This article was originally written for issue 40 of Nanyang Arts Magazine (www.nanyangarts.com). I am grateful to the Chief Editor, Enoch Ng for allowing me to post the translated Chinese text by Lin Yi.
Luke Ng, Untitled (Impression, Haze), drawing on paper, 10 x 10cm.
With this image as a reference, I would like to discuss child art, and hopefully clear the air about bona fide abstract or non-representational art.
Adults often have problems understanding abstract art and child art. Parents often think their children can paint like American Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock or Singapore artists Ian Woo or Cultural medallion awardee Milenko Prvacki. Conversely, the uninitiated adult might claim that abstract painters are trying to imitate children. The uninformed adult might look at an artwork by a child, and measure it with adult standards and dismiss its value too quickly. What is child art, and why is it precious? What is unique about abstract art, and how can we begin to understand it? Can understanding child art lead the way to our appreciation of abstraction?
On a recent trip to Hong Kong, I had unintentionally escaped the haze that enveloped Singapore. The haze had reached a new record of 371 Pollution Standards Index (PSI) climbing into the hazardous range according to data from the National Environment Agency of Singapore. I remember reading a local newspaper that had an image of Singapore’s Marina Bay financial district skyline shrouded in greyness, and it reminded me of Claude Monet’s Impression Sunrise (1872).
I was reminded of Impression Sunrise again, when one of many doodles made by a friend’s 6 year’s old son, had caught my eye because he responded disapprovingly to the haze situation. The family was packing in their hotel room, and the boy was dreading his return to Singapore. As a distraction, the young boy’s mother asked him to explain his doodles. He was able to explain animatedly what and why he drew. He said the haze made it difficult for him to breath and he didn’t like the haze. This self-initiated drawing might be a play activity to pass time, just as how he might play with his collection of toy trains. In this instance, drawing might be an alternative way of communicating his ideas, and his way of engaging his and my imagination. He didn’t think the drawing was very important and wanted to throw it away. Intrigued by the drawing and my own reaction to it, I had decided to ‘collect’ this drawing with his mother’s approval.
The drawing consists of discriminate marks, dots and squiggly lines moving in a diagonal fashion. These marks are not dense, yet they suggest some variation in the pressure applied resulting in some lines appearing faint or darker. These remind me of the kind of marks people will make to test a pen in a bookshop: seemingly random, abstract, yet intentional, and fully expressive. The drawing could well be viewed any way up, or sideways. They could represent the flickering reflection of sunset light on the surface of a lake on a windy day if you orientate the lines parallel to an imaginary horizon. I have chosen to depict the image this way because it intuitively seems right; the hotel logo on this notepad is coincidentally the right way up. From a certain perspective, they resemble a description of smoke. From a more abstract perspective, they resemble several question marks floating, doubting, disputing and calling to question why and how the haze might have arisen. With a higher leap of imagination, one might see Mr Incredible from the animated movie Incredibles (2004) standing in the heat of things in a super hero pose.
From the literature related to children’s art, academics have claimed that drawing promotes creativity and meaning making in young children. Drawing as artistic play enables children to improvise, arranging people, objects and places together on a blank page in an open-ended manner. As the image is composed, the child exercises problem solving (deciding what goes where and the relationship between the objects and people that appear on the page), elaboration, transformation and aesthetic appreciation. The content of a child’s drawing—the graphic and (accompanying) narrative—embody the child’s meaning making and represent their imagination, and how they see, think and feel about the world around them (Wright, 2010). Adults can learn a lot about the child’s thoughts and intentions by looking at their drawings and by listening attentively to the things they say to another person or to themselves in art-making contexts (Thompson, 2013). The product (the drawing) and the process (watching and listening children draw) are informative and rewarding.
