fb-pixel Skip to main content
critic’s notebook | Sebastian Smee

Picasso was wrong. Your child is not an artist.

Shutterstock / volkovslava/volkovslava
“Head of a Woman, Portrait of Marie-Therese Walter,” by Pablo Picasso.Museum of Fine Arts

Your child is not an artist.

I say this not to denigrate your child. I say it in defense of actual artists — real, grown-up people who have set themselves on a difficult course against prevailing headwinds, sacrificing material comfort and equanimity to a pursuit that defies rationality and has a very high fail-rate.

I say it, in other words, in defense of those who have skin in the game.

Your kids don’t. Nor do mine. That’s because they are not real artists.

Some people will disagree. ARTB412 , for instance, a Canadian start-up that provides an online vehicle for “showcasing and sharing” — and buying and selling — children’s art, has been built on the premise that “every child is an artist.”


The authority for that claim is none other than Pablo Picasso, who once said exactly that, adding, “The problem is how to remain one once we grow up.”

ARTB412 provides a platform, it claims in a YouTube ad, “that recognizes and respects [your children’s] artistic integrity.”

I don’t know about yours, but my kids have no artistic integrity to speak of. One minute it’s marker, the next it’s watercolor. On Tuesdays it’s robots, on Thursdays it’s rainbows, on Sundays it’s abstract splodges. The next week — scratch that, the entire next month — it’s all bubble letters and glitter.

I don’t, of course, seriously object to a setup like ARTB412, which after all is doing no obvious harm and donates a portion of its proceeds to charity. What bothers me is the underlying confusion.

On the one hand, we are constantly told that childhood and creativity are basically synonymous. As parents, relatives, and teachers, we’re expected to fawn over even the most cack-handed child’s scrawl, and to take it on faith that it expresses the mysteries and bliss of intuitive life.


On the other, this widely shared sentimental conviction goes hand in hand with that contemptuous claim often overheard in galleries of modern art: “Ugh. My child could do that!”

So which one is it?

Steve Martin’s 2010 novel, “An Object of Beauty,” features an art dealer who has no time for the “my kid could do that” camp. “You want to know how I think art should be taught to children?” says this fictional character. “Take them to a museum and say, ‘This is art, and you can’t do it.’ ”

He may be onto something. Rather than crushing our kids, such a radical approach might actually encourage them to see through their parents’ reflexively sentimental projections and take creative brilliance more seriously.

Becoming an artist — a great artist, anyway, one whose work actually matters to other people — is not straightforward. It’s not linear. You don’t go from A to B to C, acquiring skills, accumulating knowledge, building on talents, until finally — bingo! — you’re great.

“Asheville” by Willem de Kooning. The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

A lot of the time, the process seems to go in reverse. For some artists — Picasso, de Kooning — success actually involved undoing years of training, unpicking both native talent and technical mastery, and learning again to look at life, as Henri Matisse wrote, “with the eyes of a child.”

But this, of course, is where the confusion sets in.

Building on ideas inherited from Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Romantics, many modern artists became convinced that the march of so-called “civilization” had contributed to a developing spiritual crisis. They looked around for antidotes. An idea of the value inherent in “primitive” visions took hold. Van Gogh and Cezanne went south. Gauguin went to Tahiti.


Several hugely intelligent, gifted, and sophisticated artists such as Matisse, Picasso, and Paul Klee found clues to what they were looking for in the art of children. They sensed correctly that a child’s mind — awesome and extraordinary in itself — could potentially tell us a great deal about meaning, truth, and beauty.

They were not the first to do so. Half a century earlier, Charles Baudelaire had described genius as “nothing other than the ability to retrieve childhood at will.” And in the 18th century, Rousseau, urging us to “hold childhood in reverence,” also wrote: “childhood is the sleep of reason.”

That was relevant because it was reason from which many modern artists were seeking to escape. Matisse was the first to try to seriously learn what he could from the art of his own children. He encouraged Picasso down a similar path.

"Min-Oe" by Cy Twombly.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

But it does not follow, as Picasso — playing to the crowd — would later claim, that every child is an artist. Nor is self-expression an end in itself. The French modernist Paul Serusier was being brutal (about Matisse, as it happened) but making an important point when he wrote: “If a boy scrawls [excrement] on a wall, he may be expressing the state of his soul, but it’s not a work of art.”


I am but a critic, but from what I can gather, being an artist — being a good one — is incredibly difficult. It is exhausting, thrilling, and frightening all at once. It takes talent, yes, but also nerve, stamina, and a strange, euphoric kind of tunnel vision that can be baffling to others.

The art of children does have its charms, and sometimes — just sometimes — something deeper and more affecting than charm, because it seems to come out of that same euphoric kind of tunnel vision. But that doesn’t mean that every arbitrarily colored daub or tangle of colored yarn qualifies as great art. It certainly doesn’t mean that your child is the next Cy Twombly, Dana Schutz, or Sheila Hicks.

In this era of rampant testing and standardization run amok, we need more art in our schools, not less. But it does not diminish the difficulty of being a real artist to sentimentalize a time in life when creativity felt easy, when all you had to do was pick up some colored crayons to be showered with fulsome praise.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.