left: Jack Pezanosky (4 years old), right: “Laburnum” (1954) by Hans Hoffman
Probably every human being senses it: We all come to speak one and the same language when we fall in love. Under the impression of that very mood we understand each other without words. – That’s right!
And being filled up with hormones of joy we are hyper-motivated right away. In the very moment when all the joy comes spluttering out from oneself one cannot do otherwise but to believe that it is only the case when it comes to love. – But this is a mistake.
Just think of domestic happiness on Sunday. On a sunny day light-hearted the parents take their children to a museum. However, already after wandering five minutes in the gallery bright joy transmutes into blustering despair and blind anger. Not because of the reason you think of: the children misbehaving outrageously. No, rather the reason is – in the way the parents would say – the sick derangement of the exhibited… well, what? Pictures?
They wouldn’t call them so. Rather something banged-out. To four paintings of Cy Twombly and three pictures by Hans Hofman they already, as they would say, were subject. And their frightened look, scanning this and the following exhibition room, reveals to them the disaster quite plainly: there are works of Karen Appel, Gillian Ayres, James Brooks, Elaine de Kooning, Mark Rothko and others. That sounds the death kneel for them. Then ultimately the language which is known by the whole world will speak wordlessly. A sceptically squinched up face in the face of Hoffman’s “Laburnum”, the bended head to the own daughter, the again lifting head and the scrutinizing look at the picture… Just let’s provide this scene with some words even though we could subtitle it: “Without words.” With a trompetend voice one could proclaim: “My kid could paint that,” “Das könnte mein Kind auch malen,” “Mon enfant pourrait peindre ça”. The more desperate and enraged the parents are and the more they are positive about their children – and which parents are not?! – the more megalomaniac they become: “my child could do this better,” “mein Kind könnte das besser,” “mon enfant ferait mieux”; or the more disparaging words they will unresisted wrest away from their virtual sealed vocabulary: “A chimp could fabricate this!,” “It looks the same when I blow my bursting shits into the loo!,” “It doesn’t look different from me spreading my puke over the kerb after the excess of boozing!” The loss of countenance. And some even lose more. Their mind. They become deeply absorbed in conspirative paranoia: “They are excellent salesmen of garbage!” (The childless ones have avail themselves with other words: “I could do that.” It means the same.)
As there are incurables unable or unwilling or unable and unwilling to speak the language of love, so there are some stubborn wiseacres and emotionless control freaks who really believe: “There’s a part of me that says that it’s a completely valid response when somebody says ‘My child could have done this.’ Well maybe they could. That’s that person’s absolute right to express that. It’s not a very good way to start a discussion, though. I think there are more interesting statements you could make.” So Allison Morehead in a direct quote (http://queensjournal.ca/story/2009-01-29/postscript/my-child-could-have-done/).
Well, what would be the Western World without its scientific critical spirit? Consequential, that means: not quite surprising, some psychologists attended to the emotional life of visitors to the museum; namely Angelina Hawley-Dolan and Ellen Winner (http://pss.sagepub.com/content/22/4/435.full.pdf+html). 72 visitors to the museum let themselves be analysed. 32 of them were art students, 40 of them studied psychology. They all had to face the unpleasant challenge of comparing pairs of pictures. The general setting of this experiment was the following: One picture was painted by an artist, the other picture was drawn by an unknown artist, by a kindergartner or – for some people maybe extremely offending – by an ape or an elephant. This general setting was varied. One version consisted in retouching the artists’ names. In another version the pictures were designated wrong. That means an artist’s painting could have been designated as an elephant’s or ape’s product. Nevertheless, the study resulted in an humiliating self-knowledge which to universalise probably one just wants to do unwilling. Irrespective of the study background of the students 60 up to 70% of them preferred and took for better the paintings of the artists. In other words from now on “My kid could paint that,” “Das könnte mein Kind auch malen,” “Mon enfant pourrait peindre ça” can only count as badmouthing and affront, but not any longer as an estimate which claims to be equivalent to reality.
Three incorrigible women already set some nasty pinpricks. That defamatory prole’s jargon is said to be boring; and that comparison is said to be unrealistic and overrating immoderately the own children.
Now let us allow a man from this group of the incorrigibles to speak. Knee-crackingly Jens Beckert holds up the mirror to the barking visitors of the museum by claiming that they have not at all the ability to estimate immediately the artistic value. Rather that value is the result of its status within the wide-ranging institution of art (http://www.artnet.de/magazine/interview-mit-jens-beckert-maxplanckinstitut-koln/).
And Jane Allen cuts in on Beckert in order to give the kiss of death to the despiser of abstract art who is already breathing stertorously in the mud. “Issues of value don’t have to do with the material entity of the work, strictly speaking, but rather the set of artistic intentions and authorship that surround a work of art. … It’s a misapprehension of what art is to say, ‘Well, I could have done that,’ because art isn’t just a skilled production. It involves skill, but that’s not all it is. So it’s kind of missing the point” (http://queensjournal.ca/story/2009-01-29/postscript/my-child-could-have-done/).
