The Baby in the Art Gallery
“And what do you think of this painting, with all its squiggly-wiggly people and squiggly-wiggly colors?”
I look up from a catalog to see a young woman caressing the head of her baby in a carrier on her chest. The baby, perhaps four months or so, faces outwards, open-eyed and open-mouthed, perhaps captivated by the painting, or perhaps by the frame, or perhaps by nothing at all.
What does the baby think? More than that, what does the baby remember? Is taking a baby to a gallery or a museum of any value? How about for older children?
I visit many galleries and museums around the world and often wonder why parents take the children to them. Or, rather, perhaps, I examine my own motives when my children were young. For their entire lives, locally and on our travels, my wife and I took them to gallery and museum exhibitions.
This docent practice started with me far earlier. As a teenager, I often babysat two of my nieces. One of my default activities was to take them to a museum, most often a science Museum, or an art gallery.
If I investigate my motives now, I have to admit that many instances were likely more about my own interest in keeping up to date with current exhibitions. But I also had some grand scheme about educating my nieces and turning them into culturally savvy young women.
It didn’t work; as adults, they’re both educated professionals with children of their own, but I don’t think they ever willingly go out of their ways to visit galleries or museums. In my heart, I worry that my exorbitant enthusiasm turned them against such visits for life.
My experiences in shepherding my nieces and my own young sons through galleries are brought back to me on my visits today as I watch other parents and teachers corral children and classes. Young children are refreshingly unrestrained in their emotions, expressing boredom at an inaccessible abstract painting or falling into paroxysms of uncontrolled giggling at the sight of a classical statue’s tiny marble penis. Colorful pictures may appear to appeal to the very young, but paintings lacking a narrative of some kind seem unlikely to attract the attention of the older child.
Among the most interesting contemporary gallery offerings are installation pieces by modern artists. These can be inaccessible to adult viewers, or even mistaken for temporary storage or an exhibit under construction. But they are strangely delightful to younger children. For example, in the Parque de las Ciencias (Science Park) in Granada, Spain, we walked into a room in which collections of animals were presented by sculptor and taxidermist Antonio Pérez Rodríguez. Rather than having the creatures posed individually in a dull pedestrian fashion, as if waiting at a bus stop or some jungle waiting room, they were shown racing in groups, leaping through the air, predators pursuing prey.
My young sons were in enchanted with the spectacle of it, but I saw that many adults spent far less time looking at the assemblages, some shaking their heads wondering at what they were meant to say, others looking for the label that would ground their opinion in some mundane facts. “Oh, this was done in such and such year by so and so. How interesting.”
Those adults who did devote time looking at the models seemed more concerned about to how the sculptures could have been put together to give the illusion of flight through air. Careful examination concludes that the armature holding certain animals together could be imagined by a line extending a line through the hind hoof of a zebra that seemed to be barely grazing the mouth of a leaping lion.
But the kids didn’t care. Here was the best of all narratives, an unfinished one. Will the lions get their dinner? Will some of the zebras escape, perhaps sacrificing the slowest and weakest one? Here was real interest, in the spark of imagination and debate.
Imagine the conversations held among the respective children and adults after the visit. The adults were likely to discuss peripheral ideas. They imagine the cost, wonder how so many carcasses of animals ended up in a scientific museum, and pose pet theories on how the installation was constructed. On the other hand, the children’s conversations are more likely about the terrifying excitement of imagining oneself in the montage.
Was one conversation more valid than the other? I don’t think so. In any piece of art, we all walk away with different observations and opinions and even these change over time as they are tempered by other insights. What brings them alive is discussing them and relating them to other experiences and ideas in our lives.
A few weeks later, I mention the exhibit at a dinner party and one of the guests piggybacks on my story to recall his photo safari in Kenya and we muse on how exotic animal photos have replaced Victorian mounted animal heads. Another guest mentions an installation of a snake sculpture by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, formed from thousands of school bags, meant to memorialize students killed in shoddily constructed schools during an earthquake in southern China.
And, like a snake, the discussion slithers on through a variety of ideas eventually circling back to strike at remembrances of feeling terror at some painting or exhibition seen years ago. For me, it was a refueling stop in Anchorage, Alaska where we disembarked to the terminal and came across a stuffed polar bear, upright and roaring. Even silent, still, and safely behind glass, the looming figure was terrifying. The conversation drifts on to other topics.
But what of that baby in the gallery? Was she was perhaps being subtly conditioned into a love of art in all its forms? Did the mother’s cooing voice, the warmth of her body, the stimulating variety of light and dark, color and sounds, all contribute to something not so much a memory, as a deeply embedded feeling?
The child will grow and, on future visits, once ambulatory, will be fascinated with the open spaces and attempt to sprint away from worried parents and past wary guards. In large galleries with hard walls, delightful echoes will be discovered. Science museums will feature endless buttons to push and levers to pull, aimed at producing some supposedly mechanically meaningful results that are of no importance to the children whatsoever.
Live shows in such museums will feature impressive chemical flashes and explosions and adventures in physics with banging bowling balls suspended on wires. Here, parents may daydream about their children becoming Nobel Prize winning scientists, just as those attending art galleries may imagine their children as future Pablo Picassos.
But what is more likely is that children will begin to learn things that are far more important. They will begin to adopt ideas around critical thinking, making decisions as simple as, “I like this, I don’t like that.” They will be given paper and crayons and be positioned on the floor before a painting and asked to replicate it on their own. Even the understanding that this is difficult is a useful insight.
As teenagers, they will absently memorize then recognize iconic paintings and sculptures. Later still, they will recognize clever references and poor parodies of these same paintings and sculptures. Some will grow up to take their own children to galleries and museums, Some not. Some will become artists, if only part time.
But, for the parent who wants to begin a child’s life with the door of every opportunity left open, it’s never too early to start.
Besides, art galleries almost always have excellent coffee shops to enjoy after time spent with squiggly-wiggly paintings.