Monday, January 14, 2008

Art vs. creativity

Forgive my silence, folks. I've been tinkering with a sort-of new writing schedule per my conversation with Miranda at Creative Construction: not expecting to work during the day, getting most of it done at night. Some days it works better than others, and so I continue to tinker....

On to today's topic. On a parenting forum I belong to, we recently had a friendly debate over the best ways to "teach" art to 4-year-olds who don't seem very interested in it. I was surprised to see replies that told me (to paraphrase), "Art is about creative expression. You can't teach that, and you shouldn't try."

To some extent, I agree--for children who seem naturally inclined to express themselves artistically. For Hamlet, however, the issue is a little more complicated. He's a literal kid who needs to be led. He wants to know how to do things, but he also wants to be able to master them right from the get-go. (He is his mother's son.) And when we sit down to paint or color together, he often ends up watching me--or finding something else to do.

Not that I'm any Van Gogh. But I do paint pictures rather than scribbles: a moonlit field, a blooming cactus (all in tempera, mind you). Having decided he "can't," Hamlet seems interested in learning, but not trying.

Back to the debate. I worried that my pictures somehow stifled his desire to create, to scribble something on paper and declare it a mosquito or a volcano. It was disheartening to find that my friends agreed with my fear. And yet, I wondered, was there a way for me to teach Hamlet some sort of basics--the structure he could then break through to create whatever he wanted?

Because at that point, I wasn't just thinking about him and me. I was thinking about the pervasive teaching that says "creativity" is all that matters, not spelling or grammar or punctuation, or even story structure. (See this article for an interesting perspective on the opposite end of the spectrum. Despite NCLB, Rain Dog continues to see papers that have no sense of structure or rules--but of course, his students were in elementary school before NCLB. I hope teachers are achieving better balance as my boys get ready to enter school.)

The creativity-first argument makes even more sense when viewed in light of genre, and literary, purists who sneer at blurred lines. A spec fiction author can't write crime fiction; romance writers must retain their credibility only by following strict guidelines. And the artists rebel.

But those are arbitrary rules, not fundamentals of language. When our words don't make sense to those who read them, then we fail to communicate. And, while true that the work of abstract artists is sometimes hard to interpret, even those artists first learned the rules before they broke them.

One mother suggested helping Hamlet practice basic shapes. Ah, I thought. His Ice Age: The Meltdown video has a short bonus segment in which animator Peter de Seve describes how he uses basic shapes to draw Sid. For my literal kid, that may be just what he needs.


Blogger Meg said...

I will be interested to hear how this works out for Hamlet. We know each other well enough that you don't need to hear my comments on the subject of trying to "build" a work of art (in words) without the proper "building tools" (!!!!!).

But I'm not sure I'd worry too much about Hamlet's disinterest in drawing. My own son absolutely hated art or drawing or coloring or anything in that spectrum till he was in high school -- then his drawing took off, and he still enjoys sketching to this day. Some kids are just late bloomers in one field or another. *Especially* when it comes to creativity, I think it works out best if kids can find their own creative niche. (Of course, if that turns out to building bombs, you do need to intervene...) ;-)

14/1/08 2:57 PM  
Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

Here's an embarrassing sidebar. When my kids were small, my husband would draw or paint with them several nights a week. His artwork was so good, it put me off. I remember, in particular, an Easter basket he made that made me tear mine up and I was 30. My kids were less competitive than I was though.

14/1/08 5:24 PM  
Blogger Daniel Hatadi said...

I feel there's truth to the idea that you can't teach creativity, but you can encourage it by exposing the little tikes to everything. Not everyone wants to be an artist.

And it can go the other way. In high school, after a music class in the first couple of years, I decided against taking the next year's music elective, even though my teacher suggested it. I didn't like being taught music, I preferred doing it my own way. And I'm happy that's the path I followed with it.

14/1/08 6:19 PM  
Anonymous Saudade said...

I think one should be aware not to confuse creativity with interest.
Indeed there are many ways for him to open up for his creativity.

I don't have children myself, but have worked in a Scandinavian kindergarten for some years. The general thought in Scandinavia is that one shouldn't force/teach children if they don't have an interest in it.
So we would go draw or paint and invite the children to join. They could (in principle) come and go as it pleased them.
The idea is that the children should develop an interest based upon their own personality. They should learn to express themselves, both in whatever (decent and approved :-)) way they prefer, but also in saying their opinion and expressing their feelings, interest or wishes.
Personal and social capabilities first and then their should be a firm basis for learning.

