Why your five-year-old could not have done that

Ever stood in front of a work of modern art – all spots and dribbles, or with child-like figures and random words scrawled across it? Or been mystified by an installation of a toilet (which won an art prize and got sent all the way to Paris)? If so, you may have had three thoughts in rapid succession:

  • I could do that
  • Hell no, my five year old could do it
  • Crikey, I hope they didn’t spend any of my taxes on this

If this sounds like you, you need to read Susie Hodge’s book: Why Your Five Year Old Could Not Have Done That, in which she takes us for a look at one hundred works of modern art and talks us through  them to show exactly why our five year olds could most certainly not have produced a dribbly Jackson Pollock or even the simplest looking Mark Rothko. According to Hodge, it’s got to do with intention, technical skill, layering of ideas, sheer inspiration, pushing new boundaries and historical context. Sure, maybe little Johnny can copy it now – but that’s only because he’s seen it done already.

Cover: My Art BookIt’s a fascinating little book for anyone who is interested in art, especially art education. I read it hand in hand with with My Art Book, which is a Dorling Kindersley publication for children. In My Art Book, art masterpieces are deconstructed to encourage children to copy the techniques of famous artists like Kandinsky and Van Gogh. It is a colourful book, fun and full of ideas. But I found it disturbing where children were really just copying masterpieces, like the little girl on page 37 – earnestly hunched over her ballerina, smudging it for all she’s worth to get it to look exactly like a Degas.

Irrespective of which of these two approaches you prefer, if you come along to the New Brighton Bookish Artists Art Exhibition in May (featuring art works by library staff), we won’t mind at all if you look at our work and think: “I could do better than that”, and what is more, we’d be only too delighted if you set out to copy us!

Here’s a taster from last year’s exhibition:

Painting Painting

20 thoughts on “Why your five-year-old could not have done that

    • robertafsmith 1 May 2013 / 1:10 pm

      Thanks – always interesting to think a bit about art!

  1. omgitsgrantccl 1 May 2013 / 9:46 am

    “Why Your Five Year Old Could Not Have Done That” has been on my For Later shelves for quite a few months now, glad to know that it’ll be worth my time when I finally have some spare in which to read it.

    • robertafsmith 1 May 2013 / 1:05 pm

      The two books were really interesting to consider together. I cringed at the idea of kids copying famous works of art, but I was also so impressed by elephant painting in Thailand. Philistine that I am!

  2. Roy 1 May 2013 / 10:01 am

    Let me post a layman’s reply:

    intention, technical skill, layering of ideas, sheer inspiration, pushing new boundaries and historical context

    Of those, “technical skill” is irrelevant because my five-year-old could do it. All the others can be lumped under “willingness to call it art”, which my five-year-old can also do (although, I’ll grant, with less historical context).

    • omgitsgrantccl 1 May 2013 / 12:30 pm

      And therein lies the beauty and frustration which comes with modern art, best summed up in the recent cliche which has done the rounds for a while now: “Modern Art = I Could Do that + Yeah But You Didn’t.”

      While I don’t often enjoy a lot of modern art for the very reasons you’ve listed, I always have to concede that I didn’t have the idea to do what was done, and even though I wish that technical ability was as important as the idea behind it, it is these ideas which provoke the most interesting debates.

      • robertafsmith 1 May 2013 / 1:03 pm

        That is a cliche with a great kernel of truth right there in its middle!

  3. Zenobia 1 May 2013 / 1:18 pm

    The other day I started reading “Write Good or Die”, with the author Kevin Anderson relating stories about people who have said they can write a novel, if only they had the time. This got me into a discussion about the Arts, and how people think they can do something – it’s easy to *copy* something once it’s already been done, but not so easy to push the boundaries and come with something new *yourself*.
    (Having said that, I think there is some value to copying as an artistic exercise).

    Great post, and good to see a book that tackles this perspective 🙂

    • robertafsmith 1 May 2013 / 8:59 pm

      It sounds like an interesting book, but I can’t find it in our library catalogue, which is a pity.

      • Zenobia 1 May 2013 / 9:05 pm

        I ‘bought’ (i.e. it was free) it as a Kindle book from Amazon. The editor has put together advice from different authors about writing, as there is no ‘one way’ (the same for any creative field). It’s been an interesting read so far 🙂

  4. purplerulz 1 May 2013 / 6:01 pm

    I remember the moment when I understood why my kids couldn’t draw modern art. I was sitting in the Rothko Chapel in Texas, on a simple wooden bench in the middle of a room. I was in front of one huge Rothko painting, just a big square with 3 stripes and realised the power it had, so simple yet so reflective…

    • robertafsmith 1 May 2013 / 7:18 pm

      Also so big – I think that is something we overlook when we see beautiful colour images of works of art in books or on the computer, we don’t consider the scale. Actually, it is difficult to visualize the size of a canvas or sculpture even when the dimensions are given. We’ve become accustomed to all these reduced images, so sitting in front of a life-size Rothko or Pollock must make all the difference.

  5. le fake wine club 1 May 2013 / 8:13 pm

    For argument’s sake and a 5-year old DID do a Rothko or Pollock before the great painters did themselves, would it be considered art anyway? You couldn’t really argue they didn’t have the intention, etc., but they’d be unable to explain it…
    So now I’m wondering, who is the youngest famous artist?

    • Roy 1 May 2013 / 8:33 pm

      It sounds like you’re arguing that “art” is something (anything?) that can be explained in an appropriately pretentious fashion. Unfortunately you’re reinforcing a rather unfortunate stereotype of pompous and self-absorbed modern art lovers.

      • le fake wine club 1 May 2013 / 8:56 pm

        Not really the thrust of my post, but to nibble on a worm from the opened can and take the bait…:
        Other than saying something like ‘It’s clever’ or ‘It looks nice’, describing or explaining it will naturally become more eloquent. Whether that’s pretentious, pompous or self-absorbed is down to the attitude of the describer (or opinion of the listener), not the actual attempt at describing it. So perhaps it is you who is enforcing the stereotype 😉
        This would be much more fun discussed over some ‘fine wine’ – then we could really fling about some adjectives and subjectivity!

  6. robertafsmith 1 May 2013 / 8:49 pm

    Interesting point. It has just struck me though, that we all know of child prodigy musicians, but I’m not so familiar with the idea of child prodigy artists who go on to become world renowned artists. I will dig a bit deeper on that topic. I’m lucky, I work in a library. We may not know much about art, but we’re definitely in the right place to find out more!

  7. ValerieL 2 May 2013 / 9:54 am

    I can recall visiting the old art gallery in Christchurch with my preschool age daughter. She pointed to a huge work of art on the wall and announced in a very loud high pitched voice “That’s just scribble-scrabble”. Oh dear, we hurry along to the next painting that she found acceptable and all was well. To prove that a five year old really couldn’t do a Pollock painting, we kept quite a few of our daughters paintings and although they are very nice, they will never hang in an art gallery.

    • robertafsmith 2 May 2013 / 10:20 am

      Well said, Valerie, but I am still curious to know about the art skills of world famous painters. Did Jackson Pollock’s mother think the same as you when he was just five?

      • purplerulzpurplerulz 3 May 2013 / 6:09 pm

        wow, that concept blows the mind… I thought my kids self portraits were brilliant, but now when I look at the creased bits of paper with flakey paper in a box some 20 years later, I’m not so sure! I wonder what she DID think, there’s a book there somewhere. ” The ruminations and delusions of the parents of famous artists” or some other catchy title like that!

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