Saying that an abstract painting is something a preschooler could do sounds like the ultimate putdown for abstract art. It implies that abstraction is a scam, meant to fool the viewer into thinking it has actual importance and ridiculing the fact that it is sold for thousands of dollars. It also denies that it takes effort, skill, or seriousness to make the work. But can that same remark be viewed in a positive light instead? What do we lose as adult artists that children have naturally, before becoming self-conscious about their work? And is child art really the equivalent of adult work?
We're talking here about gestural, expressionistic abstraction like the work of Cy Twombly, and Jackson Pollock. Obviously, there are many other kinds of more cerebral, controlled, and planned abstraction that would be less likely to elicit the disparaging comparisons to child art. But the idea persists with expressionistic abstraction that it is some kind of joke even though it has been practiced widely for decades and holds a significant place in art history.
Are child art and adult art actually interchangable? In a Boston college study done in 2011, people with no art background were asked to distinguish between child art and abstract expressionist adult art. They answered correctly in numbers significantly better than chance. The conclusion was that most of the time, we can sense intentionality and structure in an adult painting that distinguish it from child art. Children, with their fantasy-oriented, unselfconscious approach, simply have other concerns.
Another question to consider is is why spontaneity and intuition are undervalued in abstract painting when those same qualities are respected in forms of art such as jazz, and improv theater. To be able to respond to emotions and materials in a fluid, natural way is actually a challenging skill to learn for adults. As Picasso famously said, "It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child."
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