“I don’t get it. Why is that great art? My five year old could’ve painted that.”
If I had a buck for every time I’ve heard someone say this, I could buy a big tube of cobalt blue oil paint. Now… be honest. I’m guessing most of us, myself included, have stood before a work of modern art in a museum and thought, “Why is this in a museum? Either end of my dog could’ve produced this.” We assume there must be some secret that we’re not “in” on. There must be something special about this crude-looking piece of art; something that only museum curators, or people smoking crack, can see. The artist must be a genius beyond our powers of comprehension, to paint something both historically significant and worth more than my house, yet apparently executed while blindfolded.
I’m kidding. Mostly.
From a 21st century post-modern vantage point, there are now a million answers to this question. But I believe that all contemporary painting that is expressionistic and intentionally non-realistic owes a debt to the great 20th century modernist painters who’s work first gave rise to the charge of infantilism. For these groundbreaking artists there is a very understandable, overriding reason that much of their art looks like it was made by five year olds. It is this: these artists were studying and imitating the work of five year olds. I’m specifically referring here to the work of Henri Matisse, Vasily Kandinsky, Lyonel Feininger, Paul Klee, Joan Miro, Jean Dubuffet, Karel Appel, Asger Jorn, and Pablo Picasso for starters. I’m not being disrespectful here. The child art connection was apparently no secret at the time these artists were painting.
Here I want to insert a parenthetical note. As a working 21st century painter, I’m as happy as anyone that the boundaries defining art have been blown wide open. I love the resulting freedom and free-for-all. In fact I’ve just listed some of my favorite painters. But “liking it” is not the same thing as “getting it”. The question at hand still deserves an explanation.
It is a matter of record that these artists had, some to a greater degree than others, files of children’s art from which they drew inspiration. Often they even exhibited children’s art alongside their own in public art exhibitions. I get this from an excellent book by Jonathan Fineberg, entitled, The Innocent Eye. Fineberg actually contacted family members of many of these artists and was allowed access to their personal files. This book changed my life as an artist in that it helped me to navigate some of the pretentiousness of the art world, and confirmed somewhat that I wasn’t a complete idiot. In fact, I have to admit to being a bit peeved that I spent a lot of money pursuing a painting degree at a private art college, yet I don’t remember hearing any mention of the influence of child art in my art history classes. I now see this as a critical piece of history that explains a great deal.
Fineberg is not speculating about the child art connection. There are several cases where he shows side by side comparisons of child art and embarrassingly similar finished works by now famous adult artists, who at times obviously ripped ideas directly from these unknown children. Why did these artists do this? Answering this question is where the story really gets fascinating for me. Fineberg is not “exposing” these artists in order to poop on them. These artists were pursuing a philosophical line of reasoning. In the late 19th & early 20th centuries, in the wake of the new Modernist ideas of Nietzsche, Marx, Darwin, and Freud, an enormous worldview and cultural shift was taking place. If one looks at art history books, it would appear that around this time artists lost the ability to paint representationally. In fact, academic painting was alive and well, but art history has favored the line of those artists who were expressing the new worldview shift. These artists were simply no longer interested in painting in the traditional way. They were seeking inspiration outside of the highly cultured world that produced them, looking for something more psychologically primeval.
For example, Kandinsky owned a collection of roughly 250 works by children, and influenced contemporaries Klee, Feininger, and others. Fineberg states:
“Kandinsky’s art theoretical writings make it clear that he sought in the art of children stylistic principles for pushing aside the “worldly” sophistication of naturalistic rendering in his art, to reveal a more universal, visual language. He wanted to address a subject that transcended the materialism of his age in a form that bypassed cultural convention and resonated directly with his viewer’s inner, spiritual consciousness.”
Fineberg points out that several late 19th century researchers were connecting child art with tribal art, and artists increasingly viewed the child as a kind of “domestic noble savage.” I am quite drawn to the later art of Jean Dubuffet, even as I strenuously disagree with his worldview. In a 1951 lecture, “Anti-Cultural Positions”, he stated:
“ I, personally, have a very high regard for the values of primitive peoples: instinct, passion, caprice, violence, madness. Nor do I feel that these values are in any way lacking in our western world. On the contrary! But the values celebrated by our culture do not strike me as corresponding with the true dynamics of our minds…”
Another creepy quote from Dubuffet: “Creative invention has surely no greater enemy than social order…”
So the study and pursuit of children’s art was an exploration that became quite varied. Some of these artists were seeking a more universal language of the heart. Some believed that children were “closer to nature” and therefore less corrupted than their adult caretakers. In contrast to the older biblical idea of original sin, they were buying into the idea that children are actually born in a pure and enlightened state, and that we adults are the ones corrupting them with our oppressive mores, and our programs of civilization and religion. You will recall that some of these same artists were also looking at the work of “primitives”, for the same reason, (most famously Gauguin, Matisse, and Picasso.) Some were even looking at the art of the mentally ill, whom they assumed also may perhaps be unbounded by the corrupting influence of European culture.
Since this is my blog I get to say that, to the extent that they were looking for answers to life’s big questions, I think these guys were barking up the wrong tree. As a Father of five children I can testify that if toddlers had nuclear capability, none of us would be here today. However, in seeking to shed light on one of the most colorful and influential chapters in art history, Fineberg’s contribution is indispensable.