. What is it about the vivid and wonky drawings that we now see as special? Perhaps we’ve become sensitive to the things that we’re missing. We live in a world that demands precision and productivity, surrounded by technology that makes it harder to survive in the real world. To succeed in such an environment we have to give up what we knew in childhood.
But what we can find in children’s drawings are bits and pieces of our past personalities- the playful and imaginative bits. The ones we had to surrender to survive. What’s so great about children’s art is it is so far from reality. There’s an assumption that if you are going to be good at drawing you have to look very carefully at what the things you are drawing actually look like. But kids don’t give a crap, they don’t look objectively at a tree or a dog or a human’s hands or legs.
Let me go back to the philosophy camp I talked about in my last entry. One of the weeks was focused on art. There was plenty of work being done, but let me point out a case. There was a work I watched a girl make, let’s call her P. She’s almost 6, her mother dropping her off every morning and watching her for another 10. She has, by admittance of her mother, a bit of an attitude and gets upset easily- as she was when working on this project. The art depicts her. But the mood is decisively upbeat, wearing the colorful-est socks and walking a dog on a red leash. The artist seems, broadly, extremely optimistic about her condition, and overall, about the human condition. This was a common trait the entire week. Monsters were happy, the creatures they were chasing were happy, the sky is dark but the people on the ground are happy. There is evidence of trust in children generally, and to their art as well. As long as things have gone reasonably okay, they can believe- if a skeleton is smiling, it’s okay, if a person about to encounter some really bad weather is smiling, it’s okay. In childhood, there’s little room for ambiguity. They aren’t trying to look below the surface appearance and find the consequences or compromises that belong to a more mature generation.
These types of optimistic children’s drawings hint to what we should be more like. We need to be more willing to suppose that most people are really, quite nice. Obviously some cynicism is still useful, it’s just we have given the cynical attitude too much power and prestige. It blocks out the other things we need. And art by children seems to become a new way of sneaking them in.
Photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1908-2004. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in his Office with Child’s Painting on Wall, Washington, DC.