Catholic Activity: Fostering Good Taste
Newland explains that children need guidance in order to discriminate the truly beautiful art from that which is without value.
This does not mean that children should not be exposed to good art, but the motive should be to stimulate and inspire them and to spark their own ideas, push back a bit farther their own horizons. Unless parents know good art, however, they cannot know to what to expose their children. So far in the struggle between the "knows" and the "know-nots" (the one side deploring, the other defending), I do not think that there is yet a bridge over which the know-nots may cross. It is not enough to realize that there is such a thing as good art. It has also to be comprehended somehow, or it cannot be loved. Byzantine mosaics I love dearly, yet it is entirely understandable to me that someone who has never seen them before may protest, "But they're childish, and unreal, and like dolls cold and stiff." I believe that the know-nots secretly want to know, and I wish someone would start writing books for them: books with good illustrations, and texts that would do for good Christian art what good biographies have done for the saints. Until then, the best they can do is visit museums, comb through bookstores in the hope of finding something that will explain rather than merely illustrate, search out magazines, and ask for help. This "best" is, of course, excellent enough. Unless, however, they are helped to see what is great about, for instance, a Giotto, they are quite apt to end up standing in front of all the tonnage in a Rubens and deciding that this must be good, because it's in a museum and painted by a famous painter and shows the Descent from the Cross.
Children don't come equipped with instinctively good taste. The things they draw themselves are usually good because they are free of sophistication, but usually the things they admire are atrocious (unless they have been surrounded by good art from infancy) because they love all that is gaudy and sentimental and they have been exposed to so much sentimental rubbish that their taste has already been corrupted.
We should also encourage children to draw from models and landscapes and nature. They will not draw what we see, but they will enjoy drawing what they see, looking at a brother or sister or street or field and putting it down on paper, and it is important that we save examples of the works they create, for reference and encouragement. If we let them alone to create in their own way, they will reveal many things we are too old and sour to see ever again with our own eyes, and will recapture only now and then when we see them through the eyes of children.
After living in the country for a long time and seeing many hayfields cut, I saw an entirely new pattern of a hayfield at a local exhibit of children's art. One little girl did a lovely thing with the pattern a baler makes as it goes round and round dropping bales like the check points in a labyrinth. It was exactly as a hayfield looks, but I was no longer simple enough to see it that way.
I have seen many pictures of shepherds receiving with joy the news of the angels at Bethlehem, but never one that explored the glory of the Gloria so gloriously as a four-year-old's shepherds, staggering down the hills with staves giddily swinging over their heads under rays of starlight that fell from the top of the sky to pierce the very stones, and at their heels laughing lambs. It is this ability to make concrete their own vision that is the divine part of the gift of creating.
We help our children become articulate early in life when we encourage them to create. If we help them discover their abilities, we are helping them to know what to do with their lives in maturity. If we teach them further that these things come from God and have a purpose, their early years' creating will discover for them not only what works and skills and arts are theirs but especially how they best speak and serve and praise God.
One child started with drawing, discovered she had talent not for drawing pictures but for drawing designs. She felt her way through modeling and decorating what she modeled, then to making doll clothes with lots of ribbons and beads for ornamentation, then to decorating cookies, and this led to cooking. When asked why she liked cooking best of all the creative arts, she answered, "Because it makes me feel like a woman."
There could be no better end for creative activity for a girl than that it discover for her what womanliness is, and the arts and works that are womanly. She may become a lawyer, a nurse, a teacher, a religious, or a mother, but whatever God wants her to be, if she is to serve well in it she must be womanly. Our society is by no means lacking in women who are unwomanly, to whom woman is synonymous with sexiness, not womanliness. It is the quality of womanliness in a girl, manliness in a boy, governing their talents and expressed through their talents with tenderness, strength, humor, compassion, purity, and so many other ways, that will help these children discover whom God made when He made them. The more they discover the things they can do with their heads and hands, with their eyes and ears and minds and bodies, and know that it is by grace they do them grace freely given with the gift the less they will be driven to imitate others, go where the crowd goes, do what the crowd does. This is the only alternative for people who never discover the gifts God put in them or how to use them. Alone, they have no feeling of wholeness; they are not someone, but anyone; and in a frantic effort to identify themselves as someone they imitate what seems to be integrity in others, in tastes, attitudes, likes, dislikes, opinions, behavior with nowhere a clue to what they were meant to be themselves.
Activity Source: We and Our Children by Mary Reed Newland, Image Books, 1961