All Children are Artists – Do you agree?

By Sue Giles


All Children are Artists –  this title was given to me by Drama Victoria as a subject for the keynote address. I was free to change it in any way and it was certainly given in a spirit of understanding my own work and process, and trajectory as an artist. I found the title to be provocative and so I was interested to see where it took me.

I asked my next door neighbour, Ari, who is 6: Do you think all children are artists?

Without hesitation Ari said No. Then after a moment said: What does that mean? Artists?

What is an artist?  What is art?  Considering this question, in this way, suddenly emphasised how Other art is in Australia.

Art as the Other

Everything in the way we talk about Art is pointing out the Other.  Art is considered separate to life. We are used to defending The Arts and the fact that we enjoy it or practice it. If we are an artist, we find ourselves talking about getting a proper job, not giving up your day job, getting your teaching degree – just in case. Being an artist isn’t valued as a career.

The Arts are considered to be outside of the important bits of life. The attitude to The Arts is pretty consistent: arts are an add-on, the first to go in the cuts. It doesn’t belong to all. It is elite, special, costly. It has special buildings. It is a waste of time, not a real subject, a bludge.  It’s recently been under attack from our federal Minister for the Arts, the Hon. George Brandis, because it’s not considered to be excellent enough.

The Artfacts webpage on the Australia Council site says

Fact 1: 9 out of 10 Australians think that the arts are an important part of education

An article in The Age on March 9 this year is about The Arts being squeezed out of school curricula in the United Kingdom – a familiar tale here in Australia.

Vikki Heywood of the Warwick commission says that failing to reassert arts in education will ultimately result in “reduced cultural ambition, achievement and influence in the world” for Britain and would be generally “bad for business and bad for society”.

[And] we know what happened to The Arts focus as we were considering the shape of the national curriculum in this country – it simply wasn’t there until we fought for its inclusion. The Arts must fight for its right to exist and sometimes I cannot believe we still have to have the argument.

When cultures experience the normalisation of art across all parts of that culture, the whole society engages in it without having to be defined as either an artist or not.  It happens in other cultures than our own, Indonesia being a particular example.

But it also happens in our own streets. The importance of people being hobby-ists should not be underestimated. Amateur theatre, hobby painters, musicians who will never do a gig, people who write diaries, the arrangement of garden gnomes in the front yard up the street. These things say that people express themselves in ways other than economic bottom lines all the time.

The ancient Greeks believed that the genius or talent shown by any individual came from outside in the form of a gift from the gods. It was not centered in the person, in the ego, it was something that landed on you. This took away the specialness of the person and focused on the art itself.

The Arts in primary schools should be compulsory and unassessed.

When we specialise, we make a value statement. We create something to defend. We make something that is possible to ignore or attack. What if it was ordinary to make art of all kinds? What if the arts were an essential part of life, like food and water?

Another Other is children. 

The statement All Children are Artists intimates that if this is the case, this is something they can grow out of and that adulthood means change is inevitable. Or does this mean that because they’re a child they are instinctively artistic?

A naive artist who is an adult will be considered an artist while a child working in the same style, will not. The division between children and adults becomes more apparent when we talk in this way. Children are not considered with the same degree of seriousness as adults. A child visual artist has the same effect on popular opinion as an elephant artist. Is it really art?

One of my favourite overheard comments at the Canberra gallery came from a family looking at a Miro painting. A father lets out his breath in a disgusted puff: One of you kids could’ve done that.

A comment that ignored the fact that they didn’t, that Miro’s vision is unique and execution exquisite but mostly a comment that derided the child as inept.  Looks like a kid did it – that’s a negative statement.

In western culture the idea of play is seated firmly in the province of childhood. When one is an adult one is expected to leave the things of childhood and become serious and work. The line is strongly drawn. Stop mucking around – be serious.  In India, Play is serious. The line between real-life and life-in-play is very blurry and the enactment of ritual, theatre, religion and story is upheld by entire populations, old and young.

To many, children embody mayhem, rebellion, pandemonium. Plato was concerned that child’s play, if uncontrolled and unstructured, would incite people to think about changing the system when they grew up. If you can change the rules of play, then one day you might want to change institutions and laws.  Young people are regarded as threatening social order today more than ever before. Adult authority seems never to have been a child.

What if the title Children was not used? What if the involvement of children was framed as the involvement of eager thinkers, of energetic collaborators, or experts in new form.

A better title is All People are Creative.

The potential of every human being is open-ended as we enter the world and yet from that moment we are colonised by everything around us.

The creative person starts from birth and ends when we are dead. The division between children and adults is not necessary because the definition of creativity is so much broader than that of artistry.

As adults we are receptacles for years and years of influence and accepted knowledge. From the moment we were born our lives have been in the hands of others. Whatever we were born with, stays with us, but is tempered and shaped by the world outside; by our nearest and dearest, by circumstance, by environment.  All human beings are born creative, so when does the instinctually creative being start to become a receptacle for the world and its opinion?  And how soon do our habits enforce and reinforce what we believe?

One of the ways our work at Polyglot keeps those ruts from staying ruts, is to open our practice to children through process and through participation. We invite kids into the way things are developed and the way the theatre or event unfolds. This means properly involving them in every facet of the work.

And this is exciting because it means that we are giving credit and value to the people engaging with the work. It’s an acknowledgment of complicity and collaboration. It’s a recognition that the audience is essential to the creation of the work and that the creative being doesn’t stop at the artist.

It’s terrifying because our intention for the work could be changed beyond recognition.  And this can be intensely challenging.

Ari finished our conversation over the fence that started with Are All Children Artists, by asking what I had under my arm.

I said: It’s a bundle of drawings and ideas from kids I worked with today at a primary school.

He looked at them and said: Ok then its yes.