ART FOR THE VERY YOUNG -
Background, questions and ideology for the projects Klangfugl kunst for de minste and Glitterbird Art for the very young
In 1997 I made a wild proposal suggesting that The Child and Youth Culture Committee in Arts Council Norway should initiate a project favouring the very youngest children (from three years and below) with high quality art, and collect experiences about producing and presenting art to children younger than three years on a larger scale. I meant that we did not have experiences in this, and that such experiences was needed. The Child and Youth Culture Committeeagreed to this. We did a very thorough preliminary work, especially on ideology, we were given money from an interested Arts Council Norway, we organized a board for administration, planning and following up the project, and we were lucky to engage two very competent project-leaders, Ellen Os and Leif Hernes. In both the board and among the project leaders we have found it necessary to include different kinds of expertise, such as artists, professionals in art (Hernes), on small children (Os), in childhood and on child culture (Selmer-Olsen).
My role in the national Norwegian project, besides taking the initiative and being a connection to the Council, was also being chairman of the board. Since 1997 and under the name KLANGFUGL KUNST FOR DE MINSTE (Art for the very young) we have carried through a one-year pre-project and then a three-year main project in Norway. About twenty productions have been made and presented, we have arranged a conference each year and we ended the practical part of the project with a festival in August 2002.
The name KLANGFUGL is difficult to translate into English, “fugl” means “bird”, but “klang” means something that includes both a notion of sound and music, the Norwegian word “klang” includes a more aesthetical perspective on sounds, perhaps. We found it easier to choose another word in English, therefore the European project following up Klangfugl, was given the name GLITTERBIRD ART FOR THE VERY YOUNG. We were satisfied with the medias interest in the project, and the project has also raised interest in other countries. As chairman I have been very content with the collaboration and how the leaders have run the project, and with the results. And I also experience that Arts Council Norwayis satisfied.
It is with this background, having the feeling of happiness because we had created something new and important, we wanted to go further to Europe. And after some months with hard work, Brüssel said yes to our application for a European project within the program Culture 2000. The European project include Hungary, Finland, Denmark, France (with a link to Italy) and Norway. The project Glitterbird Art for the very young started in November 2003. Ellen Os from Oslo University College is leading the project, assisted by Hernes and Selmer-Olsen. Hernes is working at OsloUniversityCollege, Selmer-Olsen at Queen Maud’s College of Early Childhood Education (DMMH) in Trondheim. The other European participants is Ensemble Fa7 in Paris, France, Kolibri Színház in Budapest, Hungary, Skovtofte Socialpædagogiske Seminarium in Copenhagen, Denmark and The Wings in Helsinki, Finland.
I will say that in such a project a will to sober reflection, sometimes almost to cynicism, is important. Every question is legitimate. Failures and bad experiences are important. The conclusions shall not be fixed at the beginning. We want to get new experiences, not only confirm myths. It has, of course, been gloomy, too. Experienced artists have said that they have never ever been so nervous in front of a public before. The conventions are so different. The prejudices of the grown-ups also. There is seldom applause after the performances, the children are all over the place, and what do you to with the restless or the crying little child? Perhaps is the restless child very touched by something, perhaps does he need a break, perhaps he is having a boring time? We have to reflect and continuously give new interpretations. We are in need of a continual discussion, a continual meeting
My first question is: Is art for the youngest children an important matter?
We can’t say it is a necessary activity for the well-being or development of children. We can’t justify art for small children in necessity. Perhaps it is not even important. But that doesn’t mean that we cannot legitimate art for small children. It isn’t an argument that artists shall be able to sell their art on a broader market. There are much more lucrative markets than this. It isn’t about raising small children so that they sometimes in the future will like what we grown-ups enjoy, and it isn’t about getting them to reproduce our art. I don’t have anything against learning children artistic craft early if the children think it’s fun, but Glitterbird is about something else. It is about art for small children produced by grown-ups, but it is not about forcing this art on the children. It is about grown-ups producing art relevant for small children in their life here and now. Challenging them in their life here and now. Quality art.
