But is this Art?…But is this Prodigy?

The comments in my last post have spurred some insightful ideas on the whole notion of what Art is, and whether a child’s production can include such inherent elements as soulful expression, and purposeful creation driven by theoretical stance.

I think a more appropriate question is, “But is this Prodigy?”

In his review of the documentary My Kid Could Paint That, New York Times film critic A. O. Scott acknowledges that it is natural for parents to cherish their children’s work. Those doodlings and finger paintings posted on the fridge door are priceless. He goes on to say:

The untaught sense of color and composition that children seem naturally to possess sometimes yields extraordinary results, and the combination of instinct and accident that governs their creative activity can produce astonishing works of art.

Except that these magical finger-paint daubings and crayon scribblings aren’t really works of art in any coherent sense of the term, but rather the vital byproducts of play, part of the cognitive and sensory awakening that is the grand, universal vocation of childhood.

The influential abstract art critic Clement Greenberg had made the following controversial remark: 

In visual arts, prodigies don’t count. In music and literature, yes, but not in art.”

The statement reiterates his view that:

The making of superior art is arduous.”

I tend to agree with him. 

I have seen music prodigies, not having reached the ripe old age of 10 or 12, performing complex pieces of classical compositions.  In contrast to a child pouring paint and spreading it out intuitively with her fingers, I saw behind those performances the countless hours of excruciating practice, the intricate and sometimes impossible eye-hand coordination, the mastery of the theory and the appreciation of the structure of the work, to ultimately evoking the very spirit intended by the composer as they perform. 

Not only that, the best of them make it deceptively simple.  They make the audience feel that they are watching a natural, born with such ability and talent, rendering hard work an oxymoron.  I’m not doubting there’s intuition and instinct involved.  But in every superb playing I see intuitive musicality alchemized with extraordinary mastery of skills and discipline. 

As for literary prodigies?  Maybe because of my limited exposure, I have yet to read one.

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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

2 thoughts on “But is this Art?…But is this Prodigy?”

  1. My understanding of “prodigy” is that, when compared to other children of same age, they can perform at a much higher level in a certain area.

    We can look at a five year old child who can perform complex piano pieces with skills normally acquired by many years of learning and say this child is a prodigy.

    When it comes to more abstract and free-style, spreading paint type of painting, how do we gauge how much skills are required and WHY would we be “wowed” by a certain paint splash by a kid compared to another paint splash by a kid similar age. Is one splashed in a “better” way than another ?

    I ask myself as a parent, whether I would want my child to be a “prodigy”. Somehow, the idea of prodigy does not mean too much to me. Of course, having a child who can play that complex piece of Chopin at age 4 is something to be proud of. But what does this take her is more of a concern to me.

    I have 3 children who go to so called gifted program. “Gifted” or not, is only a starter. Life is a journey !

    I am proud of the fact that they have a desire to learn, not how much they have accomplished.

    As an adult, we all know, being able to perform/possess all these above expectation, performance or abilities may not mean much in one’s life if they don’t have direction, happiness and be sure of themselves. A life time learning is far more satisfying and rewarding !!


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