Personally I never had any real interest in drawing or painting as a child/teenager. My mother tried to teach me wet-in-wet watercolour, which I didn't like and maybe because of her efforts to teach me I still get irritated by the thought of making something using that technique.
I did like paintings however, and by the age of 25 I started all of a sudden (I was sick, had nothing better to do) painting landscapes in oil. I didn't know anything about technique but by trial and error I learned a lot.
It was only a couple of months ago that I lost interest in painting, but in the past 14 years I produced around 700 or 800 (small) oil paintings and numerous drawings and enjoyed it a lot.

I made some things together with the children in the kindergarten, and because they used different materials and wanted me to draw princesses and fighter-planes I had not too much use of the things I taught myself. But my experience and self confidence must have been visible to the children. I might be mistaken, but as far as I could see that didn't had a big effect on the children in a sense that they might have felt inferior and therefore unwilling to try. I made an effort to draw in a relaxed and in a not result orientated way when drawing myself and of course to show an interest in the children's effort.

I was wonderful to get surprised by the continues effort and drawings of some children that I didn't expect to have any interest in drawing or painting.

On a side note I understand that there is the danger when developing the drawing skills of children of them sticking to what they have learned and feel secure about. If they for example have learned how to draw a princess they might stick to that kind of princess for many years if they are praised too much and if they don't feel comfortable in trying something else because of the possibility of making less attractive drawings as a result of their experiments.

15/1/08 8:32 AM  
Blogger Christa M. Miller said...

Wow, thanks for all the great comments. Honestly, I don't think he'd know art existed if I didn't show him! I don't push it on him by any means. At this point I think he sees it as an activity that he and I can do together, but not as a means of expression. For that, he seems to prefer using his body - playdough creations, or acting. He's a very physical kid! I am not, and it doesn't occur to me, but it's something I'm going to have to work on.

Patti, LOL! Maybe you and Hamlet are the same personality type?

Daniel, that's really interesting. Hamlet does seem to prefer to do things in his own way, rather than the conventional ways. That's part of what makes this whole thing so hard. I can see that the creativity is there, I just don't know how to foster it - how to think like he does.

Saudade, thanks for going so in-depth. Did you notice a difference in the way extroverted children created, vs. introverted children? Your experience, especially with what you said about the children seeing your self-confidence, was what made me realize that Hamlet draws and paints more as a bonding activity than as a creative one. I'm an introvert, and when I'm drawing, I sort of get lost in the picture the same as I do with my writing. I think he sees that, and it puts him off - maybe not so much that he's not drawing a picture like mine. He'd rather do something really interactive.

One thing he's gotten into is helping me tell stories. He asks me to tell him stories to help him deal with fears ("Mama, can you tell me a story about a little boy who had a tornado and an earthquake AND a volcano in his HOUSE?") and has gotten into helping me tell the story. Sometimes we act it out, and he really shines.

I keep thinking I can't wait for him to learn to read and write so he can get into his own stories, but I'm fooling myself, I think...

15/1/08 11:04 PM  
Blogger Mary Louisa said...

what a great post, and a really wonderful discussion in the comments!

I keep thinking I can't wait for him to learn to read and write so he can get into his own stories, but I'm fooling myself, I think...

You don't have to wait! Every day for a few minutes, sit him down next to you and type what he tells you to, or take a notebook and pen to his room for bedtime stories--that he dictates to you. Voila--his story! Print it out so he can hold his work, and so you can read it to Daddy and show it to his teacher, etc.

N (4.5) will spin very interesting stories of Transformers (no, he's never seen the movie) every night before bed. AC isn't yet telling me original stories (3y in March), but she gives me a framework: "Tell me about 'C' in my house and in a tree," much like Hamlet, it sounds like. That was her request tonight, and the letter 'C' fell from our chandelier and cut his hand, and then when he and AC climbed the tree in the yard, he fell again. Clumsy C!

p.s. have I got an art book for Hamlet...

15/1/08 11:35 PM  
Anonymous Saudade said...

Did you notice a difference in the way extroverted children created, vs. introverted children?

I don't know so well how to answer your question.
It seemed to me that extrovert children more easily drew something when asked or for example when they thought it could be a nice social activity.
The introvert might have needed some more secure surroundings with more stimulating words and examples. But in the end it seemed to me that every child was unique and could benefit from some sort of personal approach fitted for the situation they were in at that moment.
It sounds like Hamlet's way of being is a little different from your own and that is so fascinating about children. Your own flesh and blood and yet so wonderful surprising.
I would try to give him the possibilities, examples and guidelines to be creative and then observe and learn.

22/1/08 9:58 AM  

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