It is about what we grant ourselves and what we grant children. For me art is something that is characteristic for the human being, among the most excellent products of human activity. We survive without the most excellent. We can have a good life on vegetables and brown bread. We don’t need the best restaurants. But small children have, as all of us, skills to enjoy and a right to experience the extraordinary, to experience powerful, pleasure-giving and challenging art. As us grown-ups, they sometimes will experience to be overflowed by art produced by artists using all their professional artistic skills.
It is my opinion that art for the youngest is the most under-developed part of the art area, it is characterized by clichés and traditionalism, of reproduction and of reflections dominated by health and effective output for other purposes than art itself. Increased quality of art for small children is very necessary, but in the society this is scarcely a problem at all. To spend so much money to produce quality art for the youngest is therefore a controversial matter. It challenges to critical reflections on quality in art and culture, in art production, in childhood, life and human being. It is very much about power, reflection on how we look upon humanity and the worth of the human being, and it is about differences and similarities between big and small people.
These are some of our questions:
What is quality art for small children when we know that it is important for contemporary art to destroy many of our conceptions about quality in art?
What is art for small children, - a necessity, a human right, a coincident? Or is it luxury or even a plague and stress for the small ones?
Is it so that the smallest of us can have challenges, experiences, ambiguity and complexity, or shall they only have learning, laughter, safety, simplicity and clarity?
If art shall challenge: what is it to challenge an one-year old child? How?
Do small children need quality art?
Which role do the grown-ups have, the parents or the artists?
How is the art reception for small children?
What can artists learn from small children?
What is a child under three years of age: a possibility or a human being?
What is art? Luxury or business activity?
Who ought to have the power to define aesthetical quality? The artist or the public?
What is our message to a child under three years, and how do you listen to them?
It is true that questions and discussions are more important than answers. In this area we fight with a lot of myths and romantic views. It is a romantic childhood (they are so cute and they are natural, genius artists), a romantic view on artists (the artist is in all way of life a genius, and their art is holy) and a romantics view on play (all children’s play is extremely creative, good and developing). And there are myths about educators too (they are some kind of people with no interest of aesthetics and art, their thinking is always instrumental, they always focus on the instrumental secondary effective output.)
We are in a strong need of reflection, knowledge and experience about small children, both individually and in groups, about art, craft and form, about aesthetics and ethics. We are not looking for the definite solution, because we shall always be open for surprises and challenges from all the possibilities we haven’t tried. Knowledge is always based on what we have tried, what we have experienced. And the tried is always tried in special ways and connections, - in special contexts. What we have not tried doesn’t belong to our area of knowledge or experience. It is on this point we should meet with our different backgrounds and visions, artist, cultural workers and child-experts of different kinds. But deepest down we should meet because of the little child, in a belief of the existential necessity of the superfluous art and play.
When we focus on that part of mankind which is under three years of age, several questions and challenges concerning art in general are raised. The many understandable and not-understandable conceptions of childhood, the marginal position of small children in society and in culture forces us to discuss, give reasons and argue for things that are taken for granted and without any questions when it comes to the grown-ups. This shouldn’t irritate us. It is necessary, good and important to reflect.
And we also do this for the sake of art itself. Art for children isn’t about adjusting, modifying, limiting, making it sweet or tiny or less dangerous any more. As for grown-ups, modern art for children in Scandinavia today is about sharpening, expanding, making clear, daring, sensualising and making bodily.
If art moves and touches a grown-up to tears, we are happy and call it quality. It is an acceptable aim. It is a divine gift to be able to bring another human being to laughter, not at least a child. But if artistic impressions bring the child to tears, we get afraid, and sometimes we may almost call it an abuse. When grown-ups weep, we are satisfied, when children cry we get afraid. What are we afraid of? Something inside ourselves? Is it because our lack of knowledge about these little ones? How they react? What do we know about the effect of the impressions we give them? Why do we so rapidly forget how it was to have small children? Is the non-verbal communication frightening, so ambiguous? I do not proclaim that art for small children necessarily shall make them cry, or get them quiet and serious. But this is among those questions we must dare to ask.
