“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.
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.