Two people whose views are anathema to me are having an argument. Both are daft and wrong, but the debate is instructive. Jake Chapman, idiot vandal who defaces old paintings and prints (see above) to the delight of the Tate, says children should be kept away from museums because they won't understand. Dea Birkett, who campaigns to let children run wild in museums, frets about the effects of too much learning and believes that a baby's burbling is the best response to art. She seems to think that knowledge is corrupting, and the only true response is emotional.
Both views are snobbish and didactic. Chapman myopically neglects anything too old for Tate Modern, so he fails to realise that not all art is about ideas. The small picture of a dog by Gerrit Dou, above, is simply an exquisitely painted image. Maybe some symbolic message was intended, or maybe not. You might appreciate it more if you know that it's by one of the 'fine painters' from Leiden who delighted in painting precise minute details of different textures. Or maybe you'll just relish its beauty. The best way to learn about pictures like this is to look closely at lots of them, and start to appreciate their varied qualities. You'll certainly get more out of a visit to the National Gallery if you know a bit of background - the social and intellectual context, the biblical and mythological stories being told. But simply looking closely can take you an awfully long way.
Unfortunately Chapman's angry critics are even worse. They make art seem so banal. The National Gallery's spokesman said, "children benefit a great deal from visiting art galleries and museums … it widens their horizons, can develop inquisitiveness and curiosity about the world, boost creativity, and foster craftsmanship and storytelling". A worthy list of instrumental ends tailored to middle class parents and tick-box bureaucrats. Yawn, yawn, yawn. At least Birkett has a sense of the wonder and passion that art can inspire. But she is bigoted in her insistence that there is only one proper way to look at art, and philistine in thinking that anyone who brings knowledge to bear is doing it wrong. In a recent article she even mocked people who might admire Tintoretto's brushstrokes. But going back to the doggy picture above, I'm in awe of Dou's skill, but it doesn't produce much of an emotional response. The point of the picture is precisely to admire the brushstrokes, how ever much that might discomfort Dea Birkett.
It's not for Birkett or Chapman to tell us the one true way to respond to art. But although I disagree with Chapman, I'm glad he spoke up. The Dea Birkett view of the world is too dominant. Too often museums see their job as simply getting people through the door and letting them do as they please, as if taking a selfie with the Mona Lisa or burbling at a Bridget Riley is all there is to it. As with any activity, the more you learn the more you get out of it. As you develop the ability to discriminate, Thomas Kinkade and Jack Vettriano will please you less and you might come to appreciate artists like Poussin or Guido Reni more. Art appeals to the emotions, but also to the intellect. And the emotional pull can be deeper when you have more knowledge. Shakespeare seems alien at first, but with a bit of application you come to see a greater depth of emotion than you get from a soap opera.
For me the main reason to bring children to museums isn't to let them express themselves or to use the building as a creche, but rather to introduce them to a facet of the adult world. It's wonderful if they respond emotionally, but I hope that response will be the start of their engagement with art and not the end.