Yet drawing is not always merely regarded as artistic play by children. As children grow older and transit to adolescence, the literature drawing from psychological perspectives suggests that children prefer to gain skills to depict likeness, or the artistic ability to manipulate materials and processes to depict what they want to achieve (Lowenfeld & Brittain, 1987). From the perspective of developmental growth, a child transits from wanting to draw to play to wanting to imitate from other artworks or from nature. Depending on the social and cultural environment, children develop their aesthetic appreciation and form attitudes towards different types of art. In some instances, they acquire drawing skills, which will serve to make their own ideas visible to themselves and others. In other instances, they learn to talk about art with adults to deepen their own understanding. Art-making in its ubiquitous forms might continue to be a means of communication, and as a way to engage with one’s imagination. Guided well, observing and sharing interpretations of art and making art continues to allow children to engage with their world, constructing their own meaning and opinion of it. Because interpretations of art are open-ended, it allows children to learn to consider multiple perspectives, to think for themselves, and to listen respectfully to others. Guided well, they will develop strong observation, analytical and interpretation skills, independent and critical thinking and vocabulary to match as they grow older. Child art is invaluable because it is part of a child’s holistic education. Children may formulate their own artistic or conceptual breakthroughs by drawing from any visual stimulus and their own personal experience if we let them.
Unfortunately, we also attribute value of an artwork by its monetary worth. Art made by adults is often evaluated based on institutional standards imposed by galleries, museums and collectors who are willing to place a price on what they will collect. In some instances, adults exploit child art and sell them in commercial galleries too. In most instances, the monetary value of a work of art is confused with its aesthetic, emotional or cognitive value that might also be bestowed by the viewer. Returning to the example I have cited, I value Impression Haze drawing for the sum of its genuine narrative, my relationship to the young artist, and my vested personal memory and interpretation of it. Children’s art should not be evaluated against formal aesthetics or monetary gains. Instead, seen through the eyes of children, we should appreciate the process and narrative embedded in the humble product. Consequently, we should use children’s art as a mirror to evaluate ourselves and to appraise our perception of art.
The innocent eye
Abstraction is the process of removing something. In the context of art-making, abstraction displaces a need to depict people, objects, places or narratives in a realistic manner. Abstraction sometimes refers to the reduction of elements in a picture. The picture plane would not be divided into foreground, middle and background by perspectival conventions. Instead, the painting is about the act of painting, and the traces it then leaves behind. What intrigues us might be a unique technical process, attractive composition of formal elements, suggestive title or an association of meaning attributed by the artist or viewer. Elements in an abstract painting mean different things to different viewers.
Art historian and critic Jonathan Fineberg (1997) used “innocent eye” to describe the approach children and modernist artists used to make their works of art. Children’s drawings have naïve spontaneity, imaginative visual elements, universality and truthfulness. Modernist artists such as Kandinsky, Klee, Picasso and Miro exploited aspects and characteristics of children’s art to formulate their own artistic breakthroughs. It was not possible to copy children’s art, but it is quite possible to empty one’s mind in all seriousness, and focus on one thing at a time: a line, a splash or a patch of colour. In the same way, many Singapore artists veered into abstraction for personal reasons and not because they cannot paint realistically. They do so with firm personal or conceptual beliefs and precise methodology, and with contemporaneity as any other contemporary artist. It is a valid genre with its own advocates and supporters.
We can be attracted to abstract paintings for a few reasons. We can be enticed by the arrangement of shape and colour, or by the unusual composition, size or technique used by the artist. We can be attracted by the title because it means something to our personal lives, or we can relate to the circumstances in which the work was made. We might empathise the artist’s feelings and thoughts, or we might relate to the artist’s personal lived experience. An abstract painting takes on a life of its own, more so than a figurative painting. A figurative painting is evaluated on its likeness, and what we know about the real world, while an abstract painting departs from likeness, and takes any form limited only by our imagination. Looking at abstract art is like an exercise in looking with our full attention.
We can be attracted to abstraction like how we might be attracted to child art. We might appreciate the artistic problem solving, denotation and connotation of an abstract work of art. We can study the artist’s stylistic approach to make marks on a surface, or we can examine the meaning behind the artistic gestures against a larger social, historical or artistic context which the work is made or seen.
