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My seven-year-old could have done that

Children have a unique perspective, and can produce art with a directness most adults struggle to achieve. So why isn't the Tate full of the works of eight-year-olds? Harvey McGavin asks the experts how old you have to be to be an artist

Children's art can be pretty, witty and wise, so why is it seldom taken seriously? Miniature masterpieces adorn fridge doors and classroom walls everywhere, but they struggle to gain a wider audience. Children with a gift for solving puzzles or playing an instrument beyond their years are lauded as prodigies. And while Picasso (heavily tutored by his art teacher father) was able to paint pictures of staggering quality as a child, few young artists are ever recognised as such.

But children have a unique view of the world, and art is one of the best ways they have of expressing it. Are we overlooking artistic genius in children simply because it does not conform to what we as adults expect of art? Perhaps, but there are signs that this is beginning to change. The Artworks charity has been instrumental in encouraging children's art and, in the past five years, hundreds of schools have entered work for its annual prize. Last year's winners were exhibited at Tate Modern. On the eve of a conference organised by the charity, asking "How Old Do You Have to Be To Be An Artist?", we asked movers and shakers from the art world for their answers.

Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate galleries

I have pictures done by my children when they were three and four. Quite apart from the nostalgia, I think they were artists when they were making those marks - they were expressing themselves in a visual form that clearly communicated with me. They don't have the depth of a Caravaggio or a Damien Hirst, but they are certainly works of art.

There's one of me standing in a black and green striped dressing gown. It's a great drawing. For anyone other than me, it might have some charm; for me, it has lots more meaning. There are occasions where children's art is celebrated. Go to many schools in the country and you will see it celebrated - it is an expression of the vitality of the school. Museums are not the only place where you validate art.

In my view there has been too great an emphasis on mastering certain practical skills in the art room, partly because it's felt that they are things that can be taught. There can be real satisfaction from mastering skills in those ways, but I don't think they should be regarded as the only means of expression.

Penny Hay, co-ordinator of 5x5x5, an early years creativity project in Bath, based on the Italian Reggio Emilia model of pre-school art-based education

I strongly believe, and it has been proven through our own research, that children are competent from the moment of birth and have innate capacities for being artists and being creative. Children's art is a way of finding out what children are curious about, interested in, even obsessed with - like artists. Maybe children's art isn't understood enough; maybe we don't appreciate the thought processes that go into children making art and communicating their ideas and feelings.

My feeling is that the awareness of "being an artist" is possible at a very early age. Once children perceive themselves to be "experts" in a field, if they are valued in this process, then the possibilities are infinite.

Rob Fairley, original artist in residence at Room 13, a studio in Coal primary school, Fort William, run by children, for children

Room 13 is an art college environment within a primary school. We discuss ideas quite aggressively. It does surprise a lot of visiting artists when they come across a very eloquent eight-year-old.

The most extraordinary example was the Magic Yellow Elephant painting (done by Rachel Allison when she was eight). It was on an easel and a colleague of mine, an artist with an international reputation, saw it and said, "Rob, that's an extraordinary piece - your work's really come on." I said, "Actually it's not mine, you'll meet the artist in a minute." And when Rachel turned up she just disregarded it as if it wasn't worth talking about.

Bright, intelligent youngsters can talk about things that are important to them through art. I can make a piece of work about what I can remember about being young, but I can't do it for real. Even Picasso couldn't have painted what it was like to be an 11-year-old girl.

I think you become an artist when ideas begin to occupy you. You will get that in certain precocious five-year-olds, and we all know adults to whom it has never happened.

Danielle Souness, 13, former managing director of Room 13

I started to go to Room 13 when I was about nine, and when I was about 11 I started to think of myself as an artist. I think if you are doing art and it means something to you, it's classed as art no matter how old you are.

Ideas are more important than technique. I am always looking for an idea that I can transfer into art. The work always comes second.

When I was younger we painted just to make a picture; in Room 13 we did it to express feelings. I decided not to take art in high school because it is the same as what we were doing at primary school: painting for the sake of it. The teachers tried to persuade me, but the art I do is not about drawing, it's all text-based stuff mainly on a computer.

Jonathan Fineberg, Gutgsell professor of art history, University of Illinois and author of 'The Innocent Eye'

We have been asking all the wrong questions about giftedness and children: we are asking children to perform according to our standards instead of asking ourselves what is interesting to them and how do they perform in relation to that. The latter is what tells you what the real giftedness is.

The art psychologist Rudolf Arnheim said 50 years ago that children's drawings are about a child trying to bring coherence to their experience, and I think that's absolutely right. Children are all creative beings until they are told otherwise. The day a kid opens their eyes there's a tremendous amount of pressure to conform. When you hand a child a square piece of paper you are already giving them instructions: it has to fit in that space.

The person in the gallery looking at a Picasso and saying "my seven-year-old could have done that"; we've all heard some version of that.

Almost all of the major painters collected children's drawings, and in every case they were deeply involved in the major discovery of that artist's career, whether it was Picasso's cubist collage or Kandinsky's abstraction or Miro trying to recover the innocence of his childhood unconscious.

In children's drawings there's an exposure of unconscious material that adults are unwilling to express; your ability to survive as a social being depends on your ability to repress and redirect those energies. When those things are exposed it's rather threatening.

There's a drawing my daughter did at the age of seven that is profoundly expressive. It shows her taking a nap, but she's drooped on the bed in such a way that you feel the relaxation and it communicates very directly. But compared to a Picasso painting of a nude on a chair - a classical figure drawn with perfect rendering - my daughter couldn't possibly do that. You can see his reference to antique statuary and composition, which only an adult could master. It gives that work a depth that's not going to be in a child's drawing. But there's a directness of expression in a child's drawing that's wonderful and shouldn't be diminished.

Quentin Blake, artist and illustrator and patron of the Campaign for Drawing

I think you can be an artist at any age. Sometimes it doesn't survive, but if by the time you are 10 or 11 and you are still drawing, then it probably really is there.

Art is more about ideas than technique, but it's quite hard to separate the two. There are lots of different forms of talent, and if you can keep going later on you will discover lots of different ways of expressing it; you might want to make ceramics or take photographs or draw. I don't think art gets enough encouragement. It's another language that you can use in life.

Maybe not as useful as being able to write, but it might be more useful than you think.

Antony Gormley, sculptor

When I was at junior school I was invited to paint a mural. I was given this wall with another boy and told to paint something on it. We did a bucolic scene of a mill pond and house; an acrylic version of a Constable.

A lot of rubbish is talked about how you can't make art until you have lived a little. Art itself is the most intense form of living. And if it is taken seriously and pursued for its own sake it can be profound, whatever age it is done.

Art is such an important tool in the creation of self-worth and self-confidence. Being given that wall to paint on at 11 did it for me. I'm sure it was crap, but that didn't matter; something I made was shared and recognised. I'm absolutely convinced that had a lot to do with me becoming an artist.

Following the conference, which is fully booked, Artworks and Demos will publish a report on children's art. For more information, and to find out what's happening on Children's Art Day (July 3), visit Jonathan Fineberg's When We