Pictures for Schools: children as art critics

After getting stuck into the history and operations of Pictures for Schools, the aspect of the exhibitions I currently find most interesting is the way Pictures for Schools placed children’s opinions and ideas on contemporary art at the centre of the exhibitions and repositioned children as art critics, a group of society whose opinions were worthy of consideration alongside those of adults. The organisers of Pictures for Schools did this by inviting child visitors to vote for their favourite work of art on show each year, divided into girls’ favourite, boys’ favourite and favourite overall, and the top five works were shown at the next year’s exhibition; much was made of this, and children’s tastes, in press reports of the shows, placing a new emphasis on the opinion of a section of society not usually regarded as experts on culture.

On the subject of criticism, I have been reading a collection of essays by American writer Susan Sontag, written in the mid-1960s and based around the titular essay Against Interpretation, in which she rails against what she saw as a tendency for art to be reduced to something which exists to be interpreted. This, she argues, is manifested in a tendency for form to be separated from content when viewing art, with content seen as the essential element of a work of art and form just an accessory. Art, she says, is interpreted in terms of what its content can tell the viewer – what it is about, what it is trying to say, etc. According to Sontag, interpretation works according to certain codes and rules, which involve identifying elements in an artwork and using them to translate the meanings present in the work, resulting in a ‘shadow world of meanings’. This leads to an impression that the content of a work of art is the work of art, with art being valued insofar as it says something. Interpretation, therefore, is a way of justifying and defending art’s existence, and at the same time taming it and making it manageable and conformable. Sontag defines interpretation in the modern context as ‘the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone’, and her objection to reducing a work of art to its content is that art is seen in terms of how it can be put to use, rather than being appreciated for what it is. Perhaps this is why, as Sontag identifies, so much painting of the time, from abstract art to Pop Art, seemed to flee interpretation by providing no content for analysis, as in the case of abstract art, or providing content too obvious to invite interpretation, as in the case of Pop Art.

Interestingly, Sontag draws parallels between the explosion in interpretation and the pollution of the modern world, drawing on the visual imagery of “fumes of the automobile and heavy industry which befoul the urban atmosphere”. She goes on to describe interpretation as “the revenge of the intellect upon art”, which has parallels in the writing of Gestalt psychologists such as Rudolph Arnheim on visual perception, who argued that the increased mediation of art by critics and others with prominent, forcible, audible opinions was stopping the viewer from feeling able to trust their own senses and judgements. This resonates with Sontag’s view of interpretation as ignoring the sensory experience of works of art, something which she also sees as being hindered by a general cultural excess of sensory experiences which leads to a deadening of sensory faculties. Sontag therefore highlights the need to ‘recover our senses’ from the crowdedness of modern life, stating: “We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.”

Although the organisers of Pictures for Schools did offer guides and lectures to accompany visits to the exhibitions as a means of interpretation, questionnaires and voting forms handed out to children visiting were designed to make children really look at works of art to help identify how they really felt about them without being led towards a particular opinion influenced by external standards of taste. Instead of being told what to see, children were given the tools to approach a work of art and to ask questions of themselves and the artwork about how the artwork made them feel, see and react. Although many of the artworks included in Pictures for Schools were content-heavy in the traditional sense, often depicting recognisable scenes from everyday life such as landscapes and people, the questionnaires handed out at Pictures for Schools were worded in such as a way as to lead children to identify and make judgements about aesthetic quality. Questionnaires asked children to pick out certain features and characteristics of artworks such as colour and shapes, before asking them to choose the most effective and stimulating artworks.

In Against Interpretation Sontag also turned her attention to suggesting a new kind of art criticism which would work with art rather than take its place, identifying a need for an emphasis on form rather than content including ‘extended and more thorough descriptions of form’ and a ‘descriptive rather than prescriptive’ vocabulary to describe these forms. Sontag also suggests that ‘transparence’, which she defines as ‘experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are’, is the most liberating approach to art and criticism: content is something which must be cut back to reveal the true nature of the work of art. When Sontag states that the role of criticism is to make the work of art more real to the viewer, and to ‘show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means‘, this again brings me back to Pictures for Schools and its emphasis on original works of art having their own value which stands apart from and is superior to an experience of art obtained through reproductions, with the experience of the original central to understanding how artists had achieved the effect and impact of the work of art. Importantly, the Pictures for Schools questionnaire also asked children to define their understanding of ‘original’, in the context of artworks, ensuring that they were aware of how reproductions differed from the genuine item in their essential qualities.

This activity of asking children to develop and express critical opinions can be seen as a kind of active looking, a form of learning through experience, in this case the experience of original works of art and of making critical choices which were valued and listened to. Visiting Pictures for Schools and playing a full part in the exhibition required children to pay close attention to what was around them and develop their own visual skills, senses and descriptive vocabulary rather than merely becoming passive recipients of culture.

3 Comments on “Pictures for Schools: children as art critics”

  1. […] a confusing, complex modern world to enable them to make genuine judgements of taste, as well as Susan Sontag‘s call for a renewed emphasis on the senses when approaching and interpreting both art and […]

  2. […] and think about them for themselves (see Susan Sontag’s early ’60s essay collection Against Interpretation, where she rails against the overintellectualism of the way art is presented in society, for […]

  3. […] to what is around them. The latter point is interesting in relation to Pictures for Schools, which encouraged children to look actively in order to develop skills which would help them take an interest in what was around them when they […]

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