If you start with the premise that self-directed learning is best, then we have to assume you have a kid who is interested in looking at new things.

So you get excited, and want to show your kid Starry Night, probably, because every school across America is having grade schoolers reproduce Starry Night (with something that does not resemble the heavy oil paints that make the masterpiece what it is.)

But here’s a way to think about getting kids excited about exploring ideas. If your kid wants to read, do you start with books written 200 years ago? That would be pretty tough going for a new reader, wouldn’t it?

If you have a kid who loves to dance, do you play a waltz? Probably not. A waltz is not nearly as accessible as contemporary music. Because our contemporaries use the vernacular that we use. Don’t tell me it’s a cop-out. The Beastie Boys have music that is as complicated as a waltz—maybe more complicated, actually. So it’s not that your kid can’t understand complicated. It’s that your kid can’t understand old English, and a waltz is the audio equivalent.

Art teacher and homeschool consultant Marilynn Williams sent me a rant against the common core idea of teaching art and she suggested the following list of contemporary artists who will use the language today’s kids connect with, and it’s an appropriate on-ramp to self-directed learning about visual arts:

Takashi Murakami

Ai We Wei (pictured above)

James Turrell

Shepard Fairey

Rachel Whiteread

Xu Bing (below)

And you know what? Just finding all those links was such a joy. Each artist is different and each time I found the link I also clicked a bit, because self-directed learning never has to end.



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40 replies
  1. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    Funny you should write this today. This was in my feed reader this morning from another blog I follow.


    This fellow teaches art history at a high school and reflects on how it takes the student exploring on his/her own to really learn an appreciation for art.

    I think I’ll go link your post over on his blog next.

    BTW, I’m betting that when I hit Post this will go into your moderation queue because of the link. Sure would like it if links from longtime commenters or ones you trust could skip that step.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      I think the links get through if you don’t have the first part of the web address. You have to copy/paste instead of clicking but gets you to avoid comment purgatory.

  2. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    (Self) “teachable” moments are everywhere:

    My eldest was interested in entering a 3D software modeling competition, and so was introduced to Antonio Gaudi;
    My youngest (4 years at the time) was able to correctly id a symphonic piece as being by Shostakovich because she was familiar with his style from a favorite video;
    They are also now fans of VanGogh after watching the Doctor Who episode “Vincent and the Doctor” and then afterwards learning more about his life. All fun, painless and probably of more value than if I had been forcing a more traditional curriculum at them….

    • Emily
      Emily says:

      What video does your 4 year old watch that features Shostakovich’s music? I ask because I have a 2 year old, and I need to find this video for him! I was a music major in college, and I am always looking for new ways to expose my son to music.

      • Sarah
        Sarah says:


        It was Disney’s “Fantasia 2000”, which features pieces by both Shostakovich and Prokofiev, and which she was watching daily at the time. While we were running an errand, I was listening to classical music radio in the car, and she made some comment (can’t recall exactly), to the effect that it was similar to the movie. It struck me as significant, because it was a different piece but the same composer, so she was recognizing the composer’s use of chords, etc., as being distinctive to him!

  3. Antonella Gambotto-Burke
    Antonella Gambotto-Burke says:

    Penelope, I love you madly, but you’re assuming children will prefer artists such as the ones you mention to artists such asVan Gogh. My eight-year-old daughter adores Van Gogh and Monet and Millais and so on; their work excites her. Our discussions about it have led to a deep exploration of art. I think the problem is not the art itself but the deadening way it is taught, because art class just doesn’t get more interesting than analysing “Starry Night” from a psychological/ symbolic/ historical/ artistic perspective :)

  4. Sharon B.
    Sharon B. says:

    Thanks for those links! So fun, and so dynamic and inspiring.

    I think it ALL has to be available to our kids. Like Antonella said, some kids connect with the old masters, and others will be more contemporary.

    I don’t think music has to be complicated in order to be sophisticated, or better than other music. Sometimes the simpler the music, the more sophisticated you realize it is. Likewise, contemporary or pop music is not necessarily more accessible to children, but it would be kind of dumb to ignore the really great pop music of any era. Good stuff is worth listening to!

    When he was really little, our son absolutely loved certain great pop songs from the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Now, at 11, he has discovered some kind of techno genre that I don’t know the name of – yet I still catch him humming the tunes we play on accordion and hurdy-gurdy.

    His dad is a fine artist in that old masters style, and his brothers are accomplished comic book illustrators. I love the range of possibilities!

    I wonder what he will end up putting on his walls, or his music player, as time goes on.

    @ Sarah – we liked that Dr. Who episode too.

  5. Karelys
    Karelys says:

    I get no bragging points for my toddler shaking to Taylor Swift’s music.

    I’m hoping one day people will look back and fall over themselves about her the way they used to for Madonna (which I don’t get the adoration because her voice is unappealing and sort of squeaky) JUST so I get to say we were too avant-garde for everyone else.

    Well, us and two million other tween and teenage girls.

    • jessica
      jessica says:

      The thing about Madonna is that she represents more than a musical act. She revolutionized the concept of women in entertainment. I don’t care for her music, but I respect her tenacity immensely.

      I don’t know what Taylor is doing for Art, except trying to claim Records are true art, in the real form (even though Labels invented LPs, Columbia if I remember correctly….I digress). I DO know that she and her mother have an incredible bond and that her parents were prominent believers in self-directed learning. With that, I think she is a great example of what that kind of familial belief system can do for a child (as I think everyone has talent of that caliber if it is encouraged and honed).

      • karelys
        karelys says:

        I don’t know what she’s doing for Art but I always thought it was weird that artists were burdened with the responsibility to do something for art rather than staying true to themselves.

        I can’t think of any other artist (probably because I don’t stay as plugged in as I could) that so relentlessly sings about being wronged in love the way she does. It’s nuts. She gets criticized so much but she is laughing all the way to the bank.

        At a certain point someone said “let’s come up with a store to sell cute clothes to preteen girls and call it Justice because there’s is a lot of disposable income in that population bracket” and some people said “no! that’s ridiculous! it’s never been done before!” And now Justice makes a bunch of money from pandering to a population bracket that no one was providing anything for it.

        In the same way, Twilight and Taylor Swift have made songs that let people reveal in those feelings that everyone insists you keep quiet because “you’re being ridiculous!”

        To me it makes a statement of how far women have come in society. Women can be women without apologizing for those “ridiculous” feelings. The same way you can gauge how successful a women have become in corporate America by watching them wear feminine clothing rather than masculine attire in the name of professionalism.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      When I was a tween/teen it was Janet Jackson vs Paula Abdul…My favorite song back then was rhythm is a dancer by Snap! And now I can’t get the song out of my head…

      • karelys
        karelys says:

        I was living in Mexico and have no recollection of any of this. But Gloria Trevi was a big deal back then.

  6. Gretchen Powers
    Gretchen Powers says:

    Great points! We took our 6 year old to the Ai Weiwei show at the Hirshorn last year and it was a fantastic experience for her. On the other hand, she’s also loving The Nutcracker and enjoys Debussy…but I think Tchaikovsky and Debussy are kind of timeless.

  7. Amy Axelson
    Amy Axelson says:

    I want to explore classics with my kids: books, music, art and textbooks published pre-1950. I want to do this because it feels like today’s society is pushing towards eliminitating the past and much of what bonded people together. I want my kids and I to have it inside us…even if we just touch the surface of these areas. It seems like it will add to our strength for staying true to ourselves while living in this fast-paced (etc.) age.

    I say ‘we’ because I am learning right along with them. My own interest, due to my life experience, also makes studying feel more relevant and authentic to all of us.

    Education, to me, is all about giving oneself the tools to be able to be one’s authentic self in this crazy world, while remaining emotionally and mentally healthy. That’s what makes homeschooling ideal. As well as being intuned to ourselves and our kids. With this perspective, creating child prodigies and performers (of any kind) is totally irrelevant–unless the child is, and continues to be, authentically drawn to that.

    I used to be concerned about my children being exposed to everything out in the world, what a massive sense of responsibility I felt in making that happen. But then I remembered there is all sorts of evidence to show that people will find their niche/passion no matter what, with no support from their upbringing and even with all odds against them–these people were and are unstoppable…. I have experienced this myself. Which brings me back to my paragraph about education.

        • Gretchen
          Gretchen says:

          “Pre-modern”? I don’t know of any category of the arts that specifically spells 1950 out as any marker of this, actually… so, wrong answer.

          • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
            YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

            Contemporary art falls after the date Amy mentions… modern art is the period before, so probably “pre-contemporary” is what she meant.

          • Gretchen
            Gretchen says:

            Respectfully, I’d go on and say that still is not quite right and also doesn’t really answer the question of why 1950. If people are going to presume to be able to “teach art history” they should know these things…or at least use the Google and look them up. Or else, just, you know, explore art…which is not the same as to “teach art history”…also, I thought we weren’t supposed to be teaching things. I thought we were just supposed to be facilitating their learning, anyway…

          • MBL
            MBL says:

            There is book that looks interesting called The Turning Point: The Abstract Expressionists and the Transformation of American Art Hardcover – August 20, 1992
            by April Kingsley

            It is described as
            From Library Journal
            In this excellent account of a decisive year in the history of 20th-century art and politics, art critic Kingsley does justice to all the elements of a very complex scene. Taking 1950 as the key year in the Abstract Expressionist movement, she describes month by month the gallery openings and social events involving many of the period’s most important artists. Detailed discussions of the major paintings and a brief historic overview highlight each month’s new developments, with the artists’ biographies, artistic ideas, and spiritual searchings woven into a seamless narrative featuring especially poignant biographies of David Smith, Arshile Gorky, and Franz Kline. Kingsley’s feminist perspective enriches her wonderful study. Highly recommended for most libraries.
            – Gene Shaw, Elmwood Park Lib., N.J.
            Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc.

          • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
            YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

            Gretch, I’m not defending her use of specific dates, I was pointing out that pre modern is actually a thing because you said jessica was wrong. I don’t filter art for my kids…and I am a facilitator. See mbl’s comment of 1950 being the turning point. That’s all I was trying to point out to you.

          • Gretchen
            Gretchen says:

            Thanks…”YesMyKidsAreSocialized ” but “pre-modern” is not the “thing” that people seem to think it is and the cut and paste about abstract expressionism doesn’t even say anything about “modern”—the word is not used a single time. I don’t think “modern” means what some posters here thinks it means. Thus, exposing the need for a proper art history education—if that’s the sort of thing one thinks is important. Commenter’s post gets at this…

      • Amy
        Amy says:

        The pre1950s is based on what’s gone down with American education over the years. While this isn’t directly related to art history, those of us who went to compulsory schooling are affected by what was taught and how (both directly and indirectly), which in turn impacts society at large–including what we accept as “art.”. This of course is intentionally laid out by the powers-that-be based on how those powers want things to go both locally and “globally.”
        So, in looking at America’s school focus over the years, I opt for more of an academic focus than one of brainwashing (for lack of a better word). It is obvious that in order for brainwashing to be fully effective, we need to cut ties with history (including, say, phonetics and the US Constitution and Bill of Rights). Hell, school did a number on me until I started digging into this stuff and now have to go back and teach myself facts, unbiased/unedited history, etc.:
        -Academic education: 1880–1960
        -Values education: 1960–1980
        -Workforce training “education”: 1980–2000+

        * date summary source: Deanna Spingola

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      I’m on the end of the GenX spectrum so I grew up with video games, the Internet….kinda…in my teens, and pop music. We did some intermittent homeschooling and because we were in an exclusive upper middle neighborhood surrounded by farms(at the time) there was nothing to do but come up with your own entertainment at my house during the summers.

      It wasn’t until my mid-teens that I had ever read a classic novel. They had always been in our house but they always seemed like decorative items. While I did enjoy the novels…they are very very slow and I ended up skipping a lot of fluff…but I still remember those books and they did affect me. But they weren’t forced on me by my parents. Now, a lot of them are wonderful movies that I would prefer watching. That’s just me though. ;). I’m just saying…don’t get your expectations too high…

      • karelys
        karelys says:

        When I recently moved to the US I was scared people would think I was dumb because I couldn’t communicate very well. And I wanted to get caught up with all the “must reads” so I would be in the same page as smart people and they would recognize me as one of their own.

        I tried reading those novels and OMG! They are slow! Too many words that didn’t get to the point.

        Maybe one day I will get to read and enjoy it, if I have the patience or have developed a taste for it.

        I am not sure what it is yet that makes some old stuff feel so good and so right and some of it just mind numbingly boring.

    • Gretchen
      Gretchen says:

      Thanks, Amy. It makes more sense when you say it’s not about the art. Though I can’t say I agree. I would guess we have vastly different world views…

  8. Lucy Chen
    Lucy Chen says:

    Thank you for the links, Penelope, I had fun going through them.

    Takashi Murakami’s art makes us happy. And I think it’s relatively easy to understand, or at least it appears as a first impression.

    Do you know that Ai Wei Wei is unknown by most in mainland China? The Chinese media totally ignores (or blocks) him. I came to know about him through an American artist friend a year ago.

    • Elizabeth
      Elizabeth says:

      Yes he’s considered the most famous living Chinese man today – outside of China, while many people in China don’t know who he is. His name is generally blocked in search results by the government. The intelligentsia, art students, and the elite are all familiar with his work though.

  9. Josefina
    Josefina says:

    Yes, I did have my child read from an old book, not 200 years old, but 400! It was remarkably easy, even for someone with such little reading experience. Maybe because people didn’t speak Old English back then, but modern English. Nor did they speak it at the time the Canterbury Tales were written (that’s Middle English).
    My point is that limiting a child’s exposure to artists and material from a very brief period of time is unnecessary and well, limiting. I want my children to feel like they belong to a continuum of people, ideas and traditions that stretch much farther back in time than a few decades at best. And I don’t underestimate their ability to understand that material or language.
    Nor is modern art particularly “easy” to relate to; to the contrary. Art is about soul, and the human soul is timeless. I was very modern in my tastes in my teens and 20s and now that I’ve branched out I find that I relate more to older works of art; literature, visual art, architecture…

    Unfortunately for us, our contemporaries in the art world do NOT use the same vernacular as us. Not even close! And I’m not really old-fashioned or anything, but no, I do not use words like twerking, I do not discuss how I’m going to get high tonight or get laid….
    I do not look at two tables and think ‘huh, wouldn’t it be awesome if I joined them at an angle?” Just too impractical! And that’s what I see in kids, in general, a desire to make sense of the world. Modern art does the opposite.

    My 13 year-old wants to be an architect and I asked him if he didn’t like the Walker Art Museum (in Mpls) as we drove by it on our shopping trip and he says “ugh, that’s so ugly; the angles are just wrong”. :D

  10. Commenter
    Commenter says:

    I find it fascinating how attempting to carry the banner of non-judgmentalism always ends up in the land of judgment.

    If we’re going there anyway, we might as well have reasons for it.

    Most new, pop art is overly self-referential, only making sense within a hermetic world, art making comment on art, making comment on art. The lay viewer is not welcome; the artists are talking amongst themselves.

    Sloppy wads of paint and ribbons, wired bales of old clothes, videos of bathtubs of blood, stacks of planks of wood, pictures of the artist looking at pictures of the artist… all accompanied by cards explaining what the artist though she was doing. If you see paragraphs of explanation on the card next to a painting, it’s a sign that the visual art has failed. The best thing about those exhibitions is that they leave, and the Singer Sargent and Winslow Homer stay.

    When naturalism went out of fashion, art became less accessible, not more. Avant-garde, non-representational, and conceptual art is fundamentally less interesting to a child than art that refers to the visible world.

    The title of this post is interesting. I’d find a blog post that matches the title interesting too. Unfortunately, the blog post doesn’t – it says just throw art history in the trash. There is no way to teach art history by limiting yourself to consumption of this week’s pop culture. You can’t consider history, let alone teach about it, without looking at the past.

    • Josefina
      Josefina says:

      Yes, exactly that; artists talking amongst themselves. When I was younger I felt compelled to appreciate that type of art. I never questioned whether I actually enjoyed it, just felt inadequate in my inability to appropriately interpret it!
      My high school art history class became my favorite time of the day; to discover works of art that were simply beautiful to look at and did not cause an unsettling feeling of confusion.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      As a child, naturalism seemed pretty but boring (maybe because we had photographs by then).
      The paintings of Picasso, Diego Rivera, Frida Khalo, and others in similar style seemed childish to me and I didn’t understand why they were a big deal.
      Picasso’s cubism gave me a feeling of everything being too tight and unable to breathe.
      My favorite was anything that had broad brush strokes, not horribly abstract but not trying too hard to be realistic.
      I didn’t understand much as a child. I just knew that I liked what I liked and I was confused as for why people were celebrated for making ugly pictures.

      I still am.

      • Gretchen
        Gretchen says:

        You’re entitled to your opinion, but it doesn’t really matter what you “like” or what you find “boring” when it comes to art history. The “understanding why XYZ is a big deal” or “why people are celebrated for making ugly pictures” is the art history part. This thread is hilarious! I mean, whether or not art history is important to study/teach could certainly be argued, but I’m getting the sense that folks here aren’t exactly qualified to “teach” it…which is, of course, different from just hanging out and appreciating art with your kid (which is fine, too…but not “teaching” art history)…

        • karelys
          karelys says:

          The post talks about teaching art history starting from the point in history where the child is at. Or starting from the point in which they are interested.

          Why bore them by starting out from the beginning and make them check out by spending time studying art that means nothing to the kid?

          It’s easy to get educated in art history whether or not people around you are qualified to teach it. You can find the info out there on your own if you really want to.

          Lord knows that the people who are passionate about it need no encouragement to share!

          So if a kid is zero interested in Picasso’s cubism the whole teaching in art history will fall on deaf ears. But if they are interested in something else they will pay attention because they are invested in it.

          • Gretchen
            Gretchen says:

            I think we’re assuming a lot about what “kids these days” like… I initially liked this post because many of the artists mentioned are interesting, of course…but it doesn’t make the older ones less interesting. Isn’t part of the job of adults in children’s lives exposing them to a variety of things. I mean, one need not force things on them, but part of the “art” of teaching and parenting is finding ways to make things interesting. Many things don’t get interesting til you find something out about them, make a personal connection. I think one of the greatest learning “tactics” if you will is being able to make a personal connection with anything (even if its a stretch)… Plus, the idea that a kid would necessarily be more interested in two intersecting end tables and not an explosion of color and flowers, or Degas ballerinas (personally, I’m meh about these) is kind of off base…My kid has found things of interest to her (yes, in varying degrees, of course) in just about every exhibit I’ve taken her to because I know how to help her make those connections.

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