If we want to learn something about small children, we have to meet them, dare to meet them, dare to work together with them. Real meetings are changing us. A researcher or an artist will never be un-touched of a real meeting with a small child, being together has an effect upon us and ought to do something with us and our research, ought to do something with our understanding. We have seen this in Klangfugl, we can talk and we can write, but you only get convinced about the incontestable value of the field if you join, see, meet and experience the child in meeting with the artistic presentation.
Challenges to change is about our grown-up flexibility, our ability to be influenced, our readiness to give space, to give the body of the receivers space for initiative. In other words, it is about taking part in relations, about how closed we are in ourselves and in our own projects, to which degree we really want to change ourselves and our art. And all this is necessary to say in spite of the fact that art perhaps above all may be characterized as a space for new creation, changes, movement and development.
Art for the youngest isn’t just about adapting grown-up art for children, neither is it just about making art especially for children, it is about challenging and changing: the art, the artist, the little child and the culture we live within. The relationship between the child and the artist is a mutual relationship whether the receiver is a child or a grown-up. History of art shows a lot of examples of artistic inspiration and expressions taken from the culture of children, both in painting, dance and music.
Our way of thinking easily becomes an either-or-thinking when we think about the smallest among us, whether they are real human beings or not at all, only nature or only culture, competent or in-competent, representing just possibilities for development or just as finished as a grown-up, just objects for learning or care, or subjects for living, big as us or not at all.
The little child is, of course, a completely developed human being. At every stage in life, the human is living a complete life of full value. On the other hand, there are a lot of definitions in the culture and rights in the society that makes it almost impossible to have such a perspective. The little child is, of course, also in the beginning of the history of his life. But as a 51 year old man, I am also developing, I am also on the move, I am neither complete nor fully developed, I will probably be and think something tomorrow which I was not nor thought yesterday. At the same time, as a grown-up, I am burdened by many problems and traumas, sometimes I have so many troubles that it is an art in itself to get to me. I have got so many bruises both on body and soul that I do not want to be touched too much. The little child is a cultural human being able to receive cultural impressions and art. Today we know that. But in opposition to me, it is seldom an art to get to the little child. In this fact there is an enormous responsibility.
The competent child is a problematic and typical Nordic expression. But competence is not anything you just are, nobody is competent. You are competent in proportion to something. The human being is characterized by being fallible and vulnerable. But we all have competences. We do not have the same competence at every age or in every part of life, some we develop, some we perhaps also put an end to. The young ones, as different they may be from each other, is also as a group different from grown-ups.
The project Klangfugl discussed from the beginning in 1997, the relationship between art and education. Klangfugl should definitely not be an educational project. Art for small children is definitively not a learning project. But fear of the instrumental educators also opened up for the other extreme, a romantic view on the artist. The discussion was important, even if its main purpose was to tear down hindrances in thinking and in language, eliminate suspicions and misunderstandings about both art and pedagogics, to create safety and confidence to the fact that we were working towards the same aim, which was the thrill and adventure in art experience. The discussion has calmed down. Nobody want art for small children to be an educational process, or some kind of drilling of knowledge for a future adult life. Children’s meeting with art should, as for grown-ups, be existential experiences for their life here and now. This is partly connected to the fact that all of us learn the whole time, both in continuous and not at least in dis-continuous learning processes. The artist himself is all the time in a learning process, he is learning from both his own art, from that of others, and in his relation to his audience. Of course. We have other and more important things to discuss. There are educators that we can use and there are educators that we cannot use for this purpose. I am sure they may be used for something else. The same is for the artist. There isn’t anything wrong with pedagogics, what is wrong is the instrumental and ever-lasting intentional thinking, what can this be useful for besides the art experience? This never-ending thinking about development and secondary use cannot be combined with art and art experience. The tendency to justify every activity in its usefulness is reductionism. And the tendency is getting stronger the younger the children are. Therefore, the youngest children often will be regarded as having no competence at all. If the child has no competence, learning of course is the only logical activity to talk about.
