Editor’s Digest: the real reason to keep kids out of museums?

Munch: Can kiddies dig the existential anguish?

Should Children be Banned from Museums?” A toddler’s parents balked when told that their son shouldn’t climb on a $10 million dollar sculpture at London’s Tate Modern. This dispute reignited the controversy over whether children should be banned from these palaces of high art or if we should instead welcome them in and learn from their joyous responses. (Ivan Hewett & Dea Birkett, The Telegraph, February 18, 2014)

The anti-kiddie movement has now spread from restaurants to theaters to museums. As someone who can’t stand it when parents tow their 12-and-unders into the theater, I get it, but I don’t think either of these writers does. Last Sunday I ate at Smith & Wollensky’s steakhouse and asked the hostess to seat my date and I in an empty section far away from two tables of families with children.

High steaks

As I realized during dinner, the kids in those families behaved fairly well, but I still didn’t want to take the risk that their noise or potential roaming about would intrude on my meal. And as I sat there thinking about it, my date and I wondered why parents — irrespective of how much wealth they possessed — would even bring young children to a restaurant that served some of the best steaks in Philadelphia (the 24 oz rib eye I ordered was one of the best I’d ever eaten).

And there’s the problem with taking kids to museums such as the Tate Modern, or MOMA, or the Louvre. Just as kids have not yet had a wide enough variety of culinary experiences to fully appreciate a 28-day aged, USDA Prime steak cooked to perfection, they cannot yet apperceive a full aesthetic experience from the art on display at these museums.

Need I explain?

Can they feel frightened looking at The Scream? Yes, but not on the order of magnitude encouraged by a horror movie (think Hostel rather than Hitchcock). What they certainly can’t understand is the undercurrent of existential anguish that infuses Munch’s painting. Would they giggle at the apple covering the businessman’s face in Magritte’s Son of Man? Perhaps. But would they get Magritte’s commentary on facelessness and deceit? No.

At best, kids would need that explained to them; at worst, they would shrug off any explanation and move on to the next painting. (And I would no more want to have my ability to concentrate on a painting disturbed by a group of adults or children receiving the tour guide’s explanation of a work than I would want to sit in a crowded theater and have my evening disturbed by parents explaining the plot of a play to their child.)

Children lack the wide variety of life experiences necessary to approach many works of art. Even the most perceptual or analytic child has not yet had enough time to reflect on the totality of his or her limited experiences and has not yet acquired the perceptual categories (social, analytic, cultural, political, etc.) and maybe not even the empathy with which to understand such art in anything but the grossest and simplest possible terms: laughter, giggles, awe, squeals. Is it a response? Yeah. Is it an aesthetic experience of the kind described by Dewey or Ruskin or Pater or Wilde? No.

Applebee’s, Olive Garden, The Franklin Institute, and Please Touch Museum will all do fine to suit the varying social behaviors and intellectual capacities (and eating habits) of kids. If the Philadelphia Museum of Art wants to have a few days a month for parents and children, that would also provide a good, if misguided, substitute. And while I do not dispute that there are exceptions found in highly precocious or introspective children, like my evening at Smith and Wollensky’s, I’m not willing to risk it.



To read a response by Alaina Mabaso, click here.

Alaina Mabaso

of Elkins Park, PA on March 02, 2014

This is an interesting take. I'm not sure I agree, because I think the early experiences I was lucky enough to have at fine art museums and theaters as a child were truly formative and led me to my career today. Granted, I was a very quiet and well-behaved kid, and as an adult, nothing grates on me quite like a tantrum at the next table. I wrote a blog post on the topic of child bans awhile ago and was surprised by the hundreds of passionate responses: http://alainamabaso.com/2011/08/08/child-bans-acceptable-bigotry/

Tamara Winters

of New York, NY on March 06, 2014

I cannot imagine a worse reason to exclude a child from the experience of art than "they lack the variety of life experience" or "their response won't be the correct aesthetic response."

First: how else do children build the experiences that lead to depth of understanding, if their experience is limited to those places and events specifically designed for children?
Do artists and aesthetes emerge from the foam as fully formed appreciators of art? NO. One's understanding builds with exposure and experience: and I would never rob a human of the transcendent experience that occurs when you see a piece you thought you knew well, with new understanding and fresh eyes as an adult. That's a truly profound aesthetic experience of discovery--and one that can't happen if you only allow people to experience art by someone else's arbitrary judgement of their "readiness."

Secondly: No one gets to be the arbiter of the correct aesthetic experience. I was recently at a Byzantine exhibition at the National Gallery, and a tiny baby, strapped to his papa's chest, reacted with the most pure and profound spurts and giggles to the colors and images in the ancient iconography he beheld. Did he yet conceive the mysticism and holiness of the storytelling of these images? No. But he was making the basic connection in his mind that color and symbolism [even without context or narrative] create an emotional response. Would you argue that isn't a valid understanding of one of the basic functions of art? Mark Rothko might have something to say to you about that.

Finally: If you require solemn solitude to enjoy art (or your steak, for that matter), why even leave the house? Art is nothing without an audience, and you, as part of that audience, don't get to decide who is worthy of the experience and who is not. Your comfort level does not get to dictate the access of others.

Parents: Yes, it is your responsibility to ensure that your kids understand that they are not the ONLY audience in a museum (or performance), and to instill an understanding of polite public behavior. But please do not let articles like this one discourage you from building a love of art in your kids at an early age. Most adults who love art were once kids who saw art at a young age. Take your kids to museums, plays, symphonies, choral concerts, ballets, modern dance concerts. Ask them what they took from the experience afterwards: the depth of their perception may surprise you!

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