Agreeing to disagree, articulating what we think, like or dislike about abstract art will surely deepen our understanding of abstract art. Extending our investigation to other forms of art might lead us to understand our relationship to art, and how it fulfils our cognitive, social and emotional needs. Using an innocent eye to look at art might well be the perceptual equivalent of active listening, or listening with an open-mind, without judgement or interruption. Seeing any art with an innocent eye —child art and abstract art included—should mean careful observation with an open-mind, without judgement or interruption.
Fineberg, J. (1997). The Innocent Eye: Children’s Art and the Modern Artist. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Lowenfeld, V. & Brittain, L. (1987). Creative and Mental Growth. (8th ed.). Prenticehall.
Thompson, C. M. (2013). Lowenfeld Lecture. Unpublished. Paper presentation at The National Art Education Association (NAEA) National Convention, Fort Worth, Texas.
Wright, S. (2010). Understanding Creativity in Early Childhood. Sage.
Ng Joon Kiat, Green Series (2013), acrylic on cloth, 45 x 60 cm黄润杰, 《绿》系列, 布面丙烯, 45 x 60 厘米
Tan Guo-Liang, We Feast on Love Lost (2013), oil and acrylic on canvas, 56 x 71cm, 61 x 74 cm陈国良, 《无画题》, 布面丙烯，油彩, 56 x 71 厘米, 61 x 74 厘米
Lee Young Rim, Untitled (2013), acrylic and wall paint on wood. 141 x 122 cm李榮林, 无题, 木面丙烯，墙漆, 56 x 71 厘米, 61 x 74 厘米
Willie Tay, Found (2013), acrylic, graphite, cast iron fillings, 75 x 150 cm戴玮利, 《发现》, 布面丙烯，石墨，生铁, 75 x 150 厘米
黄乐恩 《烟霾印象》 铅笔画 10 x 10 公分
[ 这文章本为《南洋艺术》（www.nanyangarts.com) 第40期撰写 。感谢主编黄广青允许刊登林怡的中文翻译 。]
成人一般上都把理解抽象画和儿童画当成一件苦差。父母都会觉得要孩子们画得像美国抽象表现主义杰克逊・波洛克（Jackson Pollock ） 或新加坡画家胡耀光（ Ian Woo ）或新加坡文化奖得主米连科（Milenko Prvacki） 是件轻而易举的事。相反地，外行的成人也许会声称抽象画家其实是在设法仿效孩子的画法。他们也可能以成人的标准来衡量小孩子的画作，然后以不值一文而将他们打发掉。到底什么是儿童画，它为何如此可贵？抽象画的独特之处在哪？该如何理解它？解读儿童画是理解抽象画的钥匙吗？
最近我去了一趟香港，无意间避开了新加坡的霾害。根据新加坡环境局的纪录，污染标准指数一度创下了371点的新纪录，进入了“危险”的标准。我记得当地报章还刊载了新加坡滨海湾金融中心地平线上灰濛濛一片的景像。这使我想起了莫耐 （Claude Monet）的《日出印象》（Impression Sunrise） (1872).
