The Offense of the Child Art Prodigy?

Recently, a new prodigious child artist has “exploded” into the forefront of the art world. Aelita Andre, a 6 year old abstract painter from Australia has taken the art world by storm, having been coaxed by her artist father into painting at the age of 22 months. Impressive? Perhaps.

At 6, she’s already had two solo exhibits, the latest at Agora Gallery in New York city. Yet, much controversy surrounds her “genius”. Is her artwork worthy of such high praise? Is she a child prodigy? Or as Huffington Post asks, “Is this child a genius or just a kid having fun?”

In 2007, a similar child artist, Marla Olmstead, captured the attention of the public in the documentary, “My Kid Could Paint That” Marla, like Aelita was a seemingly prodigious child who produced outstanding pieces of abstract art. Many critics though questioned the authenticity of her work, claiming her artist father had a heavy hand in completing her pieces. As of 2010, it appears Marla has not produced any art, at least not for public consumption. Her website has not been updated for years, and no news of her work has been circulated anywhere as of late.

The question I have though, is not whether these children are in fact geniuses, as they may or may not be, but rather how the public has such difficulty in accepting art when its author is put into question.

I wonder whether we’d cast such a critical eye on an artist if she was 50 years old, versus 5 years old. Would we ever ask whether the 50 year old who may have only painted for 3 years since was “just having fun” or a was indeed a “prodigy”. We’d likely say neither.  For it appears that the context of the author matters much in the interpretation of the value of the art. I do not however, want to get into the monetary valuation of art, because that is an entirely separate topic of discussion on the economies of the art world.

Rather, I wonder why we have such a hard time accepting that a child could in fact create interesting art without necessarily a precursor in knowledge to dictate their work? In the case of Aelita and Marla who both created abstract paintings, the question is often that of sophistication – that their abstract art is an unsophisticated, uncomplicated, and technique-less foray. It is not real art that requires skill or foresight, and therefore any child could create it.

If Aelita and Marla painted realism paintings at the age of 5, we’d have absolutely no problems proclaiming them prodigies. But because they paint abstractly, their work is called into question. Of course, the techniques needed in realism painting would require that Aelita and Marla have training, and it would unlikely appear in a child of 22 months, for example, given the child’s lack of fine motor skills at that age.

What I find interesting about these child artists is not their age, nor their circumstances (many having parents who are artists), but that ultimately what these people (little or big) have created are in fact interesting expressions of the world which resonates with those viewing them. Of course, their age adds the necessary splash of controversy and gossip that fuels the media machine, but it certainly need not devalue the expression in the art.

Abstract art is a physical art that comes from being able to translate the world into visions and feelings that are not seen or represented in the real world. It’s often about process more than it is about logic. Many may look at abstract art and see a mess of colours on a canvas, but it is actually very difficult to do well.

Most people, if given a random assortment of paints would not create what Marla or Aelita have done. Most children would not either. There is more to just splashing paint on canvas. There is form, movement, depth, colour, tension, space that make abstract art so interesting to look at. And just because you’re a child, does not mean you do not have the capacity to create that. In fact, it probably gives you better faculties to do so because abstract art requires a person to do away with boundaries, preconceptions, and logic that we are taught in navigating the world.

Further, the argument that these children would never be “prodigies” if it weren’t for their parents coaxing, I say, “Of course they wouldn’t!” If Marla and Aelita were never given a paintbrush they would not have the opportunity to express themselves through art. People may be born with talent, but it is opportunity and circumstances that shape genius into anything noticeable. You cannot blame a person for having opportunity, nor can you blame those for giving it to them.

So yes, I do believe in the child art prodigy, just as I believe in the child math prodigy, or child musician prodigy, child poet prodigy, or savants in general. It is all an expression of our human-ness at some peak form, and no age should necessarily dictate whether or not you are able.

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