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Friday, April 28, 2017

"My Kid Could Do That!"

This is the cliched refrain repeated by people who don't "get" modern art. The question I have for these folks (if you're not one of them, feel free to method act, and listen) is this:

Why do you think so little of your child? Why is it that whatever it is that you think is Real Art is out of the reach of your poor disabled child?

The terrible reality of today is that almost everything is pretty easy. I read some remarks, at random, from a person engaged in a large embroidery project. The embroiderer was bellyaching about how you have to special order special magic needles from England, otherwise you get crappy needles which make it super hard. Later, the same person remarked that in these modern times you can buy unflawed thread for embroidery, identically dyed with unfading colors, literally by the mile. Both of these things would have been magic, 200 years ago, or at best astronomically expensive. Nowadays, with some classes and some practice, and for a modest budget your kid could do that.

Is a gorgeously joined copy of Ben Franklin's desk Art? With modern glues, methods, and tools, it's not even particularly hard. You gotta learn some stuff, you gotta buy some tools, you gotta practice a bunch, but your kid could do that.

Photography led the way, because it became obvious in the late 19th century that we were entering a world in which your kid can do that, which forced the Art Community to re-evaluate what Art might be. While it was once an undifferentiated cloud of decor, design, ideas, technique, and probably some other things, it became clear that the word needed some refinement.

If we refuse to admit any difference between one complicated object and another, then the amount of Art that's all basically the same becomes intractable.

It was clear, though, that this stuff isn't all the same. Some of it is, in meaningful ways, "better", and it was decided more or less by consensus that what made it "better" was something about design and something about ideas. And so we get Duchamp and his fountain, and so on, experimenting with ways to separate decor, technique, design, idea, and whatever other factors there are.

It doesn't mean that your intricate mobile isn't art, it doesn't mean that you're collection of quilts (170 hours of work each) isn't art. They are. But if they contain neither innovative design nor ideas, then they are different from work that does contain innovative design and ideas. And, to be blunt, if they lack these things they are rather commonplace. Mankind has a great deal of leisure these days, this sort of thing is being cranked out by the trainload.

What we rather dismissively call "craft" these days isn't awful, craftsmen are not bad people. What they are is relatively common. Your kid, if possessed of average dexterity and a moderate will, can become a craftsman. And perhaps your kid ought to, there is great joy to be had in fine craft. I endorse it!

Ideas, on the other hand, remain relatively rare, and therefore valuable. Your kid can't do that, or at any rate it is by no means certain that your kid can.


  1. Some time ago, I pondered about whether to purchase "The Desert Seen" by Lee Friedlander. At €75, the book isn't exactly cheap. On amazon, I came across a one-star review titled "A child of four could take these photographs" which went on and on that the highlights are blown, that there wasn't a center of interest and no thought put into the pictures and what have you.

    This was my tipping point; I ordered the book on the spot and wasn't disappointed.

    Seriously, even if these people were actually able to pull of a body of work like this (which I doubt), they're probably too gutless to go for it, let alone to present it to the public. After all, there's a fair chance to make an idiot of yourself - oh my god!

    Best, Thomas

    PS: Writing amazon reviews is a far easier way to make an idiot of yourself.

    1. I find a lot of people who style themselves "regular people" choose to react to a lot of art with a stock "I don't get it" response. Usually they're applying this to the easiest art of all to "get", while the art they claim to "get" is the hardest.

      I don't "get" a pretty picture with no meaning and no ideas at all. What on earth is there to "get"? Those beautifully managed highlights?

      Some sort of hideous mess involving a cow carcass and an artist's statement about the terrible state of corporate agriculture is pretty easy to "get", if you can read. It's not a lot of fun to look at, it getting it is easy.

  2. Seems to me this is where two of your current ideas intersect: "photography is too easy", and "ideas matter most". I can't disagree. However, it seems to me that they don't quite join up when a third vector (kids) is added: any child could make a beautiful piece of joinery these days? Really?

    I take the expression "my kid could do that" to mean "my kid can and does do that now", not "my kid could do that, after they have grown enough to master the tools without losing a hand, and an apprenticeship lasting into their late teens".

    Curiously, coming at it from the other direction, a lot of people (not me) assert that art (a.k.a. "imagination", "creativity", etc.) is precisely what kids do have, but lose in the process of becoming adults.


    1. Shhh! You have uncovered my rhetorical cheat! That is indeed what people mean, but I think there's still a frisson of "True Art is made by Special People" while they point at what is clearly just a pile of hard work.

      I'm ok with the idea that what kids do naturally is art, also with the idea that a pile of hard work is art. Art's a big tent.

      It's just that these days what we value, what we consider to be "good art" is idea based.

      Whatever you call it, the stuff with ideas is definitely something different from the stuff without. Call the one thing Plantagenet and the other thing Lancaster for all I care, really, but they're different!

  3. A reply to Mike C., if I may: My younger son draws a lot of pictures, the older one did until he was about nine. For them, it is a way to express what goes through their head - mostly dinosaurs, other monsters and epic battles (hey, they're boys). In this age, it is probably a substitute for written language.

    I think that as we grow up, we come to value verbal language ever more over visual expression (to 'make sense'). Furthermore, our ever-present fear to make idiots of ourselves, to fail in front of the public, is mostly absent in children.

    That is not to say that children are artists. But if they're able to develop and honish skills of visual expression and retain their fearlessness when they grow up, they might become artists.

    Best, Thomas

    1. Hi Thomas,

      You may well be right, but (and I'm certainly not recommending this) if you read enough biographies the most reliable precursor of artistic drive seems to be experiencing a truly shitty childhood, the worse the better... Separation from parents, deprivation, regular beatings, poor diet, exclusion from the "in crowd"... (Hmm, think I've just described a British "public" (i.e. private) school education).

      On the plus side, love, feed and nurture your kids, and they may become something useful, like accountants or doctors! Then at least they'll be able (and willing) to pay for your care in old age...