“It took me four years to paint like Rembrandt, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” This declaration by Picasso is reflective of a synonymy often bestowed between creative freedom and childishness. Coming from an artist whose genius is now near-universally acknowledged, the philosophy seems a wise one. It’s an oft-cited idea, after all, that someone who has mastered their craft can make it seem as effortless as a child would.
But this idealisation of childlike freedom in the creative process overlooks the natural penchant many of us have to judge a work by its perceived skill.
In 2015, a viral news story circulated surrounding a modern art installation in Rome that had to be shut down for three days because cleaning staff at the Museion Bozen-Bolzano mistook the exhibit, which consisted of empty champagne bottles and party poppers, for rubbish and binned it.
Upon discovering the mistake, museum staff hastily retrieved the parts of the exhibition from the bin and reassembled it, but less easily cleaned up was the dialogue the incident sparked about the role of modern art.
Many saw the incident as a kind of vindication for their inability to understand how something so easily misconstrued as garbage, a mess a toddler might have made, could possibly be presented as art. It’s a frustration many have probably echoed when looking upon paintings hung in galleries, paintings that appear to be no more than two swatches of colour splattered across a canvas.
Such criticism of an apparent lack of skill is not limited to visual art; the relatively recent phenomenon of ‘insta-poets’ such as Rupi Kaur, Lang Leav, and Nikita Gill who have garnered popularity by posting their poetry to various social media platforms have, amidst their fans, drawn some skeptics. These people claim that the poems are more the product of a few clichéd nature metaphors and some aesthetically motivated use of the enter key in formatting their pieces as opposed to actual feats of literary technique and artistry.
More often than not, people make at least a mental differentiation between ‘authors’ and ‘children’s authors’. Two people may both be voracious readers, but if one person reads mainly canonical works whereas another favours young adult novels, typically only the former will receive any kind of intellectual credibility for it. The fact is, there appears to be a pervasive social disdain for anything we perceive as ‘easy’. As much we like to say that all art is subjective and meant for self-expression, there’s a reason that the concept of being ‘cultured’ is considered synonymous with sophistry and some fundamental intellectual or social sense of superiority. We want, on some level, art to do something we cannot.
What’s the point of going to look at paintings we think we could have easily recreated, of reading poems we could imitate in a second?
Try questioning an adult’s enthusiasm for a franchise such as Harry Potter or Star Wars – chances are, the phrase “it’s not just for kids!” will at some point be thrown up in defence. The idea of enjoying something at all linked to childhood is apparently inherently shameful.
But the fact remains, however much we may appear to want our culture to be suitably highbrow and difficult, there’s still an emotional appreciation for works with the air of childishness threaded throughout our cultural consciousness.
Of the Top Ten highest grossing films of all time, seven (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Jurassic World, The Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and Black Panther) can be classified on some level as “kids films”. Walt Disney Pictures, the bastion of childhood nostalgia for much of modern society, may be best loved for creating an iconic line up of Princesses and some classic sing-along tracks, but it’s also a studio that revolutionised the film industry. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first full-length animated feature film. Since the creation of the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2001, twelve of the winners have been by Disney or Disney Pixar, and every single winner has been classified as ‘children’s entertainment’.
In literature too, there’s an inextricable fondness for children’s literature at large. Works such as Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland have held their appeal as enduringly as Austen or Dickens, and the BBC’s 2003 survey “The Big Read” determined that the most beloved book in Britain was Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’, popular with children and adults alike.
We can accept Picasso’s ruminations on the value of childishness fairly easily, because no one’s refinement of taste is in question if they throw their hat behind Picasso. However, popular culture is popular for a reason, and it’s indicative of the overarching moods and tastes of society at a time.
We may hesitate to fully appreciate ‘childish’ things as art until they’ve stood the trials of time long enough to be deemed ‘classic’ or ‘vintage,’ but the fact remains, the freedom of creative exploration afforded by works that are unafraid of their childishness remains inherently appealing to us.
What is childish may struggle to be classified as great or even as real art in our understanding of what art is, but it’s appeal is untarnished, and perhaps its ability to inspire popular enjoyment and affection is what makes ‘childish’ art great in its own unique right.