The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Should Art challenge the viewer?

Recently, someone had an unexpected reaction to Syahidah’s art. A well to do Irish lady and her husband had the chance to see some of my wife’s work (which is now displayed at home). After they had viewed the works, we sought their reactions.

“Oh, they are nice.”, began the Irish woman, “but I wouldn’t have them in my house.”, she concluded, oddly.

“Why is that?”, I prodded, gently, muting my reaction and keeping my true thoughts from my face and tongue, lest they persuade her to disguise her own.

“Well, my children might not understand them – and I couldn’t risk that.” The prospect seemed to appall her.

Since her children are teenagers, to twenties, I thought this most peculiar.

I didn’t probe further, in general, but directed her attention towards one particular piece, which had two monumental faces facing each other.

“Oh no! I couldn’t bring that into the house.”, she looked somewhat disgusted. “They look like they are about to kiss. If my daughter (Ed: 15 years old), saw that, she would go “yewwh!””

I thought this response most enlightening about the psyche of my interlocutor. You see, the heads in the drawing were NOT about to kiss. They were near each other, yes – but, if anything they were just engaged in conversation. There was no kiss involved. In fact, both heads were men, too, which, in most circumstances, would have worked against her interpretation.

Further discussion with her, uncovered the obvious fact, that, for her, sexual interpretations were to be found in most of the drawings, even though, in reality, they were very mild, in that area. It seemed that it was her own perceptions, that were to blame, here. She was overly sensitive to the possibility of sexual interpretations of images, which, of course, suggested an undue preoccupation with or fear of such subject matter. Furthermore, her reactions were divided into two types: labeling some works, as sexual, when they weren’t really – or labeling works as “difficult” and therefore, “unsuitable for children” – because they “wouldn’t understand them”.

I found this all rather puzzling. To my perceptions they are all interesting works of art, many with a story, all with a point of view that reveals something about the subjects. None of them are “unsuitable for children” – indeed, our own children enjoy them, even Tiarnan, who is just five years old.

Is this Irishwoman right, do you think? Is it wrong to challenge children, with something beyond their immediate understanding?

My own view on the matter is that children should always be challenged. It is not right, I think, just to present them with whatever is readily understood without effort. When a child is challenged, the child has an opportunity to learn, to see something new. I believe that by being fearful of challenging her children with that which might puzzle them, this Irish lady is stifling the growth of her children: were they to see my wife’s works, part of their perceptions and understanding of the world and its possibilities would have a chance to expand.

I made no comment about the Irish woman’s outlook, at the time – but, to me, her parenting stance, on the issue, seemed remarkable and prompted me to reflect on it, subsequently, on several occasions. What do you think of her stance on not challenging her children with art beyond their immediate understanding? Is she right? Am I wrong?

Let me know your thoughts below please.

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 11:57 AM 


Blogger tearsunderstars said...

Hi Mr Cawley

I personally prefer art that is thought provoking and out-of-this world. If art is as easy to understand as the Irish lady would like it to be, then the art won't be very meaningful, because once you understand it, you won't give further thought to it, and you'll get bored with it easily. As a result, the art won't be valuable and will be forgotten easily.

I am rather curious about your wife's art. However, I understand the dangers of plagiarism if it were to reach the internet.

By the way, the issue regarding Paypal freezing the donation account of Temasek Review has been resolved (for some time). I guess the more money is involved, the more likely they would freeze the account. So it may be impractical to ask you to change to something else, as I see that you hardly receive donations. But of course it'll be wise to cash out immediately once you've received any donations.


1:37 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yes, Tearsunderstars, I quite agree: art should provoke and evoke thought and feeling. If it doesn't, in any way, it probably isn't much good as art. In some way, this Irish lady was trying to avoid, for her children, the more interesting effects of viewing art.

Yes. I receive few donations. There is nothing to be done about it. So, it seems needless to change from PayPal.

How have you been? Have you graduated yet?

2:05 PM  
Blogger tearsunderstars said...

Hi Mr Cawley,

I'm having my last break before my final year of study. The final year will be most demanding effort-wise since I will be doing a course project. As such, I am practising hard for my last concert since I won't be able to practise anymore once the project gets intensive. I'll graduate in May next year.


2:26 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Best of luck, Tearsunderstars, with your final year to come.

Might I suggest that you practise a little to keep from going too rusty? An hour a week even, would make a lot of difference to skill maintenance.

Best wishes

10:15 AM  
Blogger heartistsmuse said...


It seems somewhat unusual to have such a response to art, which is truly no more raunchy, complex, provocative, or intense than the world which inspires it. Art, like all things - like music and dance and science and dream - is derived from the source of life. To find it unpalatable, (presumably on the basis of its ability to convey unbridled, multi-dimensional truth) says less about ones tastes as an art critic, I'd say, and more about ones aversions to reality in general; which is the say - the unrated film reel of the edifice we inhabit. Why reject the art for telling the story? It would be more fitting if unreasonable to turn our backs on the universe - the indeterminable, entropic, inconceivably grand design that acts as a muse for anyone who creates - the subject of all that we read, view, paint and observe. I find it very baffling, to comment on the esotericism or the nakedness of art, in a world that is far more esoteric and naked still... I am a chemistry major, but I'm also a self-trained artist. I've had a number of responses to my art -- compliments and criticism alike -- but never, that I can recall, discomfort with the candidness of my work, which was but a word on some facet of a human experience which is far more raucous, far bolder, far more inexplicable and raw-skinned, than the simple works of my hand. Moreover, I will add, that the greatest works of art are those which are not instantly deciphered at the outset. How lovely it is to look at a painting and see something new each time; or to read an old book and find a new story, waiting amongst the dog-eared pages. I live for these things :)

In any event, your wife's art, I'm sure, is wonderful, her boys are lucky to know it, and, in closing, she has just been inadvertently complimented. To be misinterpreted is the highest honor: it speaks to minds of greatness :)

11:38 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you Heartistsmuse, for your deeply considered comment.

I would agree that Art and Life are part of the same conversation. Most artists would also find it difficult to challenge the complexity and richness of life - though some approach it.

I think this lady's difficulties with her art speak, as you rightly diagnose, of her own difficulties with certain aspects of life: the sexual side, by the looks of it. Yet, my wife's art is not really sexual - it is about relationships, often, but not about sexuality as such. This Irish lady was projecting her fears and concerns about this aspect of life, into the works.

It was interesting to see her discomfiture at the works. It was, in fact, rather an education to see that my wife's works on paper, could create such a strong reaction in someone. Another viewer commented on how "warm" the works were, and how "filled with emotion". That, I think, is closer to the truth of them.

How interesting that you combine interests in Chemistry and Art: that makes for a rare combination indeed.

I hope you maintain your interest in Art, whatever you do in life: there are few examples of scientist/artists, in history - perhaps you can be another.

Thank you for your kind words regarding my wife's art. Yes. It is true that my sons are lucky to have my wife's works as an example - for it inspires them to enjoy their own art (they really like drawing).

Best wishes to you.

12:38 PM  
Blogger tearsunderstars said...

Mr Cawley

Yes, I'll definitely do that. I will practise naturally if I get very bored or stressed, and that includes during examination times. It was just that I can no longer practise for hours as a concert may demand.

All the best to you and your family in Malaysia.


11:28 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I am glad, Tearsunderstars, that you intend to do basic maintenance of your music skills, at least.

Thanks for your kind words - and best of luck to you, in your final year (and the exams to come).

2:19 PM  

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