The pendulum of cultural mores never comes to rest at the golden mean. It’s always swinging wildly one way or the other.
Take the question of how children should relate to the institutions of high culture. At one time the answer was simple: keep them out. The pleasures of a museum and a gallery are beyond them, so they’re bound to be bored, or inappropriately excited by the joys of running up and down the polished floors. Either way, the enjoyment of the adults is spoiled. Nobody wins; better to wait until the teenage years, when they can make their own decisions, knowing that if they do, they have to obey the rules of grown-up spaces.
That was perhaps too extreme; but now the accepted wisdom runs too far the other way. Just how far was shown recently, when a couple allowed their children to crawl all over a vastly expensive Donald Judd sculpture at Tate Modern. According to the London Evening Standard, a passing visitor to the exhibition, a gallery owner from New York, actually dared to protest. "I was shocked," she said. "I said to the parents I didn’t think their kids should be playing on a 10 million dollar artwork. The woman turned around and told me I didn’t know anything about kids and said she was sorry if I ever had any."
This is the absurdity we’ve reached, thanks to the child-centred philosophy that now rules the discourse about how public spaces should be organised. Many people seriously hold the view that making children conform to the adult quiet of museums is a form of child abuse, which should be subverted at every turn. They must be allowed to run around freely, run their sticky fingers over the Shaker furniture or Chinese bronzes, and drink the babycinos thoughtfully provided by the museum cafe.
The irony is that at the root of this solicitousness lies a very Victorian idea, which is that children must be initiated into the glories of high culture, and not kept away. The problem is that this good idea has become confused with a very bad one. This is the notion that high culture must be brought down to the kids’ level. High culture is like any other product of the grown-up world, whether it’s maths, or democracy, or science. It’s inherently difficult, and so beyond the reach of children. To pretend otherwise, by encouraging kids to think of museum exhibits or paintings or plays as so many shiny toys, available to be handled and dropped as soon as boredom sets in, is just a form of lying. And lying to our children seems an odd way of encouraging a love of high culture.
The end result will surely be the exact opposite of what these earnest campaigners want. When they reach adolescence, these children won’t think of museums and galleries and theatres as enticing, mysterious places of adult pleasures and values. They’ll think of them in much the same way as they think of Disneyland or Hamleys or the kids channels on TV: something adjusted to their needs when they were kids, and therefore to be left behind as quickly as possible, as they head towards adulthood.
But worse than that will be their dim, not-quite-articulated perception that they’ve been patronised. And that is a disaster, because it’s storing up trouble for the future. My hunch is that when they reach adulthood, the children who are now allowed to run around museums will regard the whole apparatus of high culture with contempt, as something with no belief in its own innate worth.
NO, SAYS DEA BIRKETT, DIRECTOR OF KIDS IN MUSEUMS
Cover up your Canaletto. Strap down your John Singer Sargent. Put a big "Don’t Touch" warning sign in front of your early 14th-century altarpiece. Children are about to enter a museum and their urge to run their stubby avocado baby fingers over priceless masterpieces must be stopped.
Or so Ivan Hewett would have us believe, self-appointed protector of our nation’s museums and galleries. His tools have been sharpened following the recent furore, when two children were discovered climbing up a work at the Tate Modern which looked rather like... well... steps. Those like Hewett, who declare themselves defenders of all things high art against low-lying threats, i.e. children, have called for strict controls on the under aged entering the cathedrals of the art world. Like the Frick Collection in New York, which doesn’t admit under-12s, Hewett and his tutting tribe would like to banish everyone from enjoying art until they’re old enough to drive a Volvo, get married and take out a mortgage.
But it’s not really children that any of these finger-waggers want to ban. It's joy. When one of these killjoys comes across a Tintoretto, they take a few steps back from the maroon rope, nod their head as if confirming some important fact about the brushstrokes, pinch their chin slowly with thumb and forefinger, and mutter (inaudibly I hope) "Mmmmmm". There’s no squeal of delight, no moment when their arms want to jump up and wave hooray. In fact, there’s no passion at all for the great work in front of them. There’s just suppressed appreciation of a very academic, hollow-hearted kind.
Who really wants to feel like that when surrounded by centuries of the most magnificent art, as you are at so many of Britain’s great galleries, including Tate Modern? For it isn’t contempt (as Hewett claims) that early exposure to great art breeds, but passion. We should be thrilled when even young children respond so enthusiastically to a Rubens or a Richard Long. Isn’t this exactly what we want?
Hewett suggests it’s 'better to wait to the teenage years' before encouraging engagement with anything aesthetic. Which must mean any grown-up with primary school kids is also unwelcome, as they’d have to hire babysitters just to catch a glimpse of The Laughing Cavalier at the Wallace Collection. Or perhaps our young offspring should be tied up on the steps of the National Gallery like dogs, or penned in a crèche full of plastic fake food in an adjacent building, far from anything of artistic worth?
I bet Hewett doesn’t have teenagers, as I do, or he wouldn’t advocate them as the best age to be introduced to Pointillism. I thoroughly support 14 year-olds accessing galleries, but it’s not easy and they’re not keen. They also come laden with mobile phones and other devices that are generally unwelcome in any gallery. I haven’t seen a three year-old with an iPod yet.
But perhaps Hewett has a point. Should children really be allowed to ruin other visitors’ experience by running around and causing a din in the Post Impression display. Of course not. But the only reason they might do so is if they’re bored out of their brains. A child entranced by an artwork will not be simultaneously somersaulting along the polished gallery floor. They’ll be transfixed. So rather than send them home, invite them in, and make sure there’s something to keep them busy. A simple copy of an artwork which they can reach out and touch will do, or a jigsaw of the portrait before them. They can draw a picture on the floor, capturing what’s on the walls. These are all gentle activities any young child will enjoy.
After all, who wants a nation of slow head nodders and chin scratchers? We want a nation of art enthusiasts, of every age. And that’s what Britain, with it’s most wonderful, rich, vibrant museums and galleries, thankfully has.