Many of us look back on squandered childhood opportunities for cultural edification, and shudder. How could we have been so ignorant and uncaring? I remember such a time at a San Francisco Dim Sum restaurant when I was a lad; my parents still rave that it was the best Dim Sum they've ever eaten, but I had no interest in trying something new that day. I think I ate a mediocre hamburger instead. So how do we get our children to appreciate art?
- Don't be a snob. Kids don't enjoy feeling like their taste is being belittled. If they associate "art" with "judgment," then they're not going to appreciate art. Don't give any lectures about notions of "high art" or even entertain these notions privately in your mind, because they will hamper your child's art appreciation. If your child likes some little-known indie rock music, don't reject it as an art form just because it wasn't written by Schubert. After all, wasn't he an almost entirely unappreciated indie musician in his day?
- Take your kids to a museum, concert or art venue or any kind. But don't just take them there and expect that they'll develop an instant appreciation for art. You should introduce your kids to some of the art they will encounter there first so that they are not completely unfamiliar with all of the works of art (a little bit of familiarity is comforting in a sea of unfamiliar things). They may even develop favorites that they can't wait to see or hear in person.
- Don't just say, "Isn't that pretty?" When you view art with your kids, you can encourage art appreciation by expressing your own appreciation more eloquently than that. What aspect of that photograph conveys tranquility? How does the painter show movement through brushstrokes? Encourage closer observation from your children by making observations yourself. Even if you know how deep your appreciation goes, no one else would know from descriptions like "pretty." Remember, your kids look to you for an example of behavior.
- Ask them for their observations. Your kids will be more energized and appreciative of the art if you solicit their observations. How did the brass instruments in "Symphonie Fantastique" make them feel? Why would Van Gogh paint a pair of old, shriveled up shoes?
As you solicit their observations, remember the old line from your childhood: "No response is a silly response." Don't ask about your kid's observations only to offer correction when you've heard them. At the least someday you can fondly remember her first steps toward a greater appreciation of art. And you could very well deepen your appreciation of art through her observations.
- Help them discover the art in their interests. Art can be found everywhere. Do your kids like cartoons? Sit down with them and enjoy a book exploring the art of animation. Does your child like baseball? If so, there are plenty of contemporary sports artists whose paintings or photography might impress your kid. What about comic books? Food? Dance? Music? Writing? Some combination of several of these? Art encompasses so many different parts of our cultural experience that it would be tragic to adopt a limited perspective on it. Use your child's interests to pave roads toward greater art appreciation. If your kid likes indie rock, then listen to it with him and find an aspect of it that you consider interesting as well. Discuss the artistic decisions the artist has made, and use those decisions to introduce your kid to different artists.
- Hands-on cultivation of art appreciation. In keeping with the previous step, encourage your child to create art of her own in whatever form captivates her. If she loves the guitar work of AC/DC, then buy her a guitar and invest in some lessons. If your son likes comic books, encourage him to develop his own illustrative and writing skills, perhaps by taking classes as well. Nothing enhances art appreciation quite like participation in the creative process.
- Exposure, exposure, exposure. Actually, the aforementioned Dim Sum example can shed some light on a child's art appreciation in several ways. First and foremost, a kid's tastes are not yet fully developed. No matter how many Brussels sprouts you force down their gullets, they'll still most likely hate them. But be persistent, and ultimately your kid's taste will evolve to the point that Brussels sprouts are no longer a chore, but instead a comforting treat. If someone had spoken to me at length about the culinary art of shumai when I was a kid, my opinion of them probably would have been no different. But now Dim Sum is one of my favorite meals.
The same is true with art in general. 18th Century European portraiture may take some time for a kid to appreciate (I'm still working on my appreciation of it). You may encounter resistance when going to a museum or concert. Don't get discouraged. Try another old line from your childhood: "You'll thank me when you're older."
- Think like a child. Art has a natural tendency to evoke childlike wonder anyway. But ask yourself, 'Would my kid be more fascinated by 18th Century European portraiture or Monet's optically astounding Rouen Cathedral series, in which the form of the building actually gains and loses clarity based on the distance you are from the canvas? Would my kid enjoy seeing a sculpture of Leda with the Swan, or instead a Picasso painting of a guy whose eye rests precariously on his nose? And do I really feel like explaining Leda and the Swan to my kid?'
There are exceptions to every rule, but most children will be bored by old, dark portraits of obscure historical figures. That doesn't mean you shouldn't expose your child to art that isn't as accessible to him at the moment. But when he expresses boredom or lack of appreciation for Crumb's "Black Angels," you might try "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" instead.
Every day presents you with new opportunities to encourage art appreciation in your kids, from the music that they enjoy to the movies they watch. How did little Billy become William Shatner (if you think he isn't an artist, then go back to step one, and then watch "Incubus")? Encourage your kids to appreciate art, so that they can inspire another generation in the future.