Great art has a curious life of its own. I read a marvelous story once, based on the documentary From Mao to Mozart, about a visit to China made by the conductor and violinist Isaac Stern. At the time of his visit, Chinese musicians had been forbidden to listen to or to play Western music for many years. They had requested Stern’s help in interpreting Western music. A Chinese orchestra played a Mozart composition with masterful technical skill and energy. While well played, the composition came across as rather mechanical and lifeless. It was not music yet because the orchestra members did not feel it or really hear it. They could not create music until they could hear it inwardly and intuitively.
Music is not created just by people playing musical instruments, but by music playing through people—playing through the individual consciousness of each musician. The individual consciousness becomes the true instrument. Isaac Stern listened closely to the musicians, some of whom were extremely self-conscious about rehearsing for him. At times, Stern would replay sections of the score, thus enabling them to have a first-hand experience of the music. The Chinese played the notes correctly but Stern made the music come alive. Having thus experienced the difference, the musicians were able to let the music itself direct all of their professional skill in such a way as to let music happen.
Great art, like great music, needs technical expertise as well as unchecked creativity, passion, and expression. Great art seems to be created through a person. Somehow one’s ego, self-consciousness, and expectations must be released before the piece is completed. The visual arts are full of examples of compositions being imbued with a life of their own, similar to the musical composition just described. A portrait by Rembrandt and a vase of sunflowers painted by Van Gogh burst with vitality and passion. Art is so subtle, so spiritual, that only a direct experience with it can guide the painter to animate blobs of paint into something that can live and breathe on its own.
Many of the young children I have taught in the elementary schools recognize and respond joyfully to the art experience. They unselfconsciously dive in and become consumed with their feelings, their sensations, the tactile expression of the paint and are rarely, if ever, concerned with proper technique. The creative lively and genuinely unique works of art. Frustration occurs, yes, but it is the frustration akin to a child’s learning to walk. Each fall is not taken as a personal failure to a child highly motivated to walk: it is rather that the child is experimenting and learning the physical laws of nature. A child expressing himself artistically is experiencing the great freedom of learning that is guided by art itself.
Why is it that some children cannot joyfully dive in? There area myriad of reasons, I’m sure, but the most common one I’ve seen, in children and adults alike, is that they have become limited by being self-conscious of their ability. This self-consciousness begins early in life and seems to come about when either praise or criticism gets too personal. An example from my own life might best illustrate what I mean by becoming “too personal.”
When my oldest daughter was three, she would sit and paint for long periods of time in my studio as I painted. I was thrilled with her work (and thrilled that she could sit for so long a time!), and I told her so. I praised her extravagantly, hoping to encourage her. I would say, “Oh, you really are a great artist!” and things of that sort. As soon as I would begin this person praise, her interest in her work would wane and within minutes her work would become sloppy or careless or she’d just get up and leave. Clearly my praise was having an unintended and very undesirable effect on her. I was making her self-conscious and distracting her from her discoveries. She began to turn to me for praise and approval, and the possibility of self-doubt was introduced (“Would Mommy like this one?”). It didn’t take long to redirect her focus back to her work, once I stopped praising her and addressed my comments to what was on the page. Understanding and discovery are their own rewards. Her receptivity to art was a result of her lack of self-consciousness, and this allowed her to see what is and thus draw and paint it.
When I am painting in the studio, there are a lot of people in there with me. I refer to them as my “studio ghosts.” Their presence is as real as if they were physically standing there. They include my teachers, critics, friends, husband, gallery owners, my favorite artists of history…and one by one, if I’m really painting, they walk out. If I am really painting, I walk out too. Those paintings are invariably the best and I am so grateful for the experience of painting and for the changes in my seeing, that the painting itself is pure gift. Then the noun “painting” becomes inseparable from the verb or action of “painting.” Being unselfconscious and being willing to lose oneself in the world is vital for a child and an artist.
So how can we respond to a child’s artwork? With genuine appreciation and enthusiasm, I think, such as “What marvelous colors you chose,” or “Tell me abut your painting.” A child can also become self-conscious if her view of the world is invalidated, such as “That doesn't look like a tree.” There is no way that art can reach and guide a child if he is too locked up to enjoy himself. How can we free him up to learn and have the experience of creating art? As a parent and art teacher, I find that the more that the child and I can focus on the immediate artwork at hand, the more satisfying the experience becomes. By not emphasizing the product, and by focusing on process instead, the work becomes more successful as well. The more that the child is able to reach a state of awareness in which her self-consciousness disappears into the desire to participate and see what she is trying to express, the more the art can reach her. I am inspired by the story of Isaac Stern and the Chinese musicians. As a conductor, all (!) he had to do was to hear, feel, and lose himself in the music, and thereby open opportunities for others to experience and create it as well.