On a recent trip to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, twin 2 yowled her way through an exhibition of paintings by American Impressionists. Yowling is good. We take yowling to be indicative of enthusiasm – certainly it comes with lots of smiles and limb-waving – whilst howling, which is also available as a communicative gesture, is most definitely bad. Twin 1, though appreciative of some works, is less of an art-fiend than her sister, but she likes a good gallery-floor space for an uninterrupted sprint-crawl if there’s no one else about.
My partner and I often take our children to art galleries. If the artist Jake Chapman is right, then we’re wasting our time, and perhaps being dreadfully arrogant. Chapman is scathing of parents who imagine that their children can ‘understand’ great works of art. Part of what Chapman seems to want to say is that to take apparently child-like art at face value is to miss a great deal about the complexity and richness of the particular artwork: Fair enough. Another part of what he was presumably up to is getting free publicity for his new exhibition: Job done. But as a parent who regularly takes her very young kids to art exhibitions, Chapman’s pitch has made me reflect.
Let’s start with why I take my kids to art exhibitions: It’s for me. If they get some developmental benefit, then great. But that’s not why I do it. I went to lots of exhibitions before I had children (and never minded or gave much thought to seeing children in galleries). Like most parents, I haven’t transformed into a completely new person with a limitless passion for petting zoos and soft-play areas. So, if it’s alright with Mr Chapman, I’ll continue going to art exhibitions. And since I have children with whom I like to spend time, and since I gather locking them in a cupboard whilst I appreciate art would be frowned upon, I’ll continue to take them with me.
I don’t pretend to be any kind of an art critic, but I liked what Anthony Gormley had to say about Chapman’s comments: looking at art is about experience more than knowledge, and experience precedes knowledge. I was struck when both of my daughters, who are intrigued by other children, seemed keen on Mary Cassatt’s beautiful paintings of children about their age. I can’t believe that such young children have no idea know what they like, or have no capacity to reflect on art. We took the little ones to a JD Fergusson exhibition several times, and on each visit one particular painting (of a voluptuous female nude in striking blues and pinks) completely arrested twin 2. Of course, babies generally see bright contrasting colours more easily than they see subtle colours. But in an exhibition full of big canvasses with big blocks of bright contrasting colours, my 6 month old daughter was repeatedly enchanted by one particular painting. I don’t think that tells you she’s some sort of proto-art-genius – she’s chiefly interested in being able to get her feet in her mouth so we can knock that one on the head. But I do think it tells us that even very young kids can get something from visiting art galleries.
So it’s rather a shame that some people clearly do feel that galleries aren’t for children. Chapman implies that galleries are reserved spaces, for those who can appreciate (‘understand’) art. I doubt that I ‘understand’ Great Works of Art in the way that Chapman intends. I don’t care. I certainly don’t think it means I’m not entitled to sit in front of a painting in a public gallery. And if I happen to sit on the floor and yowl, I’m not too sure why that should be a problem.
I know it’s not quite that simple: Other people (adults) also go to exhibitions and presumably want to appreciate art, and I can see that a yowling baby might disrupt one’s contemplative mood. On one miserable occasion one of our twins howled, not yowled, for a good 40 minutes, in the exhibition, then the cafe, and all the way to the bus stop. Even on their best behaviour, their presence might not suit other gallery-goers. A visit to Edinburgh City Art Centre this week is a case in point. Twin 1 was tickled pink to be able to scramble back and forth towards the wall on which an image was being projected, making shadow shapes as she went. I can see that from the point of view of the artist (whose name I didn’t manage to register – keeping an eye on crawling kids does get in the way of things) it might seem arrogant, or at least disrespectful, to encourage that sort of engagement with their work. And yet, I think that’s an awfully precious approach to have to art.
No doubt my daughters’ behaviour was distracting for the two women who soon arrived to look at the exhibit, and we were pretty swift in gathering up babies and buggy and moving on to another exhibit so as to leave them in peace. These women were patient and polite enough to smile indulgingly as we did so. But that’s not always been the case. An older couple at the American Impressionism exhibition audibly tutted and sighed whenever we were within sight. As we move pretty swiftly – even twin 2’s appetite for gazing at a painting is limited – it would have been easy enough for them to wait us out, but they perversely determined to keep pace with us and disapprove all the way.
On the other hand, on one of my first trips with my children to an exhibition, a woman stopped me to say how marvellous it was that I was bringing my daughters to a gallery so young. It was nice of her to say so, but it honestly never occurred to me not to do this, and it was one of my many experiences early on of being implicitly told, usually by older women, that I was doing something with my children that wasn’t quite the done thing. Why should that be the case? My sense is that many adult gallery-goers think of galleries as an ‘adult’ space, and accordingly expect to enjoy them free of the irritating noise and fuss that kids inevitably bring in their wake. As a parent, it is impossible to be unaware of this and difficult not to feel inhibited by it, even if you don’t agree. Certainly, a public gallery, as a public (i.e., publicly-funded) space, can hardly be justified in thinking of itself in this way, and in fact many galleries have brilliant programmes aimed at getting children to engage with art. My favourite gallery in the world has a whole area given over to children, but much closer to home are the wonderful Kelvingrove, and the truly innovative Jupiter Artland, and no doubt many more I’ve yet to visit with my daughters.
Art galleries strike me as brilliant places to take kids. In Scotland, where I live, they’re usually free, they’ve got space to wander in, they generally have baby change facilities and the good ones have cafés with multiple high chairs (always a concern if you’ve got twins). Best of all they’ve got paintings that have stories behind them to be discovered or invented, by parents and children. Obviously children need to be told that they’re not allowed to touch the exhibits, but I’ve seen more than a few adults who need to be reminded of that too, and I don’t find yowling children any more irksome that adult show-offs declaiming loudly about what (or who) art is for.
Guest blogger: Kerri
Parent of twin daughters and lover of art galleries based in Edinburgh