What is Art? -- at age 10
What is Art? audio LINK - Art Education HOME

by Marvin and Beth Bartel
© 2011, 2012 update, author bio, contact

Click HERE for the URL for the mp3 audio file

In 1976, I read an article explaining a Harvard study to find out what most children thought art was. Being an art educator and a parent, it spiked my curiosity. I wondered if our children, growing up in the home of an art educator, would have similar conceptions and misconceptions. I asked our daughter Beth, age 10, if I could interview her. My interview does not replicate the Harvard study. I simply asked questions that were inspired as I read the article. This interview is about 20 minutes. While she agrees with the study in that she thinks good art is whatever you like, she disagrees with many of the other conclusions about art.
Her final statement reveals profound insights.

I am posting this interview to encourage teachers and parents to get to know their children better, and help them learn to think better by asking them thoughtful questions.

To hear as much as you like of our discussion: click What is Art. This audio is © bartelart.com. Teachers have permission to play it in a presentation or as background sound while their studio art class is working, but this audio may not be published or posted without permission. contact. Your response are welcome.

Our children had no coloring books. We had an endless supply of paper, paint, and drawing tools. They colored their own drawings. We had wooden blocks and sets of construction toys. We hid the pattern sheets. Being a potter myself, an unlimited supply of clay was always on hand. They came with us to art museums to wonder with us about the what might have inspired artists to produce all these amazing works.

Beth is now a mother herself. Her articulate mind provides a living. She is an explanatory writer who writes and edits instructions for computer software. As an editor, she understands why most of us are frequently frustrated by the instructions (help files) we go to when we are stumped by something about our computer. Too many writers know the material, but do not explain in clear and consistent language.


Art education nurtures the imagination, experimentation, and discovery. it gives flying lessons to the mind.

flying clay chicken

This is a flying clay chicken made by a kindergarten child inspired by a chicken that flew out of its cage in the classroom while she was practicing blind contour drawings of the chicken.

The use of open awareness building questions instead of instructions gives a child choices and thinking practice. The encouragement of responding to new and ordinary experiences encourages ongoing thinking and expression. Affirming, reiterating, articulating, and asking open questions to extend the child's own recall and ideas builds self-confidence, discoveries, and knowledge about art and life.


(left) Beth dreaming, 1975. (right) Beth's artwork at age 9. images © bartelart

*The article was:
"How Children Learn: three stages of understanding art." by Howard Gardner and Ellen Winner, Psychology Today, March 1976, pages 42, 45, & 74. Winner
is now Professor and Chair, Department of Psychology, Boston College where she directs the Arts and Mind lab. She is a Senior Research Associate, Harvard Project Zero. Gardner is the Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education. His many books on education include Multiple Intelligences, 1993.

As the child of an artist, Beth, agreed on some points with 10-year-olds in the study. However, being quite familiar with all kinds of art, she had a significantly broader view of what constituted art. She did not place such a high value on realism. Her opening response suggests that metaphor or symbolism would be better than realism. Her insistence that creativity is essential in art was stronger than that of the average child.

In Gardner and Winner's conclusion, they advocate that all children need to have experiences that are similar. They state:

"If children . . . saw and talked to artists at work, art might become real, less remote. If children in the early grades could follow the creation of a painting from beginning to end, they might better understand the difference between an object and its representation. If children in the middle years wrote poems in class and discussed together why one phrase or word was preferable to another, they could begin to appreciate the formal criteria for judgment." (pg 74)

The recommendation to compare and discuss phrases and words, brings to mind teachers who display the students works and ask open questions that lead to new discoveries and learning. What do you see? Why do we notice that? What do you think it might mean? What would it feel like if you were in the work? Why do you think the work was done? Critiques in art classes can be managed in ways that avoid bad feelings. As I questioned Beth, I did not need to compliment, praise, or affirm her answers. We just handled it like a civil discussion and she remained positive and motivated. While conducting a group critique I would try to show appreciation for thoughtful and considerate participation. Sharing a good question is generous and helpful. A good discussion can providing many new and useful ideas and concepts. Similar methods can then be used to study and compare works of master artists as well. After learning how to learn about their own efforts, children will have a readiness to take on similar questions about the works of O'Keeffe, Kollwitz, Beardon, Kahlo, Picasso, Ringgold, Kandinski, and many others. Once a good studio learning culture is established, students can also be encouraged to question each other as they work, knowing that they have learned the learning value of positive civil interaction. Having established a healthy collaborative classroom culture, we can teach less while expecting more learning. At this point it may be possible for an art teacher to work on something that stretches her own artistic mind and heart. --MB

CONTACT the author | Author BIO
HOME bartelart.com
BACK to Art Education HOME







All rights reserved. © Marvin Bartel.  The audio, images, or text may
not be reproduced, published or copied without permission. You may make links to this page.
If you are teacher, you may play the audio in an attributed presentation.
site sponsor
Art Department

Where even the faculty knows your name

^^^ | Goshen, Indiana, USA | ^^^