Child’s play

We’re accustomed to the idea that we have lost our childlike imagination, creativity, and open-ended perception of the world. Anyone who has spent time with a young child can attest to this. World and self seem to emerge as one in the child, where curiosity and emotive response are the rule. Then, something snaps, perhaps gradually or perhaps at once. There is a conflict in this loving growth-relationship between self and world. The divide is registered; calculation sets in. Not only do we form ourselves along this fault line of pain-pleasure and self-protection; not only do the many forms of the “social” suddently erupt; but responsibility for all this — the world and oneself — sets in. We feel that something is missing, that we are here to do something vitally important, and that our link to the past (while technically only beginning with our conception) in fact extends far back into some pre-historic ancestry. Culture-critique will never eliminate the biological, sociological, and spiritual sources of human heritage. Our very being is grounded in such feelings. It is the legitimate structure and rationalization for “adulthood” itself, emerging from a childhood that wakes up indebted to breast and clean air — which, for the adult, is tied to an inaccessible “memory” of an immersion absolutely prior-to-self. The result is the suspicion that “adulthood” is itself an ulterior motive in comparison to the initial swoon, whose sense seems to be lost forever.

“Wife Swap” episodes often establish their dramatic conflict along these lines. Parents A raise their children rough-and-tumble: tough love and responsibility, not happiness, is the rule. Parents B value the opposite: the goal is to keep them from the horrors of adult responsibility for as long as possible. As the model for this show goes, mom A and mom B switch places, and ensue the children’s tears. Stuffy dad A ends up having a good time at a party staged for his children by mom B; and laissez-faire dad B ends up being scolded by mom A enough that he realizes he ought to grow up to be a man. Aside from these bright outcomes, bitter resentment usually results from the “swap.” We shouldn’t overlook the fact that what is really at issue is a mom swap: childless couples are never chosen for the show. But hat seems more important is this: all along, the kids listen with thoroughly adult ears, making it hard to tell who is fooling who. As usual, it is hard to tell who exactly is “growing up.”

Perhaps there is more to be learned from squirrels and elephants that paint than we think. What is our fascination with these animal’s creations, since it is obvious they are either set-up or trained, that they have no conception of artistic beauty, etc.? Are these creations interesting because we’re bored, or because we need something novel to sell, or because we want something unique for our family videos?  Whatever we might assume about the human motivations involved, we can be sure that, if we find them fascinating, it is not because they adhere to any concept of artistic beauty. The woman calls the painting squirrel a “big girl” in the same tone of encouragement that she would have a human girl. She’s proud that the squirrel can now hold the paintbrush on her own. And when the audience marvels at the elephant’s flowers, it isn’t because the painting is good “for an elephant,” but because there is something enchanting about an animal painting his own image — in black and white, no less, saving the color for the part of the painting dedicated to the paintbrush itself. Our amazement comes from the fact that an animal can “use” something like a brush (whether this use adheres to any standards or not), that an animal can “learn” how to figure itself (whether this looks like the animal or not).

Of course, everything in the human world is much more complicated; take the example of Aelita Andre, a young girl whose paintings have been selling for thousands of dollars. In this short AP video, the whole dynamic model of human temporality is at work. The child is in touch with herself: she creates large, abstract canvases, which incorporate objects from her child world. She is like any other “energetic young girl,” and she doesn’t like the idea of someone “reporting” on her. Beside her are her parents, who have their dreams for her, but trust in her sense of aspiration before theirs. They want to support her however they can, especially if this means a little financial perk and media attention for them. Surrounding her are the museum curators who justify her art’s existence and elevation in the museum, who argue that “It’s not because she’s a child, it’s because her artwork is as good as an adult’s.” Hovering before the abyss is the ruler-of-standards, the art professor, who attests most genuinely to his own age: he argues that she is not an artist until she has internalized what is at stake in her art. He cannot give her the name “artist” because she isn’t an adult yet. She is still running shyly to the corner; she hasn’t studied Impressionism, or whatever. Finally, there is the man who “buys in to it.” Don’t take this pejoratively: these artworks speak to him. He can’t explain it. And no one, not even the ruler-of-standards, will ever convince him that he is wrong.

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