At the same time we can hear an opposite argument for the needs of the youngest. They are like tomatoes, they are in a situation of vegetative, sleeping growth, they will almost only exist some years, grow and ripen in the sun, warmth and mother-care, with the appropriate feeding and changing of nappies, until they reach the age of three and can start learning. Put in the passifier and let them rest in peace.
Two opposite ways of thinking exist side by side: on the one side the small kids are sleeping tomatoes, on the other everything is regarded as a learning process. Crawling is good for later education in reading and writing. Jokes are useful for language development. The Swedish author Astrid Lindgren’s famous novel “Ronja Røverdatter” is not an artistic experience with a deep emotional touch, but rather useful in learning how to survive in nature. Listening to Grieg’s music is some kind of training in the art of being quiet. How sad may it be? Why do we put off children with packed lunches and usefulness, where grown-ups demand feasts and banquets?
Perhaps we should proclaim a pedagogic of the coincidence, a pedagogic which is about opening ourselves to the world by letting ourselves be touched by all the disturbing coincidences in life, play and art. I think it is very necessary. This is the necessity of the unnecessary (Selmer-Olsen 1995). Children don’t play because it is necessary for their development. Art is not created because it is useful and healthy. You can not argue for play or art with health or usefulness. But then what?
Modern research shows us that small children are capable of receiving and enjoying artistic impressions. The little child is a cultural being. But why art? That is a big question, it is about the value of aesthetics, the value of movement and touching, the value of challenge, chaos and destruction, it is even about the vulnerable human being with all its mistakes and its longings towards the perfect and the destructed, towards something else, towards dark and light, towards the strict and all that is bound by rules as well as towards the destroyed, the distorted, the interrupted and the carnivalesque, towards ugly and beauty, pain and laughter, towards retrieve something in some way, retrieve some of myself, and especially something I didn’t expect to find, not in myself and not in the art, it is about some new way of thinking, new expressions, new direction or new form, it is about mercy or even about grace, what do I know other than that it is very necessary. It is thought, it is feeling, it is form. It is much and it is ambiguous. And so it will be for children too. Even a very little child will be able to recognize.
I can see that this is near to a general view on art. I will not make it clearer, and especially I will not try to say anything about quality, only that for me personally it has to be connected to some kind of challenge, something new, and in some way therefore also some kind of destructing. But according to quality it is possible to have different perspectives and that is interesting when we focus on the small children. Who ought to define the criterions for quality? The artist or the educated public? Or perhaps the audience, the little child?
In 1995 the Danish professor Beth Juncker wrote about modern, avantgardistic art and cultural products for children, saying that these products have been looked upon as some kind of “adultification” of child culture. They are characterized as exiting, but difficult, and only suitable for some very few and specially developed children. Aesthetically they have forgotten the normal rules for adaptation and offer artistic experiences that are not governed by superior educational aims, considerations about age, development, intellectual skills or needs. On the contrary, these new products may be characterized as having a seeking, asking and open view. It is not possible to categorize them under the pedagogical, sociological or informative view child culture until now has been using. They have taken their own way, they have in an inappropriate way mixed what was considered suitable for grown-ups and suitable for children. They have thrown away traditional classifications according to age, users and subjects, and opened meta-storytelling, experiences end interpretations usually reserved for adults: not one message only, not only one correct interpretation, but some kind of receptiveness that asks for different ages and different possibility of interpretation.
