Art: the basis of

Adolescence and Confusion

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Adolescence and Confusion

Adolescence, by itself, is a separate subject for educators. Many people consider it to be a difficult age. Some even call it the age of crisis. Whatever it may be, there is no doubt that it is an entirely new experience for the child. For him the whole world changes. The psychology of the child changes when he is just entering or has just entered the adolescent stage. This change is partly due to the physical growth in the child's own body, and his almost suddenly becoming aware of it. It may even become an obsession occupying his mind continuously. On account of the fear of social stigma and their own shyness most children are not able to talk about it. As a result they do not find the necessary explanation, an explanation that would relieve them of the pressures within. They are distracted from other activities and interests. Whereas the bodily demands become more like those of the adult, the mind is not quite prepared to respond to the new situation. In other words, the stage of early adolescence in fact is a stage of confusion.
Towards the end of the last stage, the child has started becoming conscious of the actual form of objects that he tries to draw. With the advent of adolescence that kind of awareness makes a very significant impact on drawing. Now his or her eyes do not want to see any visual difference between the object and the drawing that he or she wants to make, which seems difficult. He feels defeated. The new awareness, generally, takes the child away from art work.
Most teachers believe that in cases other than those of born artists, the stage of defeatism is inevitable. They believe that it is a natural and normal step in the ladder of growth and that everyone has to pass through the period of crisis. We shall discuss this topic later, but for our present purpose let us agree that in today's situation, educationally and socially, the crisis of adolescence will invetiably occur, and unless the educational thinking and planning does not change, crises, not only in art teaching but in every aspect of life will remain problematic. We shall now discuss each of these stages in some detail.

Child's First Scribbling

One of the first things noticed in the movements/activities of babies is the way they try to put everything into their mouth. It is because the baby's introduction to the outside world takes place first through the mouth, for fulfilling the most important need for survival—sucking is its first method of knowing and feeling the objects that are around. Then comes knowing by touching and holding by hand, first by the fist. Then comes the feeling of holding hard or soft, liquid or pasty material which challenges and motivates the baby to bang it around, mess about or spill. I have no doubt these are the most important activities for children at that stage to gain first-hand knowledge of the world around.

Tools and Materials

When a child gets hold of something that can make marks on a surface, and sees others using that material or having discovered its use by accident, the child will try it over and over again for pleasure, further discovery, practice and demonstration (illus. no. 21). This activity changes and develops along with increasing muscular control of the hand and shoulders. Until the control reaches the stage of holding with the fingers and the control of wrist movements improves it will hold the pencil with the whole fist and make the scribblings by moving the arm and shoulder simultaneously. Until now the wrist and the elbow have not developed their independent movements. Let us call it, the stage of muscular movements. Scribblings of this period are circular (illus. no. 20). When wrist movements become independent of the shoulder, and the fingers replace the wrist movements, these scribblings are generally made from one side to the other, and tend to become angular (illus. no. 23).
At this stage, the child does not make drawings of particular things. Even if asked to name the scribble he or she will say nothing. That is because there is nothing in the child's mind either before or after the drawing is made. It is pure self-expression through bodily movements and scribbling.

Naming the Scribblings

After gaining certain degree of dexterity in the use of the tool, e.g. pencil or crayon, children start doing some sort of purposive scribbling, and giving names to the drawing when asked. These scribblings are not necessarily related to the form or shape of the object named. The child is fully satisfied by giving a name, some name, to the drawing (illus. nos. 24 & 25).
The next step in this stage is more or less purposive in concrete terms. The child now has something specific in mind. This is the beginning of the stage of symbols. Children's first favourite subject is the human figure, which acquires a fairly correct representation (illus. nos. 27 & 30). This is after attaining sufficient control over the finger movements.
Some teachers believe that this kind of planning relates to a fixed form in the mind of the child. But our experience is that the form goes on changing. If the child gives a name to a particular symbol, it does not mean that for that very object the child will always draw the same form. There is a symbolic schema in the child on the basis of which the pictures—of ten human figures—are drawn.
It is to be noted that although the general schema may look the same with different children, it varies in its interpretation of the form of the object depicted. The child is now quite clear, either consciously or otherwise, about what is to be drawn; it is, after all, the expression of his or her inner experiences. The child still draws what he knows and not what he sees. It is more logical for him than being visually correct or incorrect. Adult onlookers, who understand the child, accept this logic.

What are Symbols?

