Harvard and the Art of Play

by Cyndie Belen-Berthézène on August 1, 2009

Cyndie Bellen-BerthézèneOver a decade ago my husband and I were listening to the admission director’s introductory remarks at a then very sought after nursery school. “You needn’t worry,” she told the group, “if your child isn’t invited to attend our school, it doesn’t mean that he or she won’t get into Harvard.” I was stunned. Was it really possible that people were seeing nursery school as the key to college? I had never even gone to nursery school! Yet, upon entering the world of selective NYC pre-schools I soon realized how even the most “enlightened” parents began to question whether their children were receiving every advantage to ensure that they, even at three, were “competitive.”

As they worried about upcoming kindergarten interviews, I watched parents begin to compose university-like schedules for their children. One day a woman in my building phoned to register her 3-year-old for HiArt! She was grappling with whether she could squeeze something “artistic” in between her pre-schooler’s morning German class and the afternoon’s science class at AMNH. Incredulous at her determination to book up every free second of her child’s day I assured her that without a doubt it couldn’t possibly be done, breathed a sigh of relief and hung up the phone.

If you’re not an artist, what you need to understand is that art, including the art that grown-ups make, issues from a sphere far, far away from Madame X’s land of programmed schedules. Art grows in kid-time. It is slow, it is circuitous, and no matter how beautiful the product, it is much more profoundly about its maker than it is about the thing itself. While from the outside the artist’s product – whether the extraordinary singing of Renée Fleming or the incredible paintings of Chuck Close – gives evidence of tremendous discipline, the discipline an artist develops grows not from being pumped full of highly directed information from morning till night, but from the pleasure of the artistic process itself.

Art is ludic, and to make art –any kind of art – you need to love to play. You have undoubtedly observed (or read T.Berry Brazelton enough times to realize) that when children find a game they love they want to do it over and over and over again. Take, for example, “this little piggy” and its incipient giggles, which many parents, anxious for their child’s real world success, seem to think ends at two. But it doesn’t, the game may change, but for the child who has permission to play, the game format remains, while the complexity increases.

Take a look at what Frank Gehry says about his grandmother sitting on the floor to play blocks with him: It taught him that adults can play. What the arts teach us is that the artist, or any creative individual, just like the youngest child, keeps playing and playing with the same ideas over and over and over. You need only have seen the recent show of Picasso’s late works at Gagosian to get my point. Missed it? Find it here and see if I’m lying to you.

A typical scenario: A parent calls me and tells me that their 5-year-old is very talented and therefore they would like them to draw. I, in turn, suggest what I believe is an age-appropriate, materials driven, mixed media format that will encourage their exceptionally talented child to grow conceptually and artistically and simultaneously hone fine motor skills. The parent informs me that their child has “already done that.”

What does that mean? Let’s return to Renée Fleming and Chuck Close. Ms. Fleming will be singing the Marschallin at the Met this season; she sang the Marschallin in Aspen as an Opera Fellow in 1986. Does that mean she shouldn’t be wasting her time on the Marschallin now? Look at Mr. Close’s paintings over the same period. Are their sources recognizable? Indeed. Has he evolved a style within a framework of his own creation by repeating and stretching the same fundamental ideas? He has. Like Ms. Fleming, he has played – over and over – with his material. Making it ever more communicative, ever more beautiful, ever more profoundly a reflection of himself.

So, although your child may indeed be brilliant, talented and fantastically well-educated, when it comes to the arts, there’s no such thing as “already done that.” The very making of art, the pleasure of art, and even the appreciation of art is all about repetition, the joy of a repetition determined by your child. Whether they are two or twelve or twenty-two. (Let’s face it, if it weren’t we wouldn’t be running to one more production of Twelfth Night or to see the paintings of Leonardo!) So when your child asks you to see the helicopter at MOMA for the 50th time, go proudly. Appreciate how fortunate your child is to be experiencing the world in kid-time. Forget about Harvard and catch some kid-time for yourself. Sit in front of a Sol Lewitt with your child and to draw what you see. Slow it all down and bite your tongue. If Harvard’s where your kid needs to go, I don’t doubt for a minute that they will get there.

About the Contributor: Cyndie Bellen-Berthézène is a regular contributor to the NYC Firm Schools Blog in the area of area of arts.

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