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When Did We Stop Being Artists?

July 1, 2011

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about art and expression, and some of the fears that actors have as we try to explore the things that inspire us. There so much of an emphasis on doing “good” work, so much energy put into work that can propel you “to the next level.” I’ve started wondering — when did we stop creating art because it was fun to be expressive? To tell stories? To pretend to be someone else, and show off these characters to our family and friends? Thinking back, and I think everything changes when people hit that magic age of 7 — the “age of reason.”

I’m at the point where many of my friends are starting to have children, and one common element you find in each parents’ home is the refrigerator filled with drawings from their child. Heck, even if you aren’t a parent, if you know children you probably have a piece of artwork hanging on your wall. Or a batch of photos from a child’s recital. Or a video from a school play. Parents and family members weep happily at the sight of a child expressing him/herself in an artistic way.

And then, at some point, this stops. Parents stop encouraging artistry. Drawings are removed from refrigerators and videos are put in the cabinet (to be pulled out when the child is 16 and bringing her boyfriend to the house for the first time. Oh yeah, we’ve all been there.) What happened? I have a theory — The Age of Reason is killing art.

According to Scholastic.com, the Age of Reason is described as:

“Few parents would argue with the observation that children age 6 and younger do not have great control over their feelings and impulses. Nor is your very young child likely to take genuine responsibility for her actions, or heed adults’ urging to be considerate of others… It is not until the age of 7, give or take a year or so, that your child’s conscience begins to mature enough to guide her actions…It’s been called the “Age of Reason,” since these children have a newly internalized sense of right and wrong… At 7 “plus or minus one,” your child begins to problem-solve in a new way, using reason rather than pure intuition. He can separate fantasy from reality; and so can be expected to know and tell the truth… At about 7, fears are no longer of monsters, but of real people, and most of all of not being liked, being different, and risking loneliness. Pride and shame are real now too. Real, rather than simply imagined achievement, enhances self-esteem…”

Not only do children lose the ability to fantasize without embarrassment, but it’s also the people around who change their viewpoints on their children’s artistic impulses. At an early stage, a child singing out of tune is adorable, at another point, the child is hushed and told not to sing. Children and adults, alike, stop painting pictures because they tell themselves, “I’m not good at it,” and forget that creating art is about expression, not about excellence.

 “Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one’s self-esteem.  That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily.” — Thomas Szasz

Of course, if one wants to make money at an artistic profession, that’s when excellence becomes important. But in the striving for excellence, many actors forget that joy of creating and playing for fear that it won’t live up to some standard that world has set for them.

So, I am challenging myself, and the artists around me, to nurture their inner artist and beg it to come out to play. Find an environment where you can practice being expressive and go hog wild. Pretend to be bigger and badder than you ever dreamed possible. Will yourself into a new reality that gives you a visceral charge. Fight the Age of Reason and awaken your imagination in the way we did as children.

As a side note: it’s also around the age of 7 that we stop unabashedly seeking an audience. When’s the last time you ever saw an adult jump into a crowded room, do a little two step, then chime, “Ta-da!” to elicit applause? For once, I want to do something silly and have a bunch of adults exclaim, “Yayyyyy!”

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 4, 2011 4:13 pm

    I can’t but agree with the article. Working with kids for over 2 years now, I’ve definitely noticed the differences of how kids behave in certain age groups. One thing is that their behaviour is changing with approx. every half a year, first I didn’t understand it, than my boss gave me a book to read that was talking about this changes (can’t remember what it was, though) quite in detail and it all made sense. Another thing is that we adults tend to push something in our kids head as well – what I mean by this is, for example, when kids start going to school, they suddenly get the sticker of big boy/girl and we do exactly what you described in the article. And I know that the 7-+ has to be set as an orientation point, but from my own experience each child develops a bit differently. I also noticed a huge influence of what child you are in the family – if you are the older/oldest, the middle one, the youngest one. But this made me think of one of my little ones. She was 5 and half when I arrived and she was sassy, confident, very imaginative and interested in arts, but within half a year she has become so self-consious, reasonable and quite shy. Always looking for our approval and didn’t quite buy all the cheering up. She was so worried that she is not good enough in anything she did. She did theatre classes and ballet the whole time and at the beginning she was this sassy little girl, letting her imagination go wild on stage – so inspirational to watch, but during the next half a year she has become so self-consious and lost a lot of that imagination, probably worried that it is just not good enough. Changing school, going to kindergarden from pre-school was probably the breaking point. She also started treating her two younger brothers (both toddlers) differently, getting that ‘mommy’ behaviour. And I could go on and on.
    And of course experiencing all this made me think about my own childhood, although it’s hard to remember some things, as some memories just tend to stick in the head and other disappear.

    • July 4, 2011 4:19 pm

      What a wonderful response- thanks for sharing all of your experiences! It’s such a shame that we lose that amazing ability to be free in our expression. I’m curious- having read this article, how does this affect your career going forward? Does it inspire you to play bigger than you have before? I’d love to hear if it has any impact on the way you approach your art. 🙂

      • July 4, 2011 5:16 pm

        Definitely. I think as actors we should study human behaviour or at least be curious about it. I love ‘aha’ articles and videos like this, it always makes me thinking and remembering, which then leads me to using it at some point. So yeah, definitely inspires me!
        Thank you for sharing this, looking forward to read some more of your articles! 🙂

  2. California Triple-Threat permalink
    July 25, 2011 1:43 pm

    I’ve been reading a book by C.S. Lewis called “An Experiment in Criticism”, and it talks a lot about why we as adults don’t thrive on fantasy and fiction and story telling like children do, and instead want stories that are “real”. You touched on a lot of good points that the book has too. My view on this is that even as adults if we aren’t in touch with our imaginations it is hard for us to create art and enjoy other people’s expressions of art. We are quick to categorize and critique, rather than enjoy and grow. (which is a main thought in the Lewis book).
    Thanks for this. I always love your posts! P.S. I think we have a few mutual friends, via when you used to live in So Cal?

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