By saying this Allen means something that Christophe Yahia reveals by referring to the naive art of Douanier Rousseau (http://revue.prefigurations.com/16artnaif/htm/naif_yahia2.htm). Rousseau knew what his teachers and colleagues took for creditable painting, but he resisted to apply the respective, necessary rules. He just painted like a child. To put it in other words: “l’artiste naïf sait ce qu’il fait, (il ne sera pas pardonné!)”. But that is what distinguishes the artist from the child. One could pose a picture of one’s own child or – if one has such a pet – ape or elephant as modern art. One could kid some persons with a certainty from 30 up to 40%. They would take it for art, but they wouldn’t be potential customers. No. Well, what distinguishes a filial painting from a modern artist’s is twofolded. First, the artist could paint in a different way the child couldn’t. Thus second, the artist has a reason to paint the way he paints. That way his style has a subject which the style of a child hasn’t (cf. Arthur C. Danto: The Transfiguration of the Commonplace (1981)).
Does it mean that what a child does isn’t art? How, for example, should we judge the pictures Marla Olmstaed and Aelita Andre paint?
On Marla whose most expensive picture sold for 300.000 $ – a picture she drew at the tender age of four – there is a documentary film by Amir Bar-Lev called »My Kid Could Paint That« (2007). Nathalie Petrowski describes the film as dealing with the grown-ups: their marketing, their setting of prices for the art market, the hyper-ambitioned parents and the society thirsting after geniuses (http://moncinema.cyberpresse.ca/nouvelles-et-critiques/chroniqueurs/chronique/2600-mon-enfant-pourrait-peindre-ca.html).
And what about Aelita whose most expensive picture was sold over the counter in Hongkong for 24.000 $? Drunken in the binge of sensation the journalists sound her out: What are her pictures about, how did she like the visit at the museum etc.? Stories are told on the canvas, she answers. Stories with dolphins, crocodiles etc. And she thinks the pictures in the Museum of Modern Arts are extraordinary beautiful. Now then, one couldn’t expect her to express a lot of profound thoughts. That is not so serious!
Her parents were asked for a statement, too. Her father is really stoked and encouraging: Children, as matter of course also his daughter Aelita, have a natural affection to colours, to singing etc., also to express themselves immediate and natural. Free and natural she is expressing herself, free and natural they are expressing themselves. And that’s art.
But is that true? After all it is difficult to doubt that her pictures, probably even by him, would have been taken for art about 150 years ago. Moreover, if it is purely natural what she’s doing, aren’t her pictures better kept in a natural historical museum? In Vienna for instance you can see the Venus of Willendorf in the Naturhistorisches Museum. It is not exhibited in the Kunsthistorisches Museum.
John Torreano, art professor at New York University thinks that an artist is conscious about what it means to be an artist. A child can’t have that kind of awareness. That of course is an institutional argument.
Angela Di Bello, director of the Agora Gallery in New York’s Chelsea where Aelita’s pictures were exhibited, has a different point of view, of course. Aelita knows what she’s doing. She developed her own style which indeed Di Bello exaggeratedly labels as Abstract Expressionism or even Surrealism. She couldn’t observe at any rate such a consistent style in the pictures of her own children. Apart from that one can see that Aelita has a sense of colour, composition, texture and structure. She’s a great talent.
Well, some critics blame her for using Aelita’s age as sales strategy. At this point we return to Petrowski’s description of »My Kid Could Paint That«…
That is to say, Marla’s and Aelita’s parents can claim with good conscience and with pride “my kid could paint that,” “das könnte mein Kind auch malen,” “mon enfant pourrait peindre ça”. Right! But: Is it art? From an institutional point of view their pictures are elevated to be art. But the institutional theory of art faces substantial enervations! It also wasn’t always self-evident that such pictures were taken for art. And this is something that always accompanies today’s art. With every picture that is painted the question raises: Is it a picture of artistic value? For an artist this question raises most urgent (cf. Danto). But this awareness a child is lacking.
Beautiful and worth to be purchased are the pictures of Aelita and Marla. But is it art? Take for instance the pictures of Dalí he painted when he was a kid: Are they considered to be art? From the point of view of an ambitious understanding of art: probably not. No more than the pictures of Aelita and Marla or any other child. Even though they would be excellent in a technical sense, since technique and handwork are not a decisive criterion for something to become art at all. (Think of counterfeits or asiatic women creating copies from originals to a hair and selling them as such. Or think of Marcel Duchamp’s “Fontaine” (1917), Barnett Newman’s “Voice of Fire” (1967) and Günther Uecker’s “Der Nagel” (1988).) But for some people they are to be considered commonly and institutionally as art; which could be interesting for the notion of art …or not?
Marcel Duchamp: “Fontaine” (1917)
Barnett Newman: “Voice of Fire” (1967)
Günther Uecker: “Der Nagel” (1988)