Teaching Children to Value Art and Artists

By Johnson, Mia | Phi Delta Kappan, February 1997 | Go to article overview

Teaching Children to Value Art and Artists


Johnson, Mia, Phi Delta Kappan


Children are often surprised, Ms. Johnson says, when they are helped to see the impact that artists in different fields have had on their environment.

During a stopover at the Seattle airport several years ago, my 4-year-old daughter was quietly tiding atop a baggage cart when suddenly she exclaimed, "Oh, how beautiful, Mommy - look at that painting! Look at all the different colors!" Her marked enthusiasm made it clear that, despite the pressures of arriving at our gate in time for the flight to Los Angeles, we would have to stop then and there so that she could alight, the better to appreciate the huge scale of a painting on canvas by Frank Stella.

Racing back and forth along the length of the painting, exclaiming all the while, she also happened on a large, shiny, tubular sculpture mounted on a stand close by. "Oh look," she cried, "it's ART!" The area around the sculpture was crowded with people of all ages, both standing and seated. Many of the older people laughed out loud, while several of the younger ones remarked, "It is?" and made disparaging remarks about the piece. Older children looked askance at my daughter as she chattily circled the stand.

Much as I was saddened by these children's response to a fine piece of work, I was even more bemused by my daughter's reaction. At that time, I had never taken her to a gallery, private or public. I'm not sure she had ever seen another image or object resembling this sculpture. But from an early age she has been exposed to many pictures of art in magazines, which I am happy to talk about if she shows interest. Generally, I simply explain that an "artist" made the images and that they were his or her own idea. She assumes that when she observes a thing that has no apparent practical value other than to please or interest us, she is probably looking at art. (I must admit that this concept has also been useful whenever she confronts me with certain kinds of conceptual art that would be difficult for me to explain or for her to understand!)

With her concept of "art," my daughter is as much at home with a Northwest Coast Indian totem pole, her crude Play-Doh whale, or a Moorcrofte bowl as she is with the Monet poster over her bed. Her intuitive ability to zero in on aesthetic and design elements in her environment constantly astounds me. And gradually, as she grows older and her awareness increases, I am (gratefully) also seeing clear evidence that she not only recognizes art when she sees it but appreciates the efforts and creativity of the men and women who made it. This has been an important goal of those who defined discipline-based art education, and it is a gift that I wish all children might share.

Recognition Precedes Appreciation

In my jobs as an art historian and reviewer I pay homage to the formal criteria of artistic categories, styles, and movements - but in my jobs as a parent and an educator I am much more interested in expanding the concept of art than in narrowing it. I find the blurred lines between fine and applied art in particular to be both pleasant and inspiring, as have many visual, conceptual, and performance artists. To the mind and eyes of a child, concepts of art with the borders left open are downright invigorating.

For several years I visited schools to talk about art with children. The students were often very surprised when I described the impact that artists in different fields have had on their environment. Standing in the middle of a classroom, I would try to describe the design of the room itself and the choices made by the architect who had to accommodate its practical functions. I pointed out the choices made by the designers who picked the window treatments and the floor coverings and explained that the patterns in any of the surfaces were designed by yet another type of artist, who worked for the manufacturers. Almost all the books in the classrooms, particularly storybooks, have cover or interior illustrations created by artists. …

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