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Genius and the Art of Children

What does this picture mean? I’ve been thinking about it ever since I saw it again, after many decades. It’s in a 1975 book I read again and again as a child called Make Your Own Comics by Richard Cummings. I loved the book when I was younger because it showcases children’s art alongside the art of professionals. In some cases it includes the professional’s childhood work as well. In this case, this drawing of a dog scratching its ear was made by a 10 year old boy.

Now notice what happens to your perception of it when I say that 10 year old boy would grow up to do this:

He was Richard Corben, a giant of 1970s fantasy art. (I couldn’t resist throwing a dinosaur in there). Does knowing the drawing of the dog was by Corben change our perception of it? What does it tell you about Richard Corben? What do we want it to tell us?

When people encounter the work of a great artist, it is often the case that they want that art to seem somehow inevitable. This is where the word “talent” crops up. We use the word “talent” all the time to describe certain people who are “better” than others in the arts. Vaslav Nijinsky performed the entrechat dix—a move in which he crossed his legs five times in midair. You don’t watch that and say, “My kid could do that.” No doubt Nijinsky devoted a fair amount of time to practicing that move. But when most people talk about talent they often mean not just ability but an innate ability. Talent—as many people claim—is not something that can be taught. You either have it or you don’t.

Here’s a drawing Picasso made at age 9:

The art historian Jonathan Fineberg found evidence of the genius-to-be in the scribble of the crowd: “When you look at that scribble carefully, there’s a self-confidence in that line that is just extraordinary. That line moves from gesture to outline to a contour to a figure, seamlessly moving from one thing to the next.” I’m just wondering: how can you tell when a scribble is self-confident? Or what an insecure scribble looks like? Is there anything here that makes Picasso as an artist inevitable? Or does it simply show a series of persistent interests that he will choose to develop through hard work as he gets older? Interests aren’t innate. They are learned behaviors, nurtured and sustained through patience, encouragement, and curiosity. They are formed in a community (even if it’s just one teacher and one student), not in solitude.

Alas I have seen the notion of talent and innate genius short-circuit many art students’ attempts to grow their abilities. It’s easy for students to believe that some are endowed at birth with superhero mutant powers that enable them to function at a higher level than ordinary mortals--far easier than it is to admit they are too distracted, or lazy, or afraid to do their best work. It’s also easier for society to believe that some students are geniuses and others aren’t rather than look at the ways in which poverty, racism, and other forms of discrimination and abuse wound children and make it impossible for them to nurture their own abilities and be nurtured by others.

Is there any indication that the artist who did this:

Was innately capable of this:

Van Gogh did the drawing—one of his very first—when he was 25. If he was born to be an artist, what took him so long?

The fact is: nobody is born being good at something. As an art teacher, I know that what my students are doing now does not necessarily tell me what they will do in the future. My faith in them and their potential goes beyond what evidence I may or may not see of greatness in their drawings and paintings. There is no secret in the childhood drawings of great artists that proves talent is anything more than a learned behavior--one that each human being should have the encouragement to pursue and the choice to heed or ignore.


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