How children can be encouraged to see and experience works of art

Damon Young looks at art education and how children can be encouraged to see and experience works of art, developing their own responses to them.

A few years ago, I visited a huge Picasso exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV). It was an overflowing, exhausting show. I wearily strolled past hundreds of rare and striking artworks: from Picasso’s infamous Weeping Woman series, with their grotesque green and pink grief, to his lover Dora Maar’s striking, surreal photographs. And as I gazed, I read the stories that accompanied them; of Picasso’s obsession, fervour and amorous caprice; of Dora’s talent, jealousy and fragile psyche. It was an overpowering exhibition, with drama and passion to move even the most jaded cynic.

Indeed, its combination of sex, death, beauty and betrayal was perfect for the uniformed gangs that wandered, whispering and pointing, around the halls: schoolkids, mostly from Victoria’s high schools. For an age of rampant hormones, peer pressure and ambivalent longings, the artworks and stories of Picasso were well suited. They offered the students dangerous thoughts and dark shudders, which they’re conditioned to not admit to having. Picasso and Maar gave form, colour and texture to private guilt, public shame, and to subtle shades of mental grey. And, almost as importantly, the wartime story did this with avant-garde style, beauty and the nostalgic distance of history: a kind of retro cool, without the threatening ambiguity of the art world.

Their encounter with one of the 20th Century’s most powerful artists looked more like a New Year’s stocktake

But for many of the kids, this gift was overlooked. They spent most of the afternoon ticking boxes on pre-prepared sheets. Their encounter with one of the 20th Century’s most powerful artists looked more like a New Year’s stocktake: shifting listlessly from painting to plaque, tentatively putting biro to paper. I asked one gaggle of girls if they had time to actually look at the artworks they were making notes on. “No!” they laughed, in unison. “We’ve got all this work to do.” These were intelligent, articulate, vibrant young women – thoughtful, polite and certainly more mature than I was as a teenager. But they couldn’t see these potent, alluring paintings – they were too busy doing their box-checking inventory.

To promote a love of art is not simply the task of teachers

Importantly, I don’t blame the girls for this; they were doing precisely what they were told to do, studiously and meticulously. Nor was the gallery responsible: it offered fine works, well-researched information, and dedicated, innovative educational programs. And the school was no doubt following well-planned guidelines: for the development of critical thinking, the incorporation of art into the curriculum, and many other genuine skills and outcomes. This was not a slapdash syllabus.

But this introduction to art clearly struggles at the most basic level. And it does so not because it’s underprepared or ill intentioned, but because it doesn’t encourage the very thing required to cultivate a love of art: enjoyable, rewarding relationships with artworks.

But how can we do this, particularly when so many educated, intelligent adults are ill at ease in art galleries?

This is no simple question to answer, partly because it isn’t the job of any one group, and partly because it’s not a science. To promote a love of art is not simply the task of teachers; it is also something for parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. And it is simply impossible to guarantee that every child, teenaged or younger, will warm to paintings or sculpture; there are too many variables of mood, taste and life history to calculate. “The artist is a receptacle,” said Picasso, “for emotions that come from all over the place: from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider’s web.” Who knows what will hook a young mind? There can be no precise, predictable key performance indicator for an artistic epiphany.

But as it happens, this is the first step to encouraging kids to enjoy art: giving up on the shibboleth of perfect measures. Of course education systems require standards. And, undoubtedly, we often need these formalities to check that some students, classes or demographics are not slipping through the cracks in the pedagogical asphalt. Nonetheless, it’s fruitless to treat artistic experience as a set of facts to be learned by rote and then tested.

Being able to recite facts from plaques or catalogues is no replacement for eyes on the artwork itself.

This is because an artwork is not ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Each painting or sculpture certainly has definite qualities, which students must notice. The NGV’s ‘Weeping Woman’, for example, has a jagged, sharp geometry, and a sickly, pained pallor. It evokes sadness, illness and the fragmentation of character – all the hallmarks of love gone wrong. But knowing the private history, mathematical properties or socioeconomic origins of Picasso’s painting will not always help a student see this. Being able to recite facts from plaques or catalogues is no replacement for
eyes on the artwork itself. If they’re moving automatically from painting to painting, making notes mechanically, students never actually see these vital lines, colours and textures. These are the ‘facts’ of art, and tick-the-box inventories are a distraction from them – particularly for high-school students worried about passing exams.

More importantly, if they are filling out forms, students miss the opportunity to use their imagination when they need it: right in front of the artworks. And this is crucial in art, and any education that incorporates it. Because what art does best is precisely this: it provokes, teases or fires the imagination.

But the most valuable, unique gift of artworks is to attract our eye, and reward it with rich, nuanced, vivid experiences.


