CULTURE ZOHN: Artistic Adventures in Babysitting

People often ask the Culture Zohn what it takes to become an artist and though I am in no way an expert on matters pedagogical, I had occasion to reflect on this heady topic while I was babysitting last week for the newest member of our boy-centric family.

2007-12-07-angi_190.1.jpg Serge Bloch for the New York Times

As I muddled through the three different kinds of (cloth) diapers, I thought about what mothers since time immemorial have pondered: how do I make the little one into a prodigy given the poverty of talent in my own fingertips? I was already carefully following a small dossier that had been handed to me by the new mom, my step daughter-in-law, a successful young woman who generally makes it all look easy. Always one to try to max the time spent on even something as routine as teeth flossing, I began to think of the possible cultural advantages inherent in the routine which had been proscribed.

First I could put him in his vibrating seat after he was fed so that he could feel the uterine type jiggling he was accustomed to which might make him rhythmically inclined in later life. Then I could put him in his automatic swing that either croons to him or makes soothing sounds to give him every early musical exposure. Or I could put him in his hi tech stroller and waltz him around the streets of Berkeley as he soaked up years of free spirited thinking and writing just from breathing the historic air. Or I could lay him down on his blue mat that has bouncing colorful objects floating by his eyes so that his visual acuity and ability to distinguish form and color were second nature. Or I could read to him, promoting his brain to develop the mental components for better management of social behavior.

Whether this would result in a contented baby, an artistic baby or merely one that had absolutely no internal resources at self-calming I cannot say, only that it induced a bit of sea sickness in me and made me feel more like an amusement park wrangler than a babysitting step grandmother.

The list of products that can becalm and stimulate is long and sometimes laughable and there is some debate on how well they substitute for the human touch.

But I took a straw sample this week at the talent on display in NY which came to recognition early. Of course, there was the Divine Dudamel

2007-12-07-philspansized.jpg Jennifer Taylor for the New York Times

who swept away the skeptics this week at Lincoln Center with his outsize talent and bonhomie. I don't know Gustavo's mother, but I can bet he did not get rocked electronically and that his father, rather, a trombonist and part time salsa musician, provided the percussive soundtrack to his youth. There was Pablo Picasso, the subject of a new biography, who went home to visit his mother all the time, often trailing various lovers and his posse, validating their place in his life by the ancestral visit though I don't believe she lobbed objects into the air to stimulate his senses. There was Georges Seurat (whose work will be part of a MoMA blog next week) who, like many artists, used his mother as subject in some of his astonishing drawings, even the part in her hair rendered with a subtle line. Though we don't know what the facts of their relationship were, we do know that he was a man for whom verbal interaction was difficult and who probably hadn't spent a great deal of time being read to at her knee.

In other words, it's not clear that any of these mothers did anything of particular note that made the difference between a Pablo and pablum.

However, I am as guilty as the next mom for holding out hope; as with their athletics, I was a slave (and slave driver according to them) to my own children's every artistic flutter.

Not that long ago, according to the dictates of Penelope Leach, the then-guru of child rearing who had replaced Doctor Spock, we had to hang a clothesline between the lights and change a display of colorful objects affixed by clothespins while our children sat in (stationary) baby seats.

Later on, the children were lucky enough to go to schools with art classes though the youngest once came home complaining they had to draw their shoes and the entire classroom reeked during the whole lesson.

They had supplementary classes at the Metropolitan Museum and countless hours being schlepped to other museums of every persuasion.

In our travels, I made them explore artist's and writer's homes with me and visit the hospital where Van Gogh lived after he lost his mind in addition to making them climb to the top of every village to see the requisite church or monastery.

Then there were the music lessons at a private music school at which one categorically refused to join in singing the Wheels on the Bus, presumably the entry level threshold for all future Dudamels.

Later it was piano lessons, first classical and then pop, guitar lessons, first acoustic, then electric, and finally two sets of drums which appeared almost simultaneously, completely overtaking already tight summer session digs in college and the rec room next to the treadmill in our house (on the neighbor's side) and for which practicing seemed to be restricted to after midnight.

Weekly library visits yielded books in quantity which I then read to them even while they were absorbed in other pastimes.

(Since my own musical and artistic proclivities had been equally attention deficit disordered, I could not really complain).

Everyone has the framed the neo-Pollockian splashes of their children's first pre-school stuff on the walls. Mine now grace my bathroom....the red and blue gashes of paint looking plenty angry, reminding me of the anguish we all went through while I was trying to improve their little minds.

