Drawing as an Act of Democracy – Part 2

By Suzanne Axelsson

It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.

Pablo Picasso

Often I feel this statement by Picasso is misinterpreted. It is not so much that Picasso wanted to paint like a child but that he desired the freedom from normative expectations that very young children have. A short period of time when children are not drawing houses as squares with triangular roofs and a chimney regardless of whether such houses can be found in their context, or paint/draw water as blue squiggles despite water seldom looking blue, unless you have spent most of your life at the swimming pool (and then, technically, it is the blue tiles).

I am constantly striving to decolonise my way of thinking, learning and teaching and maybe this statement sort of fits in with that? Decolonise is a word that is getting used more often and refers to when white Europeans went around the world conquering lands to gain control over the materials available there, and wiping our resistance by in part violence and in part suppressing local cultures by forcing their own on to them. The colonies brings up thoughts of islands in the pacific – but it was/is also North and South America, Australasia, parts of Asia, much of Africa and since the days of the Crusades the Middle East also. There is a TEDTalk that I can highly recommend that you watch – The Danger of a Single Story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that describes the problems that comes when a white, Western, usually male, able, heterosexual etc normative thinking is seen as the only correct way to think, or worse still, that people have totally failed that there are any other ways to think.

I am also conflicted at the use of a Picasso quote when talking about decolonising (opening up to other truths, stories and possibilities) when his art benefited from colonial structures that elevated his interpretation of Indigenous aesthetic expression – see Liisa-Ravna Finbog’s post on this) In other words how he depicted others was often exotifying them or stereotyping them, which benefited him financially without addressing the truth of the people and places he depicted.

As part of being able to see drawing as an act of democracy, we need to start thinking about the effects of culture on world-views, and world-views have on culture. Basically, what general beliefs of what the world actually is influencing the details we notice, the stories we listen to. Are we drawing stereotypes, prejudice or the truth?

Young children, of course, have not been exposed and subjected to years of cultural impressions. There is a freedom to experience the world as it is rather than the “story” of our societies. As adults, and especially as parents and teachers, we need to busy ourselves with unlearning many of these “truths” we have learned as a process of creating genuine equity, where real participation for everyone and authentic impact and influence by all is achievable – in order to create a real democracy. This means listening to all the stories rather than just the one normative story, so that we can allow the children we work with the freedom to be who they are and to value others.

So, what if Picasso meant – that to paint like a child actually meant unlearning the truths told in order to listen and learn from all the stories? That painting like a child is to be free of restriction. I can compare this to the normative flower symbol – a circle with five petals. So many children learn to draw this – yet so many flowers are completely different – tulips, dandelions, iris, orchids, sunflowers, roses, daisies etc etc etc – imagine a world where you are belittled and made to feel less worthy just because you are not a flower that is a circle with five petals – decolonising our thinking is giving us the freedom to draw every kind of flower and not just that one template.

And what can we learn from this, so that art can be a part of our democratic approach to teaching and being with children?

Cultural norms have the power to infect the way children see and hear the world. Bit by bit their eyes are clouded and their ears are muffled so that the multiplicity and details of our complex world are blurred so that soon the child is blinkered into making artistic, creative and cognitive decisions based on general understandings filtered to them rather than real-life observations. 

Norms and culture are an important part of feeling a sense of belonging. I have no intention of saying we should abandon these, merely to, as educators and parents, not place blinkers on children, as well as providing strategies for children to notice the whole world around them. Norms are what tell us to respect each other, to help, to not hit others, to say thank you, that inform us murder is bad and teaching is positive – these are essential in our social well being together. The problem arises when these norms exclude others, belittle others – the norm that children are empty vessels that need to be filled with information by wise adults is something many of us have been challenging, the norm that women are less able than men is an ongoing struggle where some countries have come further in gender equality than others… 

As you see norms are essential, good, restrictive and sometimes harmful.

Another norm in our shared world is to not waste time, and things like play, and aesthetic expression often get categorised as a waste of time. So over the years there has been a drive to prove that they are not… but sadly even in art there is the language of “hurry up” and “get to the next stage”,  which turns art and play into tools to level up, teachers and parents anxious for their child to stop babbling and start talking, stop crawling and start walking and stop scribbling and start drawing forms the adults recognise. This means that suddenly things like drawing (where scribbling is an essential process) have little value in their own right, but only as a step to writing or some other academic achievement that is not seen as a waste of time.

The result is the manipulation of art, drawing, scribbling and play… in order to produce a desired outcome. Which defeats the whole purpose of art and play and their massive complexity. Debi Keyte-Hartland writes in Drawing as Meaning-making about this complexity of knowing materials, self and the world – as a language that is social, relational and also generative… in other words, it is about interacting with others during the process and after the process, it is about understanding the interconnectedness and interdependencies, as well as a language for creating knowledge and sharing it. This is so much more than simply seeing scribbles as a precursor to writing and only encouraging that narrative…. It is seeing scribbles as relationships.

Drawing as an act of democracy requires educators, and parents, to be open to the multiple possibilities of what the process provides, shares and enables. It requires us to be aware of our own bias and prejudices as well as educational and other agendas, so that they are not limiting or blurring the child’s ability to see the world as it is, and avoid force feeding children what normative society says they should be (especially when the norm excludes, oppresses and harms others). I am grateful that dialogue is opening up about autism, and slowly,  slowly the normative view of the autistic child viewed as a problem and as being less than is finally changing to one of complexity, creativity and seeing the child with a different learning trajectory that is frequently damaged by a society trying to make them catch up or be “as normal as possible”.

Slowing down, looking closely and listening deeply can be applied to drawing. It is something that we should practice every day ourselves, so that we know how we can provide it for the children in our care. 

Take notice of the world around us as it is. Listen to all the stories. Allow art to be a space to explore what we see and hear to make sense of it, and to share that with others.

When it comes to the first part of the statement by Picasso “it took me years to paint like Raphael”… it certainly implies that as a creative artist he spent years copying others. He was clearly using Raphael as a template – to learn techniques, to practice something over and over again to feel a sense of mastery. Not to paint like Raphael but, I assume, to better understand how Raphael painted. Learn by doing, do by knowing… Picasso was able to do what he did because he knew, because he had physically practiced. He had “played” Raphael.

All of this is at the core of drawing as an act of democracy. A space for all stories to be shared, expressed, discovered. A space and process that is permitted time, and not kept to the normative agenda to reach a specific outcome rather than the freedom to reveal its own truth. A space for scribbles to tell their valuable tale for as long as they need to be told, without being hurried by the norm to get to the next, allegedly more valuable, stage that is linear and never allowed to revisit. Let’s decolonise the scribble!

This post is part of the project Grammar of Drawing by Suzanne Axelsson, Nona Orbach and Roberta Pucci.

It has been translated in four languages: