A Toddler Could Have Painted That!

Last week I hired a woman to clean my house. Trust me, my house needed it. I freely admit that I much prefer to be in my studio. And besides, I share this house with a bunch of boys who just don’t see the dirt and mess, as a result the house gets seriously neglected. This lovely women with lots of life experience was a welcome help.

As I was showing my new cleaner around the house that first time, she commented on all my work – truly a collection that represents every step of my progress as an artist. She loved the landscapes and the ceramic flowers, and went on to tell me how she just doesn’t “get those paintings with the rectangles. A toddler could paint those,” she proclaimed. Then we walked into my studio and she saw my newer work. I could tell she was trying to find something in them to relate to, but it was difficult for her. “These are much better than all those rectangle paintings” she said diplomatically.

I like this woman. She’s hard working and honest, and I certainly wasn’t going to allow her comment to spoil my cleaning day with her. So, while I was tiding up as fast as I could to stay ahead of her energizer pace, I wondered what are we artists doing wrong? Why is it that people with lots of life experience don’t understand the first thing about abstract paintings? Why is it that they actually believe that a child could paint a Jackson Pollock?

Does the art world not communicate? Or do we communicate in an unaccessible language? Maybe it’s a little bit of both. Many people feel completely disconnected from the language used by contemporary artists when they talk about their work. I think, too, that the school system fails to provide a basic understanding of art because the curriculum sticks to a very limited list of old masters. Today’s students have very little exposure to new work and new ways to approach and talk about art. Let’s face it: football and hockey are a much bigger part of the general culture. And frankly, most homes are decorated with cheap cookie-cutter prints bought at big-box stores. Those prints by the way, do not put any interesting amount of income in the artist’s pocket.

I realize that art is important to me, and that it’s not important for a lot of people. But I strongly believe that all of us should have at least some understanding of the critical importance of abstract work throughout our history. It requires us to have an inquiring mind – to look beyond the surface and to be open to seeing the human condition in its many manifestations. It’s a skill we should all learn because in the 21st Century, we live in a complex society among myriad cultures with incredibly diverse ways of understanding. Abstract art requires us to acknowledge that truly understanding one another is enormously challenging. But once our minds are open to that challenge, we all benefit from learning to see with different eyes.

Photo credit Jessica Labrie

“A five year old could paint this!” Every professional abstract painter out there has heard that particular critique and, believe me, they cringe every time.

So? Does Marla Olmstead’s work belong in a museum or on the fridge? Slate Culture Box commented best. “The elephants, and perhaps even your own brilliant progeny may be terrific painters—but they’re not artists. This is because art is not just about making things or slapping pigment on canvas; it’s also a way of thinking and seeing.”

Ed Swarez in his blog titled “No, your five year old could not paint that” explains, “But I do believe that, when most people apply themselves and really try to see what is going on in the artwork in front of them, they have an unsuspected instinct that allows them to connect with the work and recognize its value.”

And Hawley-Dolan and Winner, in the 2011 blog titled Seeing the Mind Behind the Art, writes “People untrained in visual art see more than they realize when looking at abstract expressionist paintings. People may say that a child could have made a work by a recognized abstract expressionist, but when forced to choose between a work by a child and one by a master such as Mark Rothko, they are drawn to the Rothko even when the work is falsely attributed to a child or nonhuman. People see the mind behind the art.”

Photo credit Jessica Labrie

Last week I shared a fun little test on my Facebook page. There are 11 images of abstract work and you must decide whether each was painted by a toddler or by a professional artist. I took the test and correctly identified 9 out of 11. And, to my knowledge, the only person who beat me is my hiking partner, Josée, who got 10 out of 11. Now Josée, although she is open-minded about art, is certainly not an art connoisseur. What she knows are toddlers. She’s been running a day home for 20 years and has seen an impressive number of toddler paintings, so you can’t fool her! She knows toddler art when she sees it.  


Maybe, what is needed to better appreciate abstract artwork is simply more exposer to toddlers!

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