Planting the Seed for a Life-Long Engagement with Art

engagement with art
We live in an era highly focused on the visual. Our lives are shaped by digital images blasted from cell phones, tablets, and massive billboards that obliterate the night sky with their intense light. Yet, despite this visual stimulus, we travel farther each day from meaningful encounters with the important human expression called “art.”

What role ought art play in our lives? How do we start the process of engaging our children in the study of art?

Let’s begin with three points about children and art. First, remember that children are marvelously impressionable regarding exposure to art. To the degree their visual life includes real objects of art, they almost always develop some fondness for it.

Second, in my usage the term “art” casts a wide net. It includes painting, sculpture, graphics, mosaics, mobiles, as well as virtually any kind of decorative art and handcraft (grandma’s embroidered tablecloth, an inlaid cloisonné belt buckle, stained-glass windows, or handmade pottery). Any object that someone has spent effort making beautiful or meaningful qualifies, in my book, as art.

Now I’ll tread gently with my third point. As a musicologist and historian, I love it when children are brought up to recognize the “masterworks,” be it music, art, theater, or dance. We dedicate ourselves at Professor Carol to providing the curricular tools necessary to help bring such masterpieces to life.

But a more time-critical goal involves helping children understand what constitutes art: its materials, processes, functions, and message. This goal may sound lofty, but it fits well into daily life and does not require extra training or the application of outside curriculum.

The Materials of Art

Children love to know how something is made—its ingredients, its mechanics, its internal secrets! Spending minutes identifying the source of light in a painting trains a child’s eye to see the physical world. Permitting a child to paint a narrative mural (telling a story) along a backyard fence connects that child with the world of nineteenth-century Romantic painting. Allowing a child to explore the media of art—chalk, watercolor, oils, materials for sculpting—yields sophisticated results in his future ability to analyze art.

A child’s eye and heart can be equally affected by an opportunity to watch a professional artist work with the raw materials of art. You may have to ask around, but finding an opportunity, for example, to witness an artist cast a bronze sculpture can be a life-changing experience (for you as well as the child).

The Presentation of Art

Another fruitful path involves the realm of presenting art (exhibiting). Here’s an exercise that can appeal to children. Look in a thrift store or in a relative’s attic for an unframed painting or graphic. Go to a framing shop or craft store and, if possible, find an employee willing to share the basic principles involved in framing art. Then have the child select the frame. (This is an exercise; you don’t have to buy anything!) Confronted with the task of framing, a child must analyze and decide in a concrete way how best to enhance its significant features.

Meanwhile, back on the home front, install art everywhere you can: in the bedrooms, in the breakfast room, on the sun porch. Don’t forget that blank wall in the bathroom! Borrow art from public libraries (it often is possible). Look in second-hand shops for visually striking items to display: porcelain and glass figurines, hand-woven textiles, rustic folk art. Let the child decide where the art hangs (or sits), week by week. All reactions are valid, from “Hey, I get it first, ’cause I’m the oldest,” to “Oh no, don’t put it in my room! I don’t like it. Put it in Tommy’s!” Rotate the same piece of art to several locations. Discuss whether it “speaks” differently depending on light and the function of the space.

Analyzing and Critiquing

Even the youngest child can critique art. Start with art in the homes of friends and relatives. Look especially for family-heritage pieces: “Why do you think Mr. Howard’s granddad brought that painting from Holland when he immigrated?” Or, “Why would Great-Aunt Betty use plain blue cloth for that star in the corner of the quilt, but speckled blue for all of the others?”

Launch an art scavenger hunt when out in public. Stand before art and decorative items displayed in hotel lobbies, waiting rooms, church foyers—wherever you happen to be. Help younger children form a set of rudimentary questions, such as:

  • What is this? (a painting, an engraving, a cross-stitch, a sculpture)
  • Does it have a label or indication of title and author?
  • If there is a title, does it match up with what you see?
  • How is the object presented? (in an ornate frame, a plain metal frame; in a shadow box)
  • How is it illuminated? (natural light from a window or skylight, a spotlight)
  • Why do you think this piece was purchased or commissioned to fill this particular space?
  • Do you think the work is effective (accomplishes the goal of the designer or architect)?

Recreate Historical Dialectics

Older children may find themselves fascinated by the classic “battles” in art history, such as the biting review written in Paris by Louis Leroy in 1874 degrading the paintings that later would be deemed Impressionist masterpieces. Students will be surprised to learn of the nightmarish 1937 exhibit in Munich of paintings labeled “degenerate” by Adolf Hitler, many of which were by respected Jewish artists. Encourage students to learn about these turning points in art history and to debate the merits of the situation, either within the context of those times, or within the values of today’s popular (visual) culture.

Build the Narrative

The goal always is to build the narrative about a piece of art. No matter what the student’s assessment, the multi-step processes of discovering, engaging, analyzing, and drawing conclusions are guaranteed (and I stand by that verb) to strengthen a young person’s receptivity to art. There will be sufficient time as an adult to deepen specific knowledge about art. But nothing can replace early exposure on tangible levels that transcend “textbook knowledge” and speak directly to a child’s heart, mind, and curiosity.

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