小孩的画作由可辨识的标记、小点与潦草的线条组成，构图成对角设计。标记并不密实，却说明了它们是在不同的重力下形成，有的隐晦，有的饱满而深刻。这使我想起人们在文具店测试原子笔的涂鸦：看似随机，抽象，却充满意图，而且表达积极。这张草图可从任何一方观赏。我下意识地选择 了以上图像的观赏角度；在上头的酒店标志让我直觉这解读法是正确的。如果你在线条之上，想象有一条地平线穿越其中，它可以是多风的季节里，日落的余晖洒在湖上滟涟的波光。 从某个角度，它们似乎就是烟霾的写照。从一个更抽象的视角，它们像是漂浮、怀疑、争执和质问的问号，寻索阴霾为何与为什么会出现。拥有更高超的想象力的话，你可能会看见动画片“超人特攻队”（Incredibles， 2004）里的“超能先生”（Mr Incredible）在形势最激烈时以英雄之姿出现。
与儿童画有关的论述，都声称绘画开发幼童的创造力与表达能力。绘画作为艺术性的游戏，让孩子以开放的态度，即兴创作，学习把人物和物件排列在一张空白的纸上。当图象完成时，孩子掌握了解决问题的技巧(决定在何处布置何种人物或物件与决定它／他们之间的关系)，同时也学会了阐述、变化和审美等要诀。画作的内容－图像与伴随的叙述－具体表达了孩童的情与意。他们展现了想象力，与借着观察，思索与感觉周围万物的敏锐力 (怀特， 2010)。成人能从他们的画作，与聆听他们在绘画时与他人分享或自我求索的过程中得知他们的想法和意图 （汤普森，2013年）。成品（画作）和过程（在孩童作画时观察和倾听）的回报，是丰盛与充满效益的。
然而，孩童不见得会把绘画视为艺智的游戏。孩子随着年龄的增长而进入青春期，从心理学的角度而言，他们其实向往掌握绘画技术以逼近真实，或拥有操控材料和创作的能力，以描绘他们想要表达的东西。 孩童成长过程中，年幼时把绘画当为游戏，青春期向往模仿其他艺术作品或大自然的生物，美景 。“美”与“艺术”无处不在，能开启孩童的想象管道。不同的学习环境，能培养出他们对艺术活动及艺术作品的感触、理解、评价 。在某些情况下，孩童可以利用绘画传达想法， 用图绘沟通。他们也能通过交谈，加深对艺术的理解过程中加强表达能力。 适当的疏导，观察和解读艺术允许孩童了解世界。因为艺术诠释是开放式的，它让孩童学习参照多角度的观点，也学习倾听他人的话语。
不幸的是，我们往往以画作的市价来衡量它的价值。成人画作的价值，通常由画廊、 博物馆以建制运行的标准评估决定，而收藏家则以收藏意愿开价竞标。在某些情况下，成人甚至剥削儿童画作，把它们置放于商业画廊售卖。多数情况下，人们都把艺术作品的市价, 与观者赋予画作的情感、认知及审美混淆。让我回到《烟霾印象》的例子。我对它赋予的价值，包含了画者真诚的叙事，我与画家的关系，我个人的情感记忆和诠释角度的总和。儿童画不应以建制流行的审美品味或市值评估为标准。相反的，由于画作是通过儿童的眼睛看到的世界，我们更应该欣赏这简单的成品中饱满的过程与叙述内容。因此，我们应以儿童画作为镜子，评估与调整我们对艺术的看法。
抽象创作是个删减的过程。在艺术创作方面，它取代了具体描绘人、事物、 场景或记叙的需要。抽象往往是个省略，或削减细节的过程。画作构图不会有传统约定透视法中的前景、 中景和背景。然而，画作却纪录了绘画这一行为，与遗留下来的痕迹。耐人寻味的，可能是它独特的技艺，吸睛的构图与元素，引人遐思的命名，甚至是画者或观者赋予的意义。抽象元素所提供的意义的联想是无穷尽的，每一个观者都拥有各自的解说权。
艺术史学家和评论家乔纳森·费恩伯格（Jonathan Fineberg）(1997 年) 使用”纯真之眼”来形容儿童和现代派艺术家的创作法则。儿童画有童真的自发性、 富于想象力的视觉元素、 普遍性和真实性。现代派画家康定斯基、 克利、 毕加索、 米罗大力开发了这些层面，为自己的艺术取得了突破。同样的，很多新加坡艺术家会进入抽象画的创作，都有各自的原因，而非无法写实地作画。他们都有坚定的个人或创作理念与高超的技艺，同时，象任何当代艺术家，有其时代意义。它是备受承认的一种艺术类别，有其庞大的拥趸。