Are Art Competitions Good for Children?

During an art workshop I observe a boy who is very seriously engaged in his artwork while his mother is telling me how much her son loves art. She says he spends a lot of his free time drawing and painting, that he also takes part in art competitions but never wins. He can’t understand why and gets frustrated.

The boy has all my sympathies because personally I don’t like art competitions and I would go as far as saying that I believe they are detrimental to a child’s healthy artistic development.

If we observe very young children as they go about painting or drawing we see very little hesitation, they are in command of the chalk or the brush as they boldly go about the business of expression to which they participate with their entire being. They work at it until that creative energy is spent, done.

As they grow that free-flowing energy is often put in peril, narrowed down to a trickle and sometimes altogether blocked off by a variety of adult-made rules about how art should be made or of superficial throw-off comments that will forever make a dent on the child’s own confidence as a creator. Those playful early childhood explorations soon turn into ‘I am not doing it the right way’.

Luckily it is now quite the norm to remind a child that in art ‘there is no wrong or right way’, that you can draw a cat that looks like a cat or paint a figure that to others looks like a blob but in fact it is a cat. Look at Picasso, didn’t he paint odd pictures?

Well then if there is no right or wrong way of making art why do we organize art competitions? Surely by awarding a picture over another we are in fact saying to the children that one is better than the other, or worse that one is right and the other is wrong, the very opposite of what we have been assuring them that art is, beyond judgment.

Children’s art competitions rely on the adults’ judgment of artwork that children produce while still in possession of their creative power (see below Hundertwasser’s ‘From the Creative Knowing to the Creative Ignorant’), so I fear that to judge rather than celebrate children’s art may start a process where the child gradually loses her/his capacity for free creative expression. Furthermore the child, feeling inadequate at not having been rewarded, will desperately try to conform to a ‘right way’ of making art and in the process handing that precious power over to the adult.

The adult classes I run are filled with people who have a great longing to make art – many say they have forgotten how. Often the blocks that prevent their creativity to unfold are rooted in the past, back to their childhood when they were told that they were not good at it. The hardest part then is to get them to accept that we are all capable to express ourselves creatively, if so we choose, but that we go about creating in many different ways and that making art is one beautiful and truly exciting way to discover it.

From the Creative Knowing to the Creative Ignorant

Our true illiteracy is not the inability to read and write,

but the inability to be truly creative.

A child has this creative ability.

The seemingly illiterate, seemingly ignorant child is not ignorant at all

and not at all illiterate, but a creatively knowing being,

and only our system of education degrades him by making him truly illiterate,

a creatively ignorant being.

The adult suffering from the creative impotence that he was taught,

is left with the one possibility

of harking back to his own childhood and starting from there,

continuing from the point were he was torn from his dreams,

which were not dreams at all,

but his real basis, the roots of his existence,

without which he can never, ever be truly human.

 

F. Hundertwasser

Written in Salzburg on 7 August 1981 as a foreword for a brochure on the occasion of the international travelling exhibition of the SOS-Kinderdörfer »Kinder Kunst« (Art by Children), Palais Palffy, Vienna, September/October, 1981.

Friedensreich Regentag Dunkelbunt Hundertwasser was an Austrian artist. Born Friedrich Stowasser in Vienna, he became one of the best-known contemporary Austrian artists.