Jake Chapman, one half of the YBA duo the Chapman Brothers, has been rude about taking children to art galleries. He told the Independent that ‘it’s as moronic as a child’ to expect a child to understand complex modern artists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko as ‘children are not human yet’. His forthright views have elicited a predictable response. Stephen Deuchar, the director of the Art Fund (who seems to be angry on a regular basis about some latest insult to the noble visual arts), countered on the Today programme that children can indeed appreciate a work of art deeply. Anthony Gormley told the Times that art is there to be experienced not understood. And the lady who wrote the Vagenda book told the Guardian that she had seen marvellous conceptual art aged three and that ‘access to art has made my life better’ and that ‘art teaches us what it is to be human’.
All of these views miss the mark entirely. Taking one’s children to look at modern and contemporary art, as I regularly do, is an important way of demonstrating one’s cultural superiority over the masses; but there are very specific ways of doing this. I choose blockbuster exhibitions at Tate Modern and, using my Tate Members card, bypass any queuing, which marks one down as either a tourist, an interloper or someone who has made their gallery visit some sort of special occasion.
Secondly, I make sure I bypass most of the exhibition, walking noisily with the kids and my long-suffering partner through the first few rooms. Then I pick one work somewhere in the middle of the exhibition to stand in front of and talk about in a way that is both highly knowledgeable and disarmingly charming to kids. So for instance in the Klee exhibition, this was a delightful 1925 work called Fish Magic that featured fish, a daisy and a funny man with two noses and three eyes. After five to ten minutes of horsing around near the fish painting, I then moved the family through the rest of the exhibition talking about what we might eat in the member’s room and its nice view. This makes it clear that, for my family, looking at a single Klee fish painting is all part of a rich tapestry of everyday visual cultural experiences that ranges from Peppa Pig to late Malevich.
Jake Chapman makes a simple mistake in assuming that most adult visitors understand the modern art they are looking at, and that children are somehow not ready. This is simply not the case. Most adults have no idea what modern art is about. They are there so they can tell their friends back in Winchester that they had a splendid educational day out in London. It is likely that poor Jake is still smarting from reviews of the Chapman brothers show at the Serpentine earlier this year. The Guardian’s critic, Adrian Searle, concluded his review by asking, ‘Will children be horrified, corrupted or given nightmares if they see this show?’, and answered it by suggesting that kids ‘might just want to go home and make a Chapman for themselves’. Kids knocking out do-it-yourself Chapmans? No wonder Jake wants them banned from museums.