AESTHETIC ENERGY IN THE ASTONISHING DRAWINGS OF CHILDREN
"Every child's drawing is a language artifact; most drawings by children exhibit 'aesthetic energy'; a few reach the status of 'work of art'.
The close study of outstanding drawings helps us understand the nature of 'aesthetic energy'.
After years if studying children's drawings we conclude that empathy for subject matter and empathy for form are
the keys to 'aesthetic energy' and the effectiveness of drawing as a language medium."
* INTRODUCTION: Aesthetics is the philosophy of beauty in nature and beauty in works of art but in this essay we are concerned only with art, indeed, one rather special branch of art, the spontaneous drawings of children. In coining 'aesthetic energy' my intention is to broaden the scope and language of pictorial analysis as it might be applied to the art of children and to use roughly the same approach I would use for any work of pictorial art. When Picasso said that it took him a lifetime to draw like a child he was making a valid point, but I don't suppose he intended us to take him literally! It was his way of pointing to the extraordinary qualities he found in children's drawings which in certain important ways related to his own. The 'qualities' Picasso admired in child art are the subject of this essay.
There are two reasons for studying children's drawings from the point of view of 'aesthetic energy' and 'work of art':
1) Drawing (which I use here as a stand-in for all visual art) is a language medium that serves to integrate and make meaningful and expressive the three dimensions of content: perceptions, thoughts and feelings. The assumption is that drawings that are strong in 'aesthetic energy' are strong in language values.
2) For this writer and many others, children's drawings are a continuing source of pleasure. While we recognize them as 'childish', we avoid thinking of them as either cute or ugly or even as a stage to be got through. In what follows I will explore my own responses to a dozen outstanding drawings, but please note the point made in the heading: most drawings by children exhibit some degree of 'aesthetic energy' although 'works of art' may be relatively rare. We conclude that all drawings are valuable to the one who made them. We further conclude that every drawing has significance for mental development and the achievement of literacy.
I have studied drawings by children most of my life and am continually astonished by what I find when I look at them closely. Perhaps it has helped that I too am a practicing artist and, now in my eighties, I still wrestle with the problem of 'aesthetic energy' in my own work. While I do not equate the genius of Picasso with children's drawings, I can appreciate his playful remark and assure you that the illusive quality he refers to is found in works by all true artists. I have also found that artists of less fame than Picasso are often surprised and universally enthusiastic when they look at children's drawings and are usually scathing about what they remember as 'school art'.
It is important to understand that children draw for many reason, frequently by forces unknown to themselves. Certainly they don't draw purposefully to generate 'aesthetic energy' or to make 'works of art' or even to use expressive language. (If asked, they would probably say they draw for fun.) We know that they do draw to tell stories, describe situations, and express how they feel. But here's the point: because children before the age of self-consciousness draw with empathy, their drawings demonstrate 'aesthetic energy'. Let me underscore this: There is a direct link between drawing with empathy and producing 'aesthetic energy' and a direct link of both to the effective use of language.
* THE RATIONAL OR ANALYTICAL APPROACH TO FORM: There are two equally important ways to conduct the search for 'aesthetic energy': the first is analytical, rational and intellectual. The key word is relationship. If you can identify or sense relationships in a work of art you will experience something of the'aesthetic energy' children feel when they draw. The point of including twelve drawings in this essay is to go beyond verbal definition to illustrate relationships in context. We can prepare the way by stating that relationship is one form relating to another, a constellation of forms relating to another constellation, one texture or color relating to another texture or color.
* THE RATIONAL OR ANALYTICAL APPROACH TO CONTENT: The twelve drawings will also illustrate what is meant by relating 'form' to 'content'. Again, keep in mind that the drawer achieves this through empathic performance. Here we are intent on enlarging our own understanding and translating this understanding for discussions appropriate to the age-level of the drawer. Communicating effectively with a child who has just completed a drawing is a wonderful way to advance literacy and closeness or bonding between child and caring adult.
Content is vitally important because content moves children to draw in the first place. In adult art, some artists are more interested in form than content, others more in content than form but children are largely indifferent to form and make art to tell stories, record observations, respond to emotions, in other words, to give expression to content. We have observed that an imbalanced emphasis on form leads to mere decoration; an imbalanced emphasis on content leads to mere illustration. It is worth mentioning too that an almost exclusive emphasis on "the elements and principles of design" in contemporary art education has resulted in a drift towards form (the so-called 'grammar of art') and away from content. This has had a profoundly negative effect on school practice. The Drawing Network way is to start with content by motivating themes and let form look after itself which it strangely will with empathic form. The analysis of form is always post-drawing.
* THE INTUITIVE/EMPATHIC APPROACH: SCANNING FORM AND CONTENT AS AN INTEGRATED ENTITY: The interplay of conscious rationality and preconscious intuition characterize both the making of art and the appreciation of art. Making art requires a deeper emersion in preconscious intuition ("letting the drawing draw itself"); appreciating art requires a more rational analytical involvement (post-drawing appreciation). Think of the Taoist interlocking teardrop: in each we find an element of the opposite, that is in preconscious intuition elements of rationality may rise while in pictorial analysis intuition will not be absent. As viewers of the finished drawing, we let our eyes wander over the surface picking up whatever nudges our interest, whatever the image seems to be saying to us, whatever formal relationships make their presence known to us. Occasionally 'pebbles in the shoe' lead to a negative or corrective response. With older children it may be worth discussing; with younger children it hardly matters. When analysis tags us as a possibility, the way is opened for pondering, articulating a response, comparing one drawing with another, rank ordering and so on. It seems that conscious analysis and preconscious scanning are two sides of the same coin, two sides of the same drawing. They are inextricably bound together, each dominating in turn. Of the two, analysis is easier to maintain. We are used to being engaged analytically; lowering awareness to the level of scanning is not part of our everyday concern but we can train ourselves and with a little practice manage it. "Let your eyes wander over the surface of the drawing: let the drawing speak to you." is a useful practice to cultivate. Analysis is fun and prepares the way for a deeper empathic appreciation, but the pay-off is the experience of form/content unity and this only happens at subliminal levels.
I interject here with a caution: the object of this exercise is not to categorize, give marks, achieve rank order or any such nonsense. The point is primarily to enjoy, understand, appreciate and, as one artist to another, be able to communicate intelligently to the maker in language the child will understand. A good teacher, of course, will not be dogmatic, will be tentative and suggestive and ask plenty of questions. We are discussing a delicate poem, not a math problem and we are privileged to be talking about it with the young person who made it.
Prepare for multiple possibilities and be tolerant of ambiguity, mystery and ambiguity. Picture appreciation or pictorial analysis involves responding to poetic imagery as much as to empirical facts. Both are important to growth. It is our experience that children's drawings appear on a continuum with scientific objectivity at one end and poetic ambiguity and mystery on the other.
go to Part Two: A FOLIO OF ASTONISHING DRAWINGS BY CHILDREN