Exposing Your Children to Art

Judging by the line outside the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion's ticket office last Shabbat, the talked-about art project, ART TLV, on show in Tel Aviv until next Saturday, has succeeded in drawing wide circles of visitors.

This impression was underscored by the conspicuous presence of families with children who seemed delighted by the exhibits and works of art. Toddlers and school children also looked happy when they visited the project's other arenas at Nahalat Binyamin, where the open space was even more intriguing and enticing.

On a different evening, at another art event, "Art Focus" in Jerusalem, which will be open until October 23, two seven-year-olds made visitors smile because of the childish but to-the-point way in which they asked questions as they browsed through the exhibits. One child had initially refused to go. "Exhibition? I hate exhibitions," he said at the entrance to the hall. But later, a great deal of persuasion was needed to get him to leave. And indeed, how could he remain unmoved by a work by Ariel Schlesinger, an Israeli artist who works in Berlin, who showed a single bubble that had fallen from a complex bubble-blowing apparatus, and the white-blue flame on an iron grill? It is hard to think of a more supportive audience for a work by Miri Segal entitled "Whatever you say," at Art Focus. The work, a black umbrella to which a microphone is attached instead of the usual handle, immediately attracted attention. It was possible to speak via the microphone to an image of a parrot hopping back and forth projected onto a huge pole. When the children discovered that the parrot image could answer them by means of a hidden technical illusion, there was no end to their joy.

There is no doubt that contemporary art holds a great deal of temptation for children. It encompasses aspects of movement, color and playfulness that create a non-verbal language that offers children a barrier-breaking, hands-on experience. According to Ruthie Direktor, an art critic and writer of a blog called "Hatzofeh," unlike exhibitions in enclosed spaces, the latest art events have created the feeling of a spectacle, an ostentatious show, and therefore "they start off with conditions that are easy and comfortable," even for children. "If we think about it," she adds, "children feel at home with a kind of interactive art. After all, they know a bit about it from computer games."

All in all, says Direktor, this is an opportunity to expose them to how to behave inside a space containing art works. "The world of art is reflected in them as friendly and inviting, and not as cut-off and alienating, as may perhaps be the impression given in galleries," she says.

The artistic events currently taking place raise thoughts about exposing children to contemporary art altogether. During the intermediate days of Sukkot, children will flock to the youth wing of the Israel Museum and swoop upon the exhibits offered by the Tel Aviv Museum, and their parents will feel that they are doing something artistic. But why shouldn't they at the same time visit the permanent art exhibitions on show there? From experience, I can say that the children's reactions can be surprising, especially at exhibitions of contemporary art.

The pirates have come into the kitchen

The giant, impressive statue by Ohad Meromi of an African boy at the recent "Real Time" exhibition at the Israel Museum generated genuine excitement. A child who asked to visit that exhibition numerous times was asked recently what he liked about it. He remembered not only the statue, which he described as being both "frightening and beautiful," but also "the pirates in the kitchen," a fairly exact description of the video work "Moby Dick" by Guy Ben Ner - and also a work by Ziva Cherkasky, a small statue of an anomalous doll who, as the boy described it, left behind her "a lump of poo," remained stuck in his memory.

Among those with a high-brow approach to art, children may be considered a nuisance. "In the world of art, there are people who are scornful of the whole idea of art for children and think there is no space whatsoever for special guidance for them," Direktor says. The artists themselves are ambivalent, it transpires, and she says they often feel embarrassment when a work of art of theirs becomes a point of attraction for children.

Flavia Levov, who is in charge of guided tours at the Israel Museum, says that children of a young age have no inhibitions with regard to art. "Only later does it start to be more problematic," she claims. "Children in older classes already show a more critical attitude toward art, and when they get to high school, they start closing up.

Levov, who was for many years an art teacher at the Hebrew University high school in Jerusalem, believes that exposure to exhibitions at a young age will bear fruit. "Large numbers of pupils complained for years that their parents had dragged them along to museums. But the fact is that it remains like a seal in their souls, and then later they choose the art stream [at school]. Even if you are opposed to it, you know that it exists and you at least have the choice of relating to it or not."

Levov proposes that families prepare children before an exhibition, and in order to make the experience effective she suggests trying to ask questions next to the works of art that stress "the relevance to the child's life, and that will involve his feelings." For example, to ask him which colors he likes in the work and what attracts him to it. She even suggests punching a hole in a piece of paper and allowing the children to roam and view the works of art through this hole, or to write a family story about the works. At the same time, she says, one must be careful not to overload the child with explanations that are too learned.

Direktor is of the opinion that children should be allowed the experience of art without any bothersome mediation. For her, it is also important to remind people that they should not have high expectations from exposing children to art. "After all, art is not meant for children and it is not merely an experience," she says. "Not everyone can love art. It is a challenge that one has to invest in."