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Did you read the thought-provoking opinion piece by evolutionary anthropologist, Dorsa Amir, in the Washington Post?  You should read the whole thing and see what you think!  Clickbait title aside, it presents a powerful premise, even if the writer does not quite follow through on her conclusions.  In case you don’t feel like reading it (or if the WaPo paywall is knocking you around), here is a crude summary:  one of the unique features of human culture is children’s culture which, across time, and throughout all different nations, has provided a sort of society-within-a-society where playing at being adult teaches the critical aspects of social interaction and creative problem solving to the next generation.  By pushing children immediately into the great adult hierarchical game of constant adversarial competition (by means of overscheduling, too much busywork/schoolwork, constant supervision, curtailing free play, and so forth and so on) contemporary society is denying children a chance to get good at the truly important things: curiosity, creativity, and interpersonal relationships.

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As ever, I find humans less different from other animals than the anthropocentric author seems to be willing to recognize (has she never watched kittens play…to say nothing of juvenile spider monkeys or baby elephants?), but let us leave that aside and address to her social thesis. I am not sure that 21st century adults’ overprotective urges to give their kids any advantage in our workaholic, winner-take-all culture is the real problem.  I think the workaholic, winner-take-all society itself is the problem.  It is not that kids play too little in our over-teched world.  It is that adults play too little. Plus we do it wrong.

Let me explain with an anecdote before expanding my critique. I have some friends who are super-successful Park Slope parents.  They are raising their children with every advantage (and every overscheduled, over-tutored, overworked, over-fretted-upon stereotype of Amir’s piece).  The children however, are not mindless little perfectionist zombies.  They are brilliant wonderful kids. My buddy heard his 5-year-old daughter talking with great animation to someone behind closed-doors, and, upon bursting in, he discovered she had snatched a tablet and launched an internet chat show of her own.  “These kids are already broadcasting!” he told me with a confounded look.

Just as the Thule kids of Amir’s essay built miniature hunter-gatherer storehouses, the Park Slope children were assembling miniature media empires.  The ancient analogous relationship was still perfectly intact.  It’s just that the adults are no longer stalking javelinas or building granaries, we are staring at damned screens (argh, I am doing it right now, after doing it all day at work! So are you!) [as an aside, I was shocked to find “Thule” showing up again in an essay about hunter-gatherer childhood culture…what is up with that confounding name?]

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American society features a well-known need to be continuously productive (this is the famous “Protestant-work-ethic”…though New York has taught me that our newest citizens from West Africa or East Asia have a very homologous sort of code).  Technology and the shifting nature of work have somehow brought that tendency even further into our lives.  When my mother was baking a pie or feeding the geese, I could grasp those activities and join her or make my own games about animal husbandry or baking mastery.  Yet when modern parents are on their smartphones responding to late night emails from the boss about PR or legal questions, the script is harder to follow for children.  The kids do get onto the devices and there are plenty of games and social and other diversions to be had there.  I am no technophobe: I think the next generation’s technological savvy will serve us well, yet things online are crafted like fishing lines or beartraps to capture our attention for the purposes of others.  Free unstructured play in the real world transcends such things. To see people engaged together in such play is to see their faces alive with thought and delight.

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When I ran a toy company, my business partner and I did not know very many children.  In order to test our creative animal-themed toys out, we showed them to adults.  The poor people looked deeply flustered at being asked to “play” again and they stared at the toys like dogs who had been whipped.  Only gradually would they pick up the colorful pieces and try to recapture the magic of childhood.  However, then a lovely thing would happen.  They would be captivated by the delight of making things for the sheer joy of it. They would get all wound up in toys and in explaining their creations. Unexpected people came up with all sorts of great ideas. Children know that play is the magic elixir for bonding and brainstorming. Adults have forgotten this or only rediscover it in attenuated form with team-building exercises or obsessive-compulsive video games.

Watching people go bowling or play with Legos or play with children makes you immediately recognize that watching Netflix or “liking” things on social media is not playing.

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How do we create a world of meaningful creative play for adults?  That sounds like a crazy/frivolous question compared to queries such as how we confront 21st century business monopolies or solve political paralysis or make people interested in the beautiful yet complicated inquiries of science.  But I feel like the answers might actually be related.

We modern adults need to work harder at playing.  Only then will we capture the true benefits of all of our frenetic toil.  Let’s learn from the kids instead of breaking their spirits early on with too much of our gray work world.

In order to practice putting together an artist’s statement, I am going to try to write more posts about contemporary art.  Please feel free to chime in with any thoughts or critiques about the style, subject, or conclusions of these little descriptions.

Since I have been writing about the meanings and ramifications of all things gothic, I have decided to start with Steven Assael, a very gifted realist portrait painter working today.  A native New Yorker, Assael studied with the contemporary masters of portrait painting to learn the meticulous craft of the great realist painters of yesteryear.  He employed hi hard-won skills painting outsider “punk” models with the refined & dignified realism one would usually employ for a university president or a bank executive.  The contrast is intriguing and it lends a stolid dignity to the pierced goth figures and faces on the canvas (and a frisson of craziness and excitement to staid academic portrait technique).  

Club Kids (Steven Assael, 2001, oil on canvas)

The otherworldiness of Assael’s portraits is an illusion we are meant to see through: the timelessness of the human emotions under the layers of props is part of his theme.  If we scrubbed off his club kids’ makeup and hair dye and then gave them cravats, lace, and wigs, they would look just like an 18th century group portrait.  Is the difference between a banker and a rebel girl just a bunch of props?  Well, on canvas interpreted through the brush of a talented painter, maybe it is.

Assael is self-conscious about using extremely traditional techniques and poses to contemporary ends.  When asked about his relationship with modern art he answered, “Modernism has taken a direction toward the North Pole—with nowhere to go, frozen.  On the way back we are discovering new territory, using the past as a means of expressing the present.  To go forward we must, at times, take a step back and evaluate our position.  With progression there is always a [positive, studied] regression”

At Mother, detail (Steven Assael, 2001, Oil, wood panel, canvas and steel)

So is the future of art just the past wearing wild clothes? And is Assael’s underlying classicism at odds with the gothic/emo/punk rebelliousness of the personalities portrayed?  There is a melancholic loneliness to Assael’s figures which suggests he understands the paradoxical desire to be outside of popular convention while at the same time being part of a group.  His paintings almost seem to have the same paradox.  He wishes to be outside of traditional painting while firmly a part of it.

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