Because I’m a mom who writes about painting and sculpture, friends often ask me how I’d introduce a kid to art. The suggestions below are a combination of what I did with my daughter and what (looking back) I wish I’d thought of doing. I’ve written it as if your kid’s a toddler — but it’ll work for introducing art to a person of any age, even if World of Warcraft is the only graphic art they currently choose to look at.
A warning: This how-to isn’t for you if you want to teach your kid history, or show him how to impress people with the often arcane terminology of art criticism. I prowl museums and galleries in pursuit of selfish enjoyment. I’m looking for a work that affects me so strongly that I stop in my tracks and forget to breathe. It doesn’t happen often. But the anticipation of such moments is why I look at art, and why I encourage others to look at art.
On the list below, visiting a museum or art gallery is almost the last item. You’ll see why in a couple minutes.
1st: Look, think, speak
When you’re walking down the street, driving in a car, reading an illustrated book, or surfing the Net, point out something that interests you, then talk about it. Your comment can be as simple as, “Look at that duck, it looks so happy!”
My father used to drive through the countryside pointing out what crops were being grown and whether they were thriving, given the season and location. That’s what interested him. I thought playing gin rummy with my siblings in the back seat was far more fun, but decades later, I can’t drive down a country road without looking at the crops alongside it, and I can’t look at a landscape painting without trying to figure out how the land’s being used. (Sorry you never knew that, Dad!)
The point is: introduce your kid to the habit of looking, thinking, and talking, by pointing out and commenting on whatever catches your eye. Your comment doesn’t need to be the accumulated wisdom of centuries, or even your final word on the subject. It’s just the springboard for the next step, which is:
2nd: Exchange feelings and ideas
Tell your kid how you feel about what you see, and why. Again, this exchange of ideas doesn’t have to be about a work of art. You can talk about buildings, high-tech gizmos, cars, or whatever.
For example, you might say: “That’s my favorite shade of green: it reminds me of leaves in spring.” Or: “I love the way the woman in that poster is moving. She looks like she’s dancing and very happy.” Then ask what your kid thinks.
And: Ask your kid because you want to know, not so that you can impose your own views. When you look at a Raphael painting of a Madonna and Child, you may think of the story of Christ, the influence of Christianity on the Western intellectual tradition, or how Raphael compares to Michelangelo. Your kid may love the same painting simply because it shows a mother and child being affectionate.
Within your kid’s context, that reaction is every bit as “right” as yours. Don’t roll your eyes. Don’t say, “You like that? How can anyone possibly like that?”
I can’t emphasize too much: don’t make this a one-way conversation, about your feelings and ideas, or your kid will tune you out. When you were a kid, did you need yet another subject where the grown-ups told you what to think, but didn’t want to hear your ideas? As an adult, do you enjoy talking with the sort of cocktail-party bore who can’t discuss anything but himself? And while I’m in ranting mode: don’t condescend. Kids detect condescension at fifty paces and remember it for years.
The good news: if you get your attitude right, your kid will soon be pointing things out and offering opinions even before you offer yours.
3rd: Point and shoot
Provide a cheap digital camera or an old smartphone so your kid can shoot whatever interests him or her. When we toured a sculpture foundry, my daughter photographed the flowering weeds along the sidewalk. It startled me at first, but in fact, the weeds were prettier and more interesting than many of the artworks.
Can you see a pattern to what your kid takes photos of? Try to find more of that sort of thing to look at. Let him make his favorite photos into a screensaver for a computer, or print them out for a changing display in your home.
This is similar to the second point above. If the two of your are going to talk about art, your kid needs to know that you’re interested in finding out what he or she likes — not just pushing your own favorites. Maybe someday, if you’re lucky, your kid will come to like what you like, or at least understand why you like it … but don’t introduce your kid to art with that as a goal.
4th: Visit some art
Why is seeing real art in museums or galleries so far down on the how-to list? Because if your kid can’t focus on what he or she is seeing, and the two of you can’t talk about it, then spending time in a place devoted to art will only result in sore feet and crankiness — for both of you.
When you think you’re ready to visit a museum, an art gallery, or any place with lots of art, here are some tips.
- Don’t give a lecture on art history. (“This is an Impressionist painting, done in Paris in the 1870s.”) Interest in art history comes after interest in art, not before.
- Watch for signs of burn-out. Be ready to leave when you see them. Two hours of intense time with art is about all most adults can stand. Kids tend to have an even lower threshold. You don’t want the association of “place with art” to be “place where Mom dragged me around and I was bored and tired.”
- Let your kid set the pace and the route. Meander. When something grabs your kid’s interest, stop. The only time I’ve stayed for more than five minutes in the MMA’s Tibetan collection was when my kid, wandering further and further off the beaten track, spotted a Tibetan knife and decided to make it “hers” by sketching it. I still remember the Tibetan galleries fondly because of that.
Ask your kid questions about the paintings or sculptures that grab his or her attention … unless your kid seems to want to just stare at something. Then hold your tongue and wait it out, as you do (don’t you?) when your kid’s absorbed in a book. If photography is allowed, snap a pic and discuss it later.
5. And a related note: Be patient. The time-scale of a toddler or a ten-year-old is not the same as yours. When my daughter was about three, we came face to face with a life-size sculpture of Andrew Jackson at the Metropolitan Museum. She plopped down in the middle of the floor and started rummaging in her fake-fur purse. I thought, “Whoops, overdid it, time to go,” but decided to hold off. After a minute, she pulled out her one and only $20 bill, which had a picture of … Andrew Jackson. Worth the wait!
5th: Play favorites
When you’ve finished looking at a bunch of art (in a museum, a book, or wherever), ask which piece is your kid’s favorite, and why. That way the lasting memory will be of something your kid enjoyed — so the memory of experiencing art will be much more pleasurable.
I said at the beginning of this essay that you can also use these techniques to introduce grown-ups to art. “Playing favorites” is an especially wonderful way to enjoy art with a significant other. I’d been married to my husband for ten years before I learned he adored red roses — because when we visited a Santa Fe gallery, his favorite painting was a still-life of roses.