'Outsider art' by those who aspire to be inside

Many thanks to the first- and second-graders of Lynne Tarr's class at the James Russell Lowell School in Watertown, Mass., for their wasp drawings.

Picasso biographer Roland Penrose records a remark the artist made at a children's art exhibit: "When I was their age I could draw like Raphael, but it took me a lifetime to learn how to draw like them."

Some might question the Spaniard's assessment of his childhood ability. Raphael's drawings have an unsurpassed classical sublimity, while Picasso's childhood works show merely a late-19th-century academic competence. But in his late works, something of a child's spontaneous and private picture world is strikingly apparent.

The crucial word in Picasso's remark is "learn."

The adult view of child art is precisely that it is not "learned," that it is "untaught." In the last century, young children's art was increasingly appreciated by educators and artists. It is spontaneous, powerful - free, to a disarming degree, of the "correctness" that adults and older children demand of themselves.

The grown-up artist loses the child artist he was. He or she can retrieve such unself-consciousness only by the artificial process of learning - by making it something real child art never is: an academic achievement.

I say genuine child art is "never" academic. Yet one of the deliciously paradoxical absurdities that results from 20th-century artists' appropriation of child art occurs when a teacher asks young children to copy, say, a late Picasso or a Paul Klee. What is happening? The children are "learning" how to draw or paint like an old artist who has taught himself to draw or paint like a young child.

In spite of such intriguing cross-currents, the art that children make when given markers and asked to draw pictures of say, wasps, is either instinctively primitive or to some extent self-taught. No adult can really teach a child to draw the way a child naturally does.

There is a divide between a real child's art and an adult's childlike art. This can be seen in the question of wit, if in nothing else. Children make pictures that strike adults as humorous, but are perfectly serious to the child. When an adult makes childlike art, it is often deliberately witty.

In "Outsider Art, Spontaneous Alternatives" (Thames & Hudson), Colin Rhodes discusses child art as a form of "outsider art." But although child art has traits in common with works by artists considered outside the mainstream, art by children is not a strong theme in his book.

For one thing, as Mr. Rhodes points out, much child art follows rather predictable stages of development - including its final disappearance when the child starts to feel the need of "correct" drawing and painting. True outsider artists rarely become insiders this way.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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