Monday, May 14, 2012

The Genius of Childhood

So here's a video of a news spot featuring five-year-old art prodigy from Australia named Aelita Andre. (For those of you who want to see more, she has, inevitably, her own web site.)

The video raises a host of questions, and I'd like to unpack some of them.

First of all, it has to be asked, is it for real, or is it an attempt on the part of her parents to make a bunch of money by exploiting their precocious child's inclination to play with art materials? I don't know the answer to that question. Her father has made some pretty slick videos of Aelita at work in order to establish her artistic credentials, but we have no way of knowing what instructions she is being given off camera, what choices are being suggested to her, or what the time frame of the art experience is. Is she just copying what she's seen her dad do? Or does she just have some kind of intutive sense of what to do on her own? We don't know. We see her at work, or at play, which amounts to the same thing, maybe, in a messy room with what has to be thousands of dollars of art materials laid out for her to use: primed canvasses, paints, brushes, spray bottles, and various odds and ends that she incorporates into her paintings. Someone is getting those materials ready for her. Some is cleaning up afterward. Someone is feeding here her lines. ("Welcome to my space. Hurrah!")  Could it be a scam? Sure? Is it likely a scam? Perhaps, or perhaps to some degree.

But let's run with it. Suppose this what Aelita does, something she has a talent for and and a desire to do, and her parents are just doing what good parents do: feeding the fire. New questions:

• Is it art?

She's got a way of working, the inclination to work, and, judging from the paintings on display, a pretty impressive sense of what looks good. So sure, I've got no problem with classifying it as art. In fact, my own tastes in art of late have been running toward exactly the kind of play-oriented, nonobjective art that Aelita seems to be doing. (If any of you would like to see examples of work of this nature, I've been posting a ton of it lately on my tumblr blog, which for a long time was an archive for videos I liked, but has turned into an archive of art, due mostly to the influence of Beverly Shiller, whose blog Datura consists of dozens of new images that she culls from the web every day. I find I like her taste, and frequently cull from her blog to feed my own.) Watching Aelita "at work" in the film reminded me of many other artists I have watched in action, making what are essentially spur-of-the-moment decisions about gesture and color, about what goes next to what, about how the composition is going to unfold.

• But what about background knowledge and skills? Doesn't an artist have to learn stuff first?

One of the commentators in the film notes that Aelita's work seems to resemble that of conceptual artists, and then asks what is conceptual art if it is not based on concepts, of which five-year-old Aelita presumably does not have a superabundance? My own feeling is that concepts are overrated, and that frontloading concepts before engaging in work is largely a waste of time.  (To take one example from my own experience, the summer before I began teaching I took nine credits of graduate school coursework in education, of which I remember not a syllable. But once school began in September and I had kids in front of me, everything that was discussed in class was of interest, and I knew which material was of immediate use, what was not, what questions to ask, and how to go about applying the answers.) If you think that this is an implicit indictment of most of what has been going on in schools for a very long time, you're correct. We run our schools on the assumption that students have to learn a bunch of stuff — pick a list, anybody's list — before they get to actually do anything "in the real world." That's a highly debatable assumption, and one which twelve-year-old Adora Svitak seized on in her justifiably famous TED talk. If you haven't seen it, now might be a good time to do so:

At one point, Adora has this to say:

As history points out, regimes become oppressive when they're fearful about keeping control. And although adults may not be quite at the level of totalitarian regimes,kids have no, or very little say in making the rules, when really the attitude should be reciprocal, meaning that the adult population should learn and take into account the wishes of the younger population.Now, what's even worse than restriction is that adults often underestimate kids abilities. We love challenges, but when expectations are low, trust me, we will sink to them.

I think she's right. I think that in schools we regularly underestimate what kids are capable of doing and insist that they go through the motions of proving themselves by "mastering" an arbitrary set of preselected competencies which we believe will serve them well in a future we cannot even begin to predict. Those competencies rely heavily on hierarchical, rationalistic models of learning, which perhaps used to make complete sense. It still makes some kind of sense, but maybe as not as much as it once did. Much of what I have been reading on brain research and what it tells us about how our minds work, from Dan Ariely and Jonah Lehrer and David Eagleman, among others, has been making the case that although we like to think of ourselves as conscious, rational, deliberate creatures, more than 90% of what goes on in our brains — and that shapes the decisions we think we are making rationally — is hidden from us and is based on non-verbal, non-rational, and often inexplicable neurobiological processes. I think that one of the valuable and liberating functions of art as a discipline is that it provides us with the opportunity to turn off or at least put aside the rational, hierarchical thought processes we most often employ and tune in instead to those mental functions that are underused despite the fact that they are much more powerful: processes like impulse and intuition and holistic attention. All of which are prominently on display in the videos of Aelita at work.

• Finally, coming at this whole enterprise from another angle, I'd ask, "What does the structure and tonality of this news report say about the conventions of storytelling in broadcast journalism?"

The second half of the interview is almost comically inept. Tempted as I am to fire up the blowtorch, I'm going to content myself to one question posed by the interviewer, and poor, befuddled John Turan's inane response. They're talking about Picasso's assertion that "Unlike in music, there are no prodigies in painting. What people regard as premature genius is the genius of childhood." The interviewer asks "Why can you not achieve at that young age, you just need to practice over years, if not decades..." That's an assertion that deserves some serious discussion. Instead, what we get from Turan is "Well, you definitely need to practice, but I think it's all in your mind."

Say what?

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