The box with the rest of their artistic output is neatly stowed in the closet with the guitars, amps, drumsticks and all the other paraphernalia of a lifetime of pushing culture.

Did it work? Not exactly.

As in all pursuits, children come to those very much on their own.

But not so long ago, one son had a girlfriend who was also crazy about art and all of a sudden the art- phobic child was in the museum at the drop of (her) hat. And more recently, the housewarming gift requested by said child was a pass to two museums where he takes his dates, presumably to impress them with his artistic acumen; the other son is taking Gallery Going as a senior elective and is writing his final paper on the art market.

Go figure, as the sage once said.

This brings us naturally back to things like Baby Mozart which purport to encourage your child to actually becoming Mozart.

A study recently outlined in the NY Times, tells of the importance of mothers to art. The author of the study, Ellen Dissanayake, is understandably reticent to get caught in the reductive blogosphere opining about how mothers do or do not influence their children's abilities But, she says:

"My argument about mothers and infants is a Darwinian one: I am speaking about ancestral mothers, one to two million years ago. [Nathalie] Angier's column [in the NY Times,) did not make that clear and many people assume I am referring to mothers and children of today. As humans became increasingly bipedal and as their brains grew larger, there was an "obstetric dilemma" as to how a large brained infant got through a narrowed pelvic channel. The solution was, in part and over thousands of generations, greater infant altriciality (immaturity, helplessness), meaning that infants needed more maternal care for a longer time than their primate counterparts. I think this is how the mother-infant bonding ritual arose--to ensure mothers would want to take care of their babies--and it inadvertently contained elements that we now consider "aesthetic" or proto-aesthetic. It really has nothing to do with "art" or mothers encouraging their children's artiness. Beethoven did not become Beethoven because he had fabulous interactions with his mother. I don't think mothers today will improve their child's artistic/musical abilities by special techniques of play although of course good mother-infant interaction will help babies in many ways. All this is just too complex..."

But Dissnanayke does think that making it special is part of our genetic equipment that helps us maintain our affectionate relationships, in fact our whole way of being connected with each other. And art is one of the best ways we have to make it special. The hunter gatherers developed the arts (pretty spears and arrowheads, dancing around the fire) to encourage and then reinforce group bonding. Dissanayake says, "A ripe fruit may spark a viewer's appetite but to turn an image of fruit into art, something more has to be done with it" ; or to put it terms we all can understand, you want to make sure (and here I am paraphrasing a great Joan Crawford line), that your kid's idea of art doesn't end by being the fruit in a slot machine.

Though we at the Huffington Post are not going to recommend getting the kids working at flint honing or ritual shamanistic dancing, we know that you, like me, might not be put off by all this negative chatter about Beethoven's mother having had no influence over his genius if there's even the slightest chance you might produce one.

And here's a completely separate reason to stick with the art lessons. It seems the same rhythm that moms get into with babes--anticipation, delay and satisfaction--that helps with artistic responsiveness--is the very essence of lovemaking. Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary biologist, thinks the arts even developed as a way to show off to prospective mates. (Now you may get why Matthew Barney and Damien Hirst and Francis Alys and Olafur Eliasson are making everything so BIG).

So you could do worse than trying the contemporary version of making it special on behalf of your offspring offered by my cousin's wife, Aviva, who is an expert in all things to do with sustenance for the younger set. (Check out her book and website, The Six O'Clock Scramble.) She used to surprise her son, who was a picky eater at the time, with fun food shapes to entice him to eat. He wouldn't eat turkey slices unless she cut them up and made faces out of them, quickly replacing features as he ate them. Her daughter did not need much encouragement to eat, but she still loved making spiders, snowmen and other edible designs.

(Aviva suggests: For spiders, let kids spread peanut butter on round crackers. Give them 8 stick pretzels (legs) to stick to the body, and two chocolate chip or raisin eyes. For snowmen, slice bananas and let them assemble the body. Decorate with cheerios (for buttons), raisins (eyes), and string cheese (snow) and pretzels (broomstick.) )

Chances are neither Dudamel's mom nor Seurat's mom would have been caught dead slaving over a peanut butter spider. But you never know. In just the time it takes to make one, you might spark the creative juices of a budding Picasso.

And if you're anything like me, it's not worth losing sleep over the missed opportunity to stimulate a potential genius who is walking around the planet with half your DNA.