How should art be taught to children? Lines are being drawn among educators

November 25, 1993|By Murray Dubin | Murray Dubin,Knight-Ridder News Service

"What do you see?" asks Noreen Scott Garrity, pointing to the painting. Hands shoot up. Voices call out.

"I see a boy sleeping and someone throwing up on him."

"A boy sleeping and a monster beating on his head."

After some gentle prodding, someone suggests that it is a sleeping boy and his guilty conscience.

A guilty conscience, muses Ms. Garrity. "If you had to draw your conscience, how would you do it?"

"It would have blue hair, a blue face, three toes and three fingers."

This is surely a widely accepted description of guilty consciences, circa 1993, because Ms. Garrity nods in assent before she and the 19 sixth-grade students are off to look at another painting.

On this weekday morning, it is the Stedman Art Gallery on the Rutgers University campus in Camden, N.J., near Philadelphia that is playing host to children. On another day, it may be the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. Every day, children -- often sulking at the thought -- are taken to local art institutions for specialized programs, or just to look at art.

"There's an incredible boom here in the family audience. We can't have enough preschool programs. They keep filling up," says Danielle Rice, curator of education at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where about 65,000 young people a year participate in youth programs. Not nearly that many visit Stedman, but the children's program is booked until May. Art educators are busy from the Main Line Art Center in Haverford, Pa., to the Fleisher Art Memorial in South Philadelphia. Not only are educators busy, but publishers are as well, coming out with more and more art books appealing to young children and their parents.

PD This growing interest in art education has led to questions. How

should art be taught to children? Who should teach them? How can a parent make a child's visit to a museum more appealing?

It seems clear now that instead of telling children about art, there is a move toward having children tell their opinions about art. And at least one expert feels that parents and teachers are better prepared to do that than museum docents.

And, finally, though it is assumed that taking little children to an art museum will help grow art-museum lovers, no one is really certain that is true. Nevertheless, parents keep taking small children to museums and the museums are not willing to let them wander away until they get older -- because it's difficult to lure them as teen-agers.

So, should a small child be taken to an art museum in the first place?

Maybe not, says Philip Yenawine, who headed art education at the Museum of Modern Art in New York for 10 years and is the author of five art books for children, including the two new "People" and "Places."

"For preschool children, I don't think an art museum is fun enough. You have to be quiet, you can't run, you can't sit down, there's no loud laughing and nothing is hung at your level," says Mr. Yenawine, an art-education provocateur.

"I don't care if kids don't come until junior high or high school."

Huh? Parents drag their children to the museum in a rite of passage passed down from generation to generation, and now it all may have been unnecessary?

"People become enraged when I say that," Mr. Yenawine concedes.

But his focus is not when children should visit a museum. No, he's far more interested in what happens when they get there.

"I wrecked my own children's education about art," says Mr. Yenawine, a visiting professor at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston. "I took my kids to everything I wanted to see until they said, 'Forget it.' "

Art education for the novice, whether a child or an adult, should be based on what the person knows, Mr. Yenawine says, not what an educator wants to teach. And if they know nothing, then start with what they care about.

He wants parents to "ask what your child is interested in that you can support. Museums are not great on that. . . . It is often analytical -- pull the picture apart."

While Mr. Yenawine has no problem with analysis, he believes it comes far too early for most children.

"There is no moral obligation that you understand Cezanne. . . . People learn art in stages. The first stage is recognition. A painting of a ball is a ball. If you like balls, that is what's remembered."

He wants less analysis, fewer names and less biographical detail. "You don't need to know van Gogh cut off his ear to like van Gogh."

He wants children to be asked what they see and where they see it, questions that do not have yes or no answers. "I don't want to share my appreciation of art with kids. I want them to come up with their own appreciation."

While he praises Ms. Rice's program for children at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Mr. Yenawine says that most museums just don't get it, and tell far more than they ask. He says parents and classroom teachers should be more involved because they know the children better. "Your first visit to a museum is not memorable because of the docent," he says.

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