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No, Jake Chapman, opening culture to young people is never a waste of time

The artist, nominated for the Turner Prize in 2003, has stoked controversy to gain media attention. It is still worth resisting his fundamentally misguided claims.

An infant inspects a work at the National Exhibition of Children's Art at the Royal Institute Galleries
Absolutely no human understanding taking place at such an uneducated level. Photo: John Franks/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Art world insiders are frequently charged with accusations of “snobbery”. Why are artists so self-aggrandising? Why are families who visit art galleries so self-applauding? Of course, it is a stereotype which dogs visual art in particular, where pretentiousness is seen as par for the course. Stereotypes can stem from legitimate concerns. They can also have pernicious effects. If we want culture to remain a vibrant part of our society - and we do - where people are encouraged to explore new and fulfilling aspects of life, we need to deal with the perception that “art just isn’t for me”, or worse, “I don’t get it anyway”.

Set against these worries, comments made recently by Jake Chapman seem especially absurd. The visual artist, whose work in collaboration with his brother Dinos is often shocking and confusing (Sex – an array of decaying bodies fastened to a tree – and Death – two blow-up dolls in a 69 position, are prominent examples), has claimed that taking children to art galleries is a “total waste of time.” On the familiar comparison of Henri Matisse paintings to a child’s, he asserted that that “there is no connection ... It’s a ridiculous thing to say.” Assertions of this nature are rooted in a desire to underscore the depth of meaning behind works of art and bolster “high culture”. Exploring the message behind artistic works is a valid enterprise. Telling people not to help their children experience art is detrimental and irresponsible.

The most stinging, and most revealing, element of Chapman’s critique was his statement that presenting a child with a work by Jackson Pollock is “like saying ... [the work is] as moronic as a child.” “Children are not human yet,” he added. It is clear that Chapman – whose father was a school art teacher – is deliberately trying to be provocative. That’s his aim here. But the result will be that the popular impressions of art as esoteric and self-important will prevail, and the artistic community will become isolated. It is unlikely that Chapman actually wants this latter effect. If he did, then “snob” would be an appropriate label. If he were to aiming his comments purely at those who are “less than a village idiot,” then we could reject his ideas as unpleasant and move on.

However, there is something much more objectionable in the targeting of children. To understand why, Anthony Gormley’s rebuff of Chapman is a good place to start. Suggesting that art isn’t to be understood, but instead should be “experienced,” Gormley touched upon the central issue here. Trying to reject children’s interactions with art on the grounds that they are not “human” makes little sense. The human experience is something that, as Dea Birkett has pointed out, begins at birth. To reject that is to reject any creative work that uses a child’s experiences or interactions as grounds for its message. Birth, says Birkett, is the “magical moment” that qualifies us to experience art.  This is completely accurate. Merely existing as a human being is all we need connect emotionally and consciously to a form of expression. It is simply not true that we must always rationalise our feelings into highbrow statements of meaning. Even if the faculty of artistic experience lacks practice in a child, claiming that we shouldn’t foster it from an early age is madness.  

Not every person who enjoys abstract art could list off all of the deep, psychological or emotional ideas it revealed to them (or the theory that underpins the work). Are those who are unable therefore less “human” than the artists themselves? His is a dangerous game to garner attention. There cannot plausibly be any harm in taking a child to view some works by Picasso even if the child will merely develop a taste for bold colours drawn in interesting ways. There is no zero-sum game here; children enjoying art aesthetically doesn’t mean that some buff of high culture need suffer. If people begin to think that it does, we will be worse off for it.

All things considered, perhaps the children who enjoy art in their earlier years, for whatever reason, will continue exploring, or even producing, works as they age. What could be better for the maintenance of a vibrant artistic community and the health of culture in our society? Chapman’s comments are more than just incendiary. His view is counter-productive for the cultural world and would impoverish artistic life universally if he had his way.

Discussion of these points can go on indefinitely. For Jake Chapman, it seems that the most enjoyable – and lucrative – part of his performance is offending people. Will Gompertz, the BBC’s Arts Editor, cynically described Chapman’s craft of media manipulation. “The formula is simple: When you have an exhibition to promote, say something mildly inflammatory to the press, and watch the ticket sales soar.” But if more people enjoy Chapman’s work thanks to this exposure, that would be no bad thing. Resfreshing our ideas about art is always worthwhile. Avoid taking the kids to Chapman’s exhibition though - it really isn’t pretty.