“What are we going to do, tomorrow?” is the question posed to many parents by their children during the school holidays. One thing they should not be doing, according to the artist Jake Chapman, is taking their children to art galleries. He has told The Independent newspaper that such an excursion would be a “total waste of time”. Apparently, parents must be “arrogant”, indeed, if they that think that their offspring will be able to understand the likes of Mark Rothko or Jackson Pollock.
He has a point, of course. The ‘genius’ of Rothko and Pollack is challenging enough for adults, let alone for children. Cynics may observe that such art demonstrates the veracity of Andy Warhol’s famous quip that, “Art is what you can get away with.” However, if ‘shock value’ is a measure of artistic merit, the Chapman brother “get away” with more than most. Nevertheless, where they do ‘score’ for the general public over abstract artists is in producing much work that is easily, perhaps too easily, understood. Its subject matter may be X-rated and entirely unsuitable for children, but its essentially narrative nature poses few problems of understanding. In that sense, the Chapman brothers are very much in the mainstream of Western art. They are the heirs of Hieronymus Bosch. They are story tellers.
Children, like adults, enjoy stories and since most Western art is narrative it should not pose comprehension barriers for the young. As a teacher, I can think of few learning experiences more enriching for children than a visit to the National Gallery.
This does not mean simply turning up and wandering around among this treasury of art. Children need to bring with them some background knowledge to the story they will see presented in a painting. Familiarity with Greek mythology, for example, will allow them to make sense of, and draw real pleasure from, a picture such as Titian’s “Bacchus and Ariadne”. Similarly, an acquaintance with the Bible is an entry point to understanding a host of great art.
Once a child knows the story of, say, the Annunciation, he/she can begin to grasp the ‘how and why’ of those paintings depicting that story. Works of art can also be a great stimulation for children to find out more and to produce their own visual, oral or written response.
Every parent and every school in the land should be taking children on visits to art galleries. Some, including the National Gallery, have outstanding education departments and superb and charismatic guides who know, well, how to ask appropriate questions of children.
Sadly, it is underprivileged children who are, often, most in need of the ‘uplift’ that art can provide. The very names of great artists – Piero dell Francesca, Caravaggio, Turner and so on – have become the preserve of the educated middle classes.
Our poorest and least well-supported children are being denied their right of access to our cultural inheritance because too many of their parents or guardians or carers would never even dream of crossing the ‘hallowed’ doorway into an art gallery. But why should Raphael, Titian and Canaletto be only for the ‘posh’ kids?
My message to parents during these school holidays is do to a bit of preparation and to get those kids in front of artwork – but not too much and not too abstract. The modern ‘stuff’ can come later. And when you next speak to your school’s head teacher, enquire as to when the gallery visits will be taking place. And don’t forget, parent helpers are always needed on these trips. You will get a lot out of the learning experience, too!