The generic term child art often refers to graphic and even three-dimensional work done by children. The term was first made popular by a leading art educator of the last century, Victor Lowenfeld (1947). It is occasionally used to refer to “real” artworks produced by “wunderkinder” such as Alexandra Nechita (Plagens 1996) who paints only in Picasso’s Cubist style or Wang Yani (Winner 1993) who produced traditional Chinese brush paintings to global acclaim. Two aspects of child art have been studied: the aesthetic, i.e., how good, or expressive, or authentic the image created by the child is; and the developmental, i.e., how best to describe a child’s acquisition of graphic fluency (Golomb 1993; Kindler & Darras 1997; Kindler et al. 2002).
Aesthetic judgments about children’s art are always the result of applying adult norms (Pariser 1997; 2006). Thus, judgments about the aesthetic worth of children’s art are highly contentious, and are best resolved with the antique quip De gustibus non est disputandum (There’s no accounting for taste). Wilson (2004) noted that the art that children make for themselves borrows heavily from popular culture, while the look of “school art” reflects the aesthetic choices and preferences of art teachers (Kindler et al. 2002). The move to use popular culture as a source for motivating children’s school art has been much criticized by some modernist educators who define visual art as an exercise in craft and tradition, which gives form to humanistic insight, and comforts the afflicted (Smith 1998). Postmodernist educators see “art” as an open game whose sole purpose is to articulate a social agenda and to provoke the complacent. For the postmodern defenders of transgressive art, the notion of the art object as the occasion for aesthetic experience is a defense of outdated privilege.
This clash of views has implications for the identification of authentic child art. The romantics and their modernist successors celebrated certain features of children’s artwork, its supposedly atavistic spontaneity and formal boldness (Fineberg 1997). Postmodernists, however, expect “real” child art to reveal the uncertainties and difficulties of postmodern existence. Thus, pop-star cameos and photos of the latest human or natural catastrophe constitute the genuine visual language to use for teaching children art. We note here that there is no empirical basis for postmodernist claims that popular culture is an effective resource for teaching art.
When it comes to describing the trajectory of children’s development in the visual arts the classic, stage-bound, linear description is enshrined in the work of Lowenfeld (1947), but it is being displaced by other models. Wolf & Perry (1988) conceived of individual artistic development as the simultaneous exploration of multiple repertoires of representation. Thus, teachers should consider that a child might be trying to master naturalistic drawing at the same time as she is acquiring skills in map drawing, schematic rendering, and cartooning.
The insight that informed Wolf & Perry’s model was formalized in Kindler & Darras’s (1997) elaboration. Theirs is a multiple-terminus model that describes graphic development as movement along a diverse network of pathways that any given child might travel as she attempts to communicate various ideas. The media explored by children go beyond the two-dimensional and include gesture, language, and the use of still and moving photographic images. In many cases children integrate media, combining image with sound or gesture. Citing Vygotsky (1978), the authors emphasize the ways in which children rely for support on all aspects of their cultural environment. This model expands the category of what constitutes child art. Where the term used to refer to material that could be displayed on the refrigerator, we are now dealing with child artwork that may require a DVD player or a computer screen in order to realize the child’s communicative intentions.
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