Learning_art-ed-main1440Of course this isn’t all it does. Research suggests that making and appreciating art can cultivate critical
thinking, enhance confidence and strengthen community bonds. But the most valuable, unique gift of artworks is to attract our eye, and reward it with rich, nuanced, vivid experiences. This involves a kind of double sight: one eye perceiving the work in front of us, and another ‘inner sight’, that builds with what’s perceived. In other words, it’s a combination of reality and dreams: the tangible features of pigment or bronze, and the intangible flights of reverie.

Of course, our dreams are varied: idiosyncratic anxieties, desires, memories and expectations. We can’t predict what, in the end, a given artwork will stir in us. This is very important for teachers and parents; we can’t expect a toddler or a teenager to learn the same lessons we do. ‘Weeping Woman’ might suggest malicious Martians to a small child, or weekend drunkenness to a teen. But while this content changes, the structure is the same. The best experiences of artworks are a juggling act between the solid ground of the object, and the imaginative flight that takes off from it.

This take-off requires patience and honesty, but it is also marvelously rewarding. This is because it purges our emotions, while making them more clear and comprehensible. It leaves us less at the mercy of our moods, and more able to identify what we love and fear, and what we find beautiful. These are all vital for children and teens, who often struggle to put their minds into words, and to put their fingers on what’s genuinely worthwhile – in family life, friendship or their careers. Art is an education in the moving pageant of one’s psyche.

“Every child is an artist,” said Picasso.

But how can we promote the first steps in this direction? There’s only so much teachers can do. Research suggests that our ties with art begin very early. They might be refined by university study, but the love of art is chiefly nourished by upbringing. A house full of music, paintings, statues and aesthetic chat is more important than a doctorate in aesthetics. It leads not to pedantic specialisation, but to lifelong admiration. Children from artistic homes won’t necessarily become starving painters in a garret. But whether they’re accountants, doctors, receptionists or carpenters, they will be able to confidently, calmly walk into a museum, gallery or artistic home, and enjoy an enriching or inspiring masterpiece. By the time children are in primary school, much of this socialisation and psychological development has already happened.

my first rule is to let them roam for a while.

Yet we needn’t be fatalistic about this, as parents or teachers. All children are capable of seeing, feeling and freely inventing, often with more courage and acuity than we are. “Every child is an artist,” said Picasso. “The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” And children often have a yearning for truth, for the secrets we conveniently blot out in favour of workaday business.

To nurture this, we must have trust. When working with students in a gallery setting, my first rule is to let them roam for a while. Don’t give them a booklet of busywork, or a thick, theory-heavy catalogue. Just ask them to wander around the gallery, and find what attracts them. Let them spend some time taking in whatever it is they’re drawn to. The point is to encourage kids to follow their tastes, biases, inclinations – it’s what we all start with. Ask them to make notes of what they like and notice, and how they feel. Otherwise, let them be. The point is not to predetermine learning outcomes, but to promote quiet perception and lucid dreaming.

This can be done at any age, in any setting – at home or in an art gallery. For example, my four-year-old son was intrigued by a Paolo Veronese painting in the NGV. After wandering about nonplussed for half an hour, he was suddenly fascinated by this painting portraying the hero’s conflict between lives of contemplation and activity – obviously interesting for a boy torn between quiet Lego and raucous tree climbing.

Next, we have to be honest, and lead by example.

The best way to get children talking about art is to… talk about art. This isn’t about reciting history lessons, analysing mathematical ratios or interrogating social issues – though each of these can contribute to the experience. Instead, the first step is to talk sincerely about how we feel, and what in the artworks makes us feel this way.  It also reveals the vital relationship between things and minds: it shows that the qualities ‘out there’ in the world can touch what’s ‘in here’, in our psyche. No textbook can replace the magic of a teacher or parent who clearly and passionately demonstrates their love of a painting.

Finally, we have to keep in mind what’s at stake. Because employment and vocation are so closely tied to education, schools can very easily develop a narrow approach and train kids for university or TAFE entrance to ensure jobs and financial security. And this is undoubtedly important since we need well-trained, committed employees. But we also need citizens who can respond to their own feelings and those of others, who can recognise their own buried fears and lusts, who can create and appreciate beauty. Children need to know that the enjoyment of art is a bona fide pursuit – not a kind of lazy, dreamy idleness.

“A picture lives a life like a living creature,” Picasso once said, “undergoing the changes imposed on it by our life from day to day. This is natural enough, as the picture lives only through the man who is looking at it”. To keep young minds alive with art, we must help our children look – and see.



Damon Young  is an author and Honorary Fellow in Philosophy at the University of Melbourne. He was Research Fellow in Aesthetics in Philosophy at the university for three years, conducting research into aesthetics and art education, and has run workshops for high-school students at the National Gallery of Victoria.

Illustrations by Natasja van Vlimmeren

This article was originally published in 2010.