Beth Juncker says that workers in the field of child culture know that it is exiting and excellent things to find here, but both form and content make them insecure and that leads them to the classical question, which also is a form of rejection: Is this suitable for children? Juncker says, yes, this is for children, but with another way of looking at children and childhood. Children aren’t any longer at some primitive early stage on the development to adult life, children are not empty boxes any more, boxes than can be filled up with knowledge, values and good manners, Childhood is something in it self and this something is always playing an unknown part in the equation of their life.
This represents a good-bye to an old view upon childhood and to an instrumentalism based on this view. But of course, we must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. The Norwegian researcher Jorun Spord Borgen has for example registered much arrogance among artists towards teachers and knowledge about children.
So where are we now? We have taken a new view upon childhood and children, on what children are capable of receiving, a new and liberating view on what art may be for children. But at the same time we have demanded attention to what makes a child different from an adult. That is a demand of knowledge, experience and professionalism. How do we describe this child and the (play) culture of this child?
We have been occupied with defining differences, that’s the way we think, but we should also ask for similarities between adults and children, perhaps there are more of that than of differences. We are all part of each other. The culture is all the time alive and it plays together with all of us. But there is a difference which makes it possible to constitute a theory about children’s own culture. Children’s culture exists as a special way of approaching it all. The constituting factor, and this is told us by Beth Juncker as well by Flemming Mouritsen, is in the way children approach matters. No one is born with lingual conceptions, with logical-abstractive thinking and explanations. Children got their body, their senses and their emotions as their access. That is another language. That is some other tools. That is another base for aesthetics. This founds children’s access and perspective from the start. Adults have it both, and we have used our power to underestimate or disallow the perspectives of the child. We consider them being of no importance and of a lower value. But this sensitive and emotional access and communication is the speciality of childhood. We can only study it in interaction and context. And we will never find it pure. Children have heads too.
Although. This may be too idyllic. Children, and the relationship children and childhood have to our culture, has also some darker and more problematic sides than this.
There are some kinds of anxiety or fear for children in the Nordic culture. This fear may be founded in how children shameless expose the nature of mankind. Because of this, adult society tries to push children away, tries to isolate them or to inflict them with the definitions of adult society. This anxiety is not a new one. There is something repulsive with the child, something we fear or something that threatens us, threatens our power and our order. Children are threatening the adult identity because the disorder of children shows us that our identity is only based on myths and rhetoric. Our identity is relative. Further we fear the pain from our own childhood, the reminder of the child inside us, and we may feel anxiety towards the unfinished, the not full-ended. Natural features of childhood are unpleasant because we have to admit that this characteristics is a true feature of ourselves as adults. The natural childish characteristics is not something that disappear among adults, they are only suppressed by enculturation. Some researchers says today that children do not have a body, they are body. Their competence, play and expressions are connected to the body. The culture in which they are being enculturated, is working against this by making taboos. Adults are threatened by children when it comes to the body and to the limits of the body. We deal with a culture that are making aesthetics of the light and airy, the barren and sterile, the things that not are smelling, the quiet and the not tactile. This fear of the body is clearly noticed by the children, and in children’s own folklore for example in jokes and songs, we can see them challenge this taboo.
The child has different cultural experiences than adults. For this reason, the adult will often call children’s way of being as unpredictable. It is threatening our need of control. And in many cultural situations the need of controlled behaviour is extreme. Adults react especially on uncontrolled sounds, smells and movements. (Selmer-Olsen 1999).
