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A conjecture concerning children’s toys and the current popularity of Modern Art

I’ve recently been writing at my Education Blog about the noted educator and educational theorist Maria Montessori.

Montessori recommended what for her time must have been a most unusual kind of object for young children to play with. She disapproved, it would seem, of the kind of complicated toys and dolls which, then as now, many parents get for their children. Instead she recommended abstract objects. What she had in mind was that children should not be overwhelmed with excessive amounts of information. Too little information, and children get bored. But too much causes them to switch off, in sensory self defence. That was her attitude. So, instead of dolls and train sets and woolly animals, she prescribed plain geometrical objects and matching sets of things like rods all the same size but of different colours, or rods all of the same colour but of different lengths. Or Montessori children may be presented with a set of identical sized blocks which different textures on their surfaces, like the different surfaces of different grades of sandpaper.

Whether by coincidence or by cause and effect, the Montessorian view of childhood objects has in recent decades made remarkable headway. Look into a child’s nursery or playpen now, and you will see all manner of geometrical shapes and blocks and wheels and surfaces. Felt covered cubes. Wooden zig-zaggy things to put in zig-zaggy shaped holes. Lots of different colours and consistencies of plastic. And so on.

The point I want to make here has nothing to do with the educational wisdom or otherwise of surrounding small children with such objects. No, I want to offer a theory about Modern Art, or rather, a theory about the (to many) extraordinary popularity of Modern Art. By “Modern Art” I of course mean abstract art – art that is not “of” anything, but is merely itself. When I was a child, most of my toys were “representational”. I didn’t own any actual cows, bears, soldiers, cars, trains, airplanes, ships or houses. But I owned all sorts of “models” or “representations” of such things. Insofar as I also owned small abstract objects of the sort favoured by Montessori, these too were used to represent things, like farm buildings for my small plastic livestock, or the boundaries of roads for my cars and lorries to progress along. Everything, therefore, was representational. I don’t recall ever having been subjected to any “abstract” phase.

Well, you can see where I’m going, can’t you? What if the popularity not just of Modern or Abstract Art, but of all kinds of art, is profoundly influenced by the very first objects by which our parents and our culture chooses to surround us? What if one of the key “functions” of pictorial and sculptural art is to push aesthetic buttons, so to speak, that were established during the first few months of active consciousness? One of the things art does for us, I surmise, is to evoke in us the recollection of our very first sense experiences, and thereby to comfort us, at a very deep psychological level.

If that’s right, then a change in fashion concerning what it is appropriate for young children to be given to play with would lead directly to profound artistic changes a couple of decades later.

I don’t know how true this really is, and I don’t for a moment say that this is the only reason why people like this sort of pictorial or sculptural art rather than that. Clearly, other influences are also at work. After all, representational art is now making something of a comeback. But I still think it makes a lot of sense. When I last visited Tate Modern, the place had the air of a giant nursery, with objects as big compared to me as smaller toys are to a small child. And when asked why they do abstract art the way they do, artists often sound like Maria Montessori herself, saying that they are “about” shape, colour, texture, and so on. Adults surely don’t need any more instruction about such things, but maybe they like to be reminded of the time when they did.

This also explains the often noticed – and much puzzled obout – fact that whereas Modern Art (i.e. modern visual art) seems now to have genuine mass appeal, “modern” classical music still registers as near as dammit zero on the mass popularity scale. Simply, almost no small children have ever spent any time listening to anything resembling the “music” (the sneer quotes tell you what I think of it) of Stockhausen, Boulez etc. Accordingly this modern music remains the enthusiasm only of a tiny coterie of musicians and of their tiny few fans, and continues to fail utterly at the box office. (Similar considerations apply to the very brief vogue for “modern” – i.e. non-grammatical – writing.)

Had Maria Montessori, or perhaps a subsequent generation of influential education theorists, had views about auditory stimuli similar to her views on the look and feel of physical objects, the story of “modern” classical music might have unfolded very differently.

This theory might also explain something else about the largely inter-generational arguments that rage about the virtue or lack of it of Modern Art, which is the extraordinary ferocity of the criticisms of Modern Art expressed by those who don’t like it, and the extraordinary glee expressed in response to these criticisms by those who do. Don’t think: argument between adults. Think: crazy squabble in a nursery, complete with tantrums and bullying and all manner of shouting and carrying-on. Modern art connects to the inner child, in good ways and in bad ways.

I cannot believe that I’m the first person to have thought of this. Comments connecting me to others who have speculated about, or perhaps even proved, a connection such as I offer would be very welcome.

10 comments to A conjecture concerning children’s toys and the current popularity of Modern Art

  • Nice idea, and very intriguing.

