Academic journal article Studies in Art Education

Child as Totem: Redressing the Myth of Inherent Creativity in Early Childhood

Academic journal article Studies in Art Education

Child as Totem: Redressing the Myth of Inherent Creativity in Early Childhood

Article excerpt

In presenting a reexamination of the myth of inherent creativity in early childhood, I adopt the construction of childhood proposed by James, Jenks, and Prout (1998) and their successors (Kehily, 2009; Qvortrup, Corsaro, & Honig, 2009) working in the multi-disciplinary field of childhood studies. They describe children as social agents and rights-bearing citizens in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1 989).1 In my analysis of the myth of inherent creativity, I elucidate how still-dominant discourses of optimization such as child development, individualism, expression, creativity, and visual realism exert limiting pressures on understandings of the art and visual culture that children consume and create. This influence contributes to an endemic undervaluation of the meanings of young children's art and visual culture. Such under- and over-valuation of children's visual and cultural productions lead both to an impoverished view of curriculum and a restricted perception of the roles young children play in culture, society, and policy. My examination is grounded within my own experience as an early childhood art educator and researcher, working in situations in which young children came from diverse backgrounds. Those included children who were refugees, bi- and multi-lingual children, minority children, and children living in both urban and rural poverty. These children are most often disenfranchised from visions of preordained early childhood creativity.

I believe it is essential for the field of art education to contribute to a repositioning of young children's art and visual culture and the education and social spaces where children consume and make it as legitimate sites of cultural and knowledge production. This may begin to ameliorate a restrictive view of child art in which children's art is characterized as either pure expression or a movement through stages toward visual realism. These stilldominant views trivialize the intellectual and affective meanings of children's multi-modal making as a social practice. Deep theorization of young children's art and visual culture will also contribute to the larger repositioning of early childhood education and care contexts as formidable civil forums (Dahlberg & Moss, 2006; Mac Naughton, 2009; Olsson, 2009; Taguchi, 2010). To support this aim, I utilize semiotic and psychoanalytic theory to understand the resiliency of the myth of inherent creativity and the attitudes about childhood and children it nourishes.

Inherent Creativity and Mythic Speech

Limited understandings of children's visual productions are a form of mythic speech that naturalizes culturally constructed concepts. These utterances contribute to an endemic undervaluation of the role of children's art and visual culture In early education, society, and culture. A child's painting, for example, tends to symbolize that child's innocence, expressiveness, individualism, and inherent creativity. These qualities then appear expected and natural. They are mythologized (a strategy often fancied by advertisers and filmmakers). In Mythologies, Barthes (1972/1957) explained this phenomenon through an astute analysis of objects and situations in the popular and visual culture of post-WWII France. These include wrestling matches, Romans in films, novels and children, toys, ornamental cookery, and plastic. In each vignette, Barthes works to uncover how apparently benign and even joyful signs function as mythic speech to perpetuate ideological abuse. In a relevant example, Barthes described toys that represent miniature forms of the army, hair-styling, trains, and medicine as pre-figuring the narrowness of future adult roles for children. According to Barthes, adults imposed upon children, through toys, a barren set of pre-determined potentials for adult, social, productive, and political life that contribute to the perpetuation of the nation state. In his introduction to the text, Barthes admits a feeling of impatience in seeing repeatedly such ends eagerly portrayed as natural by popular media and visual culture. …

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