You may feel it strange that I talk about anxiety of children, and I presume it is even worse when I feel the need of talking about shame. An aim in traditional Nordic upbringing is to place the responsibility with the child itself. It is about letting the child take internal control instead of having external, visible and audible authoritarian controlling tools, such as instruments, barriers, equipment, reprimands, punishment, rejection etc. In the Nordic countries this may go so far that our conception about the perfect child, is the child that adapts to the culture themselves, they raise themselves. The perfect Nordic child brings themselves up, the child - only by living side by side with their adult, almost without being talked to - will develop to well raised small humans on their own. If this project succeeds, it will represent an enormous confirmation of the life and upbringing of the adult himself. But if the child doesn’t raise himself in a proper way, which he seldom do, it will give the parents a feeling of shame and of being a failure. Not only because they failed with their child, but also because this will expose their own upbringing as a failure. The shameless revealing of the child’s lacking enculturation, is the shame of the parents, not only because they have failed, but also because this shows everybody that the raising of the parents has failed. This rather worrying Nordic cultural tendency is getting even stronger when it is a culturally increasing demands that little child it should be visible in public life outside the private family scene. (Skårderud 2001)
Art may be about expressing things that are not yet expressed, and about expressing it in way that communicates and challenges in our context with the little child. At the same time art also has to contain the mystery of aesthetics, art shall say what has not been said, and at the same time leave some open space for me or for the little child to enter. New, open, exciting, dangerous, beautiful and sometimes even destructing spaces which open new rooms inside me and roads for me to follow into your rooms.
This poetically empty room in your text is a place where I can rest, understand and experience what is mine enlightened by what is yours. In this place in my text there shall be a space for your unwritten texts. We now enter a space where art and play meet. It is a space for meetings. What kind of space? What kind of meetings? The Swedish social psychologist Johan Asplund tells us that play is responsivity, but this responsivity, he says, is not necessarily social. So one of the rooms I talk about, may be the playful place where the artist meets his material, where the raw material gives the artist and the player its response. Another room is the room in which the art receiver enters, that is also a room for creating. A creative activity we in one appearance may call interpretation, an activity where the aim is to get the performance, the text, the music or the picture to respond or dance with the receiver. Some place where there is also some kind of meeting between the artist and the art receiver, here the child. But that is in a way an indirect meeting, a meeting focusing on a third part, on the art or the play, on something we show, something both parts are devoted to.
This makes it at the same time both easy and difficult. Easy because we both as artists and players may hide behind the work or in the play, even though the work and the play often are more undressed than anything else. Difficult because the artist through this meeting “through the third” has to give away his art, he will never be able to control the way the art will be understood.
The meeting may feel easier because we are not directly confronted with other people. You may ask to which degree the receiver is present in the mind of the artist during the creative process, and to which degree the receiver manages or ought to be included.
It is the hypothesis of the Klangfugl/Glitterbird project that quality art for children is something else than quality art for adults. The way we see it, competence about small children has to be included. And we want to gather experience and get more knowledge on how we can tempt small children into the room where an art meeting may take place, and how we can gather around the art, how the art itself shall appear. I will not give any conclusions now, it is too early. But never the less, I am quite sure to say that this is not a room for language and intelligence. This is a perceptual, sensual space, a space with bodies and responsivity. An artist communicating with small children must have this room in his thoughts in quite another way than when meeting adults. It must be possible to enter this room with more of the human than its intellect. There ought to be a face to rest in, it should be a room for sounds and touches.
This is an attempt, a try to develop a meaningful metaphor for the arty meeting. We have the metaphor “the poetical empty room” from the literary scientist Iser. I try to describe the room in which the artist enters when he will create his work in concrete materials, movements or sounds, a room which also the child enters to recreate or retell the work, making it meaningful for the receiver, giving challenges or resonance in the onlooker, the listener, the toucher, the smeller, the thinker …
To catch a glimpse of another person
Personally it is so that those works of art that hit me, are works in which I can weave myself into. They are like warm coats which inspire me and give me safety to walk some few steps further in the cold, they are like hands to hold, as erotic temptations, as release of sorrow or like challenging pushes on my back. On some levels there are a vision about wiping out the border between the creator and the receiver, between artist and receiver, so both may be visible to each other in the same room. But visions are some kind of craving or longing. They are necessary, but at the same time without meaning if we reduce them into practical, achievable aims.
I believe we ought to be very grateful if we now and then may catch a glimpse of another person.
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