Generally speaking most teachers and adults do not understand the phenomena that is so important for the child. This results in a lack of comprehension and sympathy for the -work of the child artist. Whereas the forms the child visualizes are symbols and not realistic representations of the outside world, the teacher expects the child to grasp the realistic form and make the drawing look like the object itself. They do not realize that the child is expressing his or her personal experiences by the use of those symbols, and not drawing the things as they are seen.
An illustration: There was a child in one of the families of the teaching staff in Sevagram. He did nearly nothing in terms of handling pencil and paper until he was three years old. Soon after he entered his fourth year he started handling crayons. One day when he was playing with crayons and paper, I asked him what he had made. His reply was: "Picture”
After a little while he called me and said: "Look at this snake, how long!" It was a vertical line. After a few more moments he drew another "snake" and yet another. The second one was such that its two ends touched the two ends of the earlier one. This little artist shouted, "See, Rama's bow and arrow." He drew another double line, with their two ends touching each other's across the bow and said with greater enthusiasm: "Ramachandraji is shooting an arrow." This child had seen the story of Rama played on the school stage by the children only a few days ago. After the stage show, playing with concocted bows and arrows had become a popular game among the school children. This child had created his picture as a symbol for "bow and arrow". Later he either made the drawing first and said it was "Rama's bow and arrow" or announced it first and then made the drawing.
There was a time when most of our art forms were predominantly symbolic. Everyone knew the language of the symbols used in his or her society to make paintings, sculptures, dance, music and all the arts. It was common for an average citizen to be able to understand and enjoy the symbolism of all the art forms prevalent in that society. It would have been a matter of illiteracy on the part of someone to say that a painting was not good because it did not look like the real object depicted or the person portrayed. For instance there are paintings in the Ajanta caves which are by no means realistic. There are paintings that look like three-dimensional drawings of pieces of rocks representing mountains. But nobody raises the question their not looking like real mountains. It only shows that an average person looking at these paintings understood the meaning of the symbolism involved.
Symbolism was a common feature in India and many other Oriental societies until only a century or so ago. European art before the Renaissance was also symbolic to a large extent. After the 13th century European art became more and more realistic. So much so that at one stage good art was only that which was wholly realistic. That is one of the reasons why in more recent times the majority of adults were unable to accept children's drawings as art.
The example of an Australian tribal group might further help to understand children's art expression. C.P. Mountford of the South Australian Museum has worked among the Australian aborigines and has collected valuable information. He wrote that in "...the drawings of the central Australian aborigines... Instead of depicting the particular animal, human being or object in a naturalistic manner, a conventional symbol is used... Symbols, which in one drawing represent a water hole, will in another illustrate a hill or a camp..." In a reply to a query from Herbert Read, Mountford said: "The children of the Australian aborigines also draw from an early age, and their drawings, in general, resemble those of the adults."4

The point that I am trying to make is that in a society in which art expression has a prominent place and in which symbolism in art is valued more than realism, the art of its children will not have any danger of being unduly forced into realistic expression.

It is not difficult to understand Symbolism, mainly because in the ordinary course of living, we use symbols all the time. It is a matter of training as of developing the correct approach and attitude. If it is realized that the imagination and expression in child art during its earlier stages is predominantly symbolic, and that the symbols the child creates and uses have no philosophical basis or imitation, then it will be easier to comprehend, appreciate and value child art.
The symbolism in Indian art of the past was mostly based on either a philosophical or a tantrik5 approach to life. The symbolism of child art does not have a basis in any of these elements; in fact the child creates the symbols spontaneously. They are the result of the child's encounter with the world outside and an effort to create a language to express the experiences and emotions evoked in his mind. To understand these symbols one does not require to seek their meaning in any tradition. If parents and teachers understand the mind of the child, they will have no need to make a special effort to appreciate the aesthetics of child art and grasp its message.
The child's symbols are not necessarily consistent in shape or meaning all the time. But they are, roughly speaking, similar in nature among all children. This is so on account of the universal character of the child's mind and its capacity. This universality makes the symbolism of the child a kind of basic language. Adults who are not familiar with child art initially have to make some effort to translate it in their own way to be able to understand it well enough to enjoy its meaning and beauty. As far as teachers are concerned they have to make themselves fully acquainted with the child's mental processes through which these symbols are created. To put it differently, to be a good teacher, one should know and understand the child well.
Creation of symbols is a social phenomenon. To be able to communicate one's feelings or experiences to others, it is necessary to use some medium, whether it be the language of words, gestures, visual forms or something similar. After all, words are symbols created by some kind of common consent. For instance, "pen" denotes a tool for writing. It cannot be anything else, unless a new connotation is attached to the word "pen". Another language- that may or may not use words is music, which is a bit more subtle than the language of words. Sign language resorts basically to the language of words, but in the form of gestures. Mudras6, used in classical Indian dance forms, such as Bharatanatyam, Kathakali and Kucchipudi, represent various forms of objects, emotions and movements. One must have a fairly good knowledge and familiarity with the languages of mudras to have the capacity to understand and enjoy the particular dance form. Each mudra has its unique meaning associated with traditional and/or mythological experiences, hence all the more reason to know the language well.
The language of painting made up of lines, colour and planes is related to the mental image. This image can be represented in two ways. One aims at creating a likeness with the object, visually as correct as possible. The other can be suggestive, impressionistic, symbolic, abstract, decorative, ornamental and/or without any emotional content. Representational paintings need not always be realistic. Indian painting was more suggestive with a high degree of abstraction. Toward the latter part of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, European art shrugged off much of its realism and became impressionistic and symbolic. For a period during the present century the graphic artists tended to give much importance to abstraction. A major difference is that language of symbolism in the past was more or less universal in a particular society while today it is more individualistic. Similarly, the symbolism of child art is individualistic too.
As has already been stated, the symbols children create have very little to do with their visual experience. Whatever they see establish an association in their mind and creates forms which are symbolic. They are not memory images either. It is imagery with subjective realism, and it is concrete.

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