    The dating is a bit suspect though. Abstract painting and sculpture arrive in the same decade Montessori starts working with children, and I would put them as all part of a larger ‘purifying’ movement typified by essays like “Ornament and Crime” by Adolf Loos, 1900. By the time the first child who could have had a ‘Montessori’ upbringing was in its twenties, abstract art was itself a couple of decades old.

    We’ve also passed through all sorts of periods like Pop Art, a massive reintroduction of representational art in the 1960s totally at variance with abstraction, when sculptors like Claes Oldenburg started depicting things again.

    Abstract sculpture has not been at the fashion-dictated “front edge” since the heyday of Anthony Caro in the 1950s.

    Of course, school and nursery teachers might be the clue. They’ve always been fifty years behind the times. Why should their taste in modernism be any different?

  • Brian Micklethwait


    My posting is not about the motivations and thinking of the artists themselves, or about their chronology. It is about the mass popularity of abstract art, which is a much more recent thing. Of course kid’s toys don’t explain Adolf Loos. What they might explain is why every other British suburban kid now thinks that Brit Art is cool and nice and fun, rather than nonsensical or scary or pointless or repulsive.

  • Very interesting idea, and one that I agree with on first inspection.

    Regarding your comments on music, I have something to add. Some readers may have heard of “IDM” (Intelligent Dance Music), a broad genre of music that can be summed up as often being abstract. One particular group, Boards of Canada, has consistently garnered reviews (that I agree with) which state the music reminded the reviewer of their childhood. Their music is very tonal and layered and almost beckons the listener to listen harder to descern the different audio forms that make the whole.

    Other primary IDM artists (such as Aphex Twin, µ-Ziq, Squarepusher, Autechre) employ very basic individual pieces of sound but it’s the composition and the interaction of the pieces which entertain and engage interest.

    Maybe non-traditional genres of music such as IDM, glitch ‘n bass, and others may have something to do with a childhood environment built up through the differences and interactions of fundamental forms?

  • Ah sorry, Brian. Yes, I think that there has been an invasion of the nursery – on reflection part toy, part kindergarten teacher.

    On your education blog you remark on the rumoured role Montessori provides for a certain kind of dim girl. I think I might know what you mean – they’re often both dim and pretty.

  • harmon

    Well, guys, here’s the thing. I’m a conservative fellow, whose children have been in the left wing version of home schooling, Montessori, since way back in 1976. Five kids have gone through Montessori to some extent – 3 had K to 1sr grade, one had K-8th grade, one is in the 6th grade – at this point, 4 of 5 have moved out of it, 1 is still in it.

    One merit scholar, two others who were/are close (one is 800/760 on his SATs but blows off his homework in the public magnet high school because it is baloney, which it is, so he won’t get a merit scholarship though his scores are higher than the one who did.) Okay, one boy didn’t get the scores or grades – but hey, he’s probably the one who will get rich…

    In short, Montessori is a terrific approach to education, if you can avoid the left-liberal crap (earth day for instance) that comes along with the territory. Maria Montessori was a genius, and her methods are wonderful for about 90 percent of kids. The other 10% are just different, & benefit from other methods.

  • Provocative idea that rings some bells. There’s a famous story about Frank Lloyd Wright, who’s supposed to have been brought up as a child on progressive-school-style abstract building blocks, and about how that’s supposed to have influenced his work as an architect. I wonder if it’s true.

    And your idea has me wondering about how the videogames and computers many kids are being raised on these days will affect their future taste in art. Will they want everything to be on a screen, to glow, and to be capable of being interacted with?

  • Doug Collins

    The comment about videogames reminded me of a conversation my wife and I had after a visit to the home of some friends who have a television habitually on. They don’t really watch it, just use it as a sort of background accompanyment to their domestic lives.
    We wondered if it is really a modern hearth. Perhaps the key to producing a really successful television show is to ignore plot, demographics and so forth, and to concentrate on a show that flickers with about the frequency of a good crackling fire, with a set and costumes having a lot of red, yellow and orange colors.

  • J S Allison

    I’ve only ever bought my grandkids toys that give them room to construct their own imaginings. Blocks, tinkertoys, legos, stuff like that. Most ‘theme’ toys are marketing spinoffs of shows that don’t work as entertainment (actually lengthy commercials, most of them) and presuppose that you buy into their world and do your imagining using their ground rules. The rest of the family buys that sort of stuff but at least my stuff is less likely to get dumped with the new telly season.

  • Doug, Nigel, a schoolfriend of mine when we were at secondary school together in the 70s said exactly that – that TV often functions as a hearth.

    Brilliant thought you follow on with – flickering reds and oranges for a successful television show! I recently opened a free e-mail account with myway.com, and presented with a bewildering choice of backgrounds for my inbox, I settled for ‘fire’ – a rather convincing photograph of rippling red flames.