The Past, Present and Future of Art

“I believe the children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way. Show them all the beauty they possess inside. Give them a sense of pride to make it easier. Let the children’s laughter remind us how we used to be.”

Whitney Houston from the song Greatest Love of All 

Teaching and learning are reciprocal. We learn from children nearly as much as we scaffold their learning. The last line in Whitney Houston’s song, Greatest Love of All, could be paraphrased in a variety of ways. One of which might be sung, ‘Let the children’s artwork remind us of how we used to be.’ Art is a schema for figuring out our place in the world, and children have a knack for making art that communicates audacious and timely perspectives. 

Carole, age 10, God, 1978, From the book Dear World, Edited by Richard and Helen Exley. Courtesy of mepaintsme

In 1978, activists and publishers, Helen and Richard Exley, put together an anthology titled Dear World, full of writings and drawings by children and adolescents from around the world who define worldly problems and offer their opinions, experiences and thoughts on how to address them. The drawings, which reinforce these emotional, spiritual and diplomatic musings, are great examples of how art is an inherent form of self and collective discovery. It is a language that signifies the foundational aspects of our culture and depicts visions for the world that many of us consider to be sacred, essential and uplifting. 

Children’s art offers upfront explorations, discoveries and insights into themes concerning human interactions with one another and our natural world. Because of its autonomy, enthusiasm and honesty for representing experiences and environments, children’s art has influenced humanitarian campaigns and is seriously studied by scholars in the fields of pedagogy and psychology. Additionally, mature artists have taken inspiration from the unbridled zest of children’s mark making (see: Conference of the Animals & 120 Years of Children Drawing New York City and Life Lessons Through Children’s Art).

Early childhood educators have a long history of developing creative learning environments, which encourage “children to develop at their own pace, explore a variety of materials and methods and favor process over product” (see: Grieve, 2018). Elevating the art of children beyond the classroom is an equally important means of validating and contextualizing their use of mark making to process and communicate events, discover themselves (and others) and reflect on their experiences.

Presenting children’s work for themselves, their peers and communities to view and respond to, is an integral part of the art education curriculum and a good way to encourage generations of continual creativity and appreciation for the arts. When children have a chance to reflect on their own work, they can expound upon their process and describe what was going through their mind (emotionally and cognitively) while realizing the artwork. It helps them be critical and learn from themselves. Often times, they are far more critical about their work than anyone else and will even offer suggestions as to how they would revise or approach a project differently (flexible purposing and being resistant to closure are two of the habits of mind that the arts teach us). Having their work on display and open for discussion also provides an opportunity for young artists to get constructive feedback and commendation from their peers and the public at large.

This is why major institutions like the Children’s Museum of Art in New York exist. The museum’s primary mission is to introduce children, their families and the culture at large to the transformative power of the arts by providing opportunities to make art side-by-side with working artists. It does this through classes led by teaching artists and through thematic exhibitions combining art made by professional artists and young creatives alike. The museum also has a renowned collection of over 2,000 objects of children’s artwork from around the world. Influential art educators, Yasuo Kuniyoshi (WPA era artist and teacher), Leon Bibel (WPA era artist and teacher), Henry Schaefer-Simmern (influential for researching and mapping artistic development), Joseph Solman (expressionist artist and teacher, most active during the 1930s) and Sona Kludjian (artist and teacher active during the 1960s) donated examples of their student’s work. There are also examples of contemporary artwork in the collection that were made during recent art workshops and after school residency programs at the museum. Altogether, these works of art provide insight into the fluid perspectives among young artists throughout modern and contemporary history. While subjects and details (i.e. cars, fashion, scenery etc.) within the work might look different due to cultural trends over the years; common social themes unite these images and communicate cohesive messages about our humanity. These topics of interest include aesthetic ruminations about war, peace, race, ethnicity, gender, spirituality and community. Additionally, the breadth of works from young artists of varying ages gives us a unique look into artistic development and how they use symbols and forms to communicate their experiences in a way that is conscious to their work being viewed by others.

Aysha Samad, Age 9, Bangladesh. Sacrifice for our Liberation. Collection of the Children’s Museum of Art, New York, CMA0266.6.

The heaviness of certain social and cultural events throughout the world is clearly on the minds of these young citizens, like Aysha Samad from Bangladesh, whose drawing titled Sacrifice for our Liberation is a poignant reflection of the enduring fight for justice. Samad renders a line of bodies in the foreground, representing men, women, and children who have become martyrs for the activists, who are depicted as solemn and energized all at once. This is a work of art that can be interpreted and translated in a way that speaks to the collective trauma and unified responses to social and political oppression. Although Samad was just 9 years old at the time when this drawing was made, the work of art packs a similarly mature and socially aware punch as Ben Shahn’s iconic 1931 panting, The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti.

Books like Dear World, exhibitions such as 120 Years of Children Drawing New York City and works by youth in museum collections, present children’s artful visions and expressions to an all ages audience. The re-presentation of juvenile art for mature audiences is essential to changing the paradigm for how we understand and value the ideas and endeavors of the youngest members of our society. History has shown that every generation will have to fight for autonomy and civil rights. Children need to be at the forefront of macro and micro discussions regarding social, cultural, political and environmental issues, as they are the harbingers of future policies and leadership. The level of sincerity, passion and ingenuity in their work should serve as a wake up call and illustrate the need for us all to rally together in support of solving global issues that have long lasting and intergenerational impact.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Exley, Richard & Helen (eds.) 1978. Dear World. Exley Publications Ltd.

Grieve, Victoria M. 2018. “Little Cold Warriors: American Childhood in the 1950s.” London: Oxford University Press.


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