WASHINGTON—Art by kids gives more people more joy than any other kind. But it's like McDonald's fries: so eagerly consumed and abundant that almost no one appreciates it articulately.
Enter Jonathan Fineberg, the curator of an exhibition of works by Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee and other famous artists done when they were of Cub Scout age or younger. He's hung their works alongside dozens of richly imagined drawings and paintings by unsung modern kids, ages 4 and up, in a show at Washington's prestigious Phillips Collection.
Sometimes an artist who's revered decades later showed childhood genius, according to Fineberg, and sometimes not. And in a cautionary note to pushy parents, he includes in the show's catalog some works by dull adult artists who started out as famously precocious draftsmen.
"What makes a gifted child is NOT the ability to draw like an adult," Fineberg said in a recent interview.
So what does make a kid's artwork gifted?
Fineberg, 60, an upbeat father of three, veteran of five years of Freudian psychoanalytic training and professor of art history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has lots of ideas about that. In the interview, he also talked about what's really going on when kids wield pencils and brushes, and how parents can help without meddling.
Fineberg also guides a four-minute tour of the children's art show at www.mcclatchydc.com.
Q. What do great artists, as children, most often have in common?
A. By and large, they're obsessed with drawing. Often it's very hard for them to let go and do something else. The stories about Picasso as a child, for instance, suggest that he wanted to draw all the time.
Q. Why are kids generally so into drawing?
A. They find that it's a way to express and examine things that they can't put into words, and they use what they do in art to make sense of their world and master it.
Q. For example?
A. Say a child draws an image of his father in a rage. It's likely to feature a parent who's very powerful and out of control, which is a frightening experience. But as children put that into symbolic visual language on a piece of paper—the big eyeballs, the gaping mouth and ferocious teeth—they're able to get the father's rage into an arena over which they have control. They're able to deal with it, to master it and mitigate their fear.
Q. So art is about overcoming fear?
A. Sometimes. Whatever a child experiences that's new or exciting or threatening is something that has to be made sense of. It happens in the adult world, too, and adult artists do the same thing: They give form to something for which they don't have words.
Q. Don't kids ever just draw?
A. A lot of the time, kids seem simply to be trying to render something on paper that they see before them or that's familiar. In that case, drawing is just about the mastery of what they see. And sometimes it's just about the mastery of the medium and the materials. But that has symbolic content, too: We get good at doing something and it's satisfying and it makes us feel like we're more in control generally.
Q. But there's a lot of frustration for kids, too, when the crayon or brush won't do what they want it to.
A. Oftentimes they find a way of making do, a way that feels adequate to them. But sometimes they get frustrated because they have an idea of what they think something's supposed to look like and they can't achieve it technically.
Q. Does a smart parent intervene or let the kid work it out?
A. If they ask for help, it's a reasonable time to step in, to help a child achieve something that they want to achieve. ... The big danger when a parent or a teacher intervenes in the process of a kid's drawing is the tendency to impose adult values and aspirations rather than really paying attention to what is at stake for the kid.
Q. Isn't it kids who insist that an accurate drawing is a better drawing?
A. It depends on the age. Younger kids tend to be not so much involved with the external measures of realism; they're more involved in their fantasy world unless an adult pushes them in that direction. But many people have remarked that by the time kids are 10 or 11, they often seem to lose their gift for drawing imaginatively. That's because they're trying to master the skills of representation as they also become more alert to the rules and standards of the larger world around them. They want to perform and be successful.
Q. Why is art by young kids so easy to fall for?
A. What adults always say is that it's "innocent." But children aren't really innocent; quite the contrary. Kids are like little animals; they're so unrepressed. I think that there's a rawness, a kind of emotional intensity and above all an openness about the drawings of 4- and 5-year-olds. Their work feels very fresh to us because it reveals inner feelings that as adults we want to deny are there in ourselves, though we know deep down they ARE there.
Q. And parents fall for their kids' art most of all?
A. A parent identifies so strongly with the kid; the kid really is you in some fashion or another. So you attribute your emotions to her or him, and that's a wonderful thing but also a dangerous thing in terms of your relationship with the child, because it can be directive. You can push a child into a place that they don't want to be, such as showing off or exhibiting their work or selling it, because you've put too much of your own adult ambition into them. You want to appreciate what a child does, but you don't want to give a child instructions in the realm of their fantasy. That space belongs to them, and you have to let them name it, manipulate it, control it.
Q. Suppose a child throws away sheet after sheet of paper trying to get a line exactly right. Do you give the child more paper or say whoa?
A. Buy paper that's cheap enough that you don't have to say whoa. On the other hand, if the child's perfectionism is too great, maybe they are trying to please you too much or maybe they're expressing a feeling that they can't do something that is "good enough." If that's the case, I'd say you want to talk about that with them. Talking to children about their art or even just watching them draw is like overhearing your child's thought processes: It's a great opportunity to see how their thinking is going and where they are misunderstanding and need your help.
Q. Do brilliant artists possess brilliant imaginations from the get-go?
A. Yes and no. Joan Miro, the breathtaking Spanish surrealist, was pretty unimaginative as a child artist. But in Klee's earliest drawing, at age 5, there's already the remarkable humor and keen observation of character that is central to his greatness as a mature artist. There's also real power in Klee's pencil line, right from the get-go. He uses it deftly and in a variety of ways. All these are characteristic of Klee's adult work, which, as it turns out, drew much of its inspiration from his childhood drawings.
Q. So recovering the mind's eye of childhood is something that mature artists do?
A. Absolutely! For Picasso, too. As (French poet Charles) Baudelaire famously put it, "Genius is nothing more nor less than childhood regained at will."
For more information on the exhibition, which runs through Sept. 10 in Washington, go to www.phillipscollection.org and click on "Exhibitions." It will run Oct. 20-Dec. 31 at the Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Reproductions of all the exhibited works are in the exhibition catalog, "When We Were Young," along with essays on children's art by Fineberg and others. It's available from the Phillips Collection at www.phillipscollection.org/html/shop.html or from the University of California Press at www.ucpress.edu for $60 in hardback or $34.95 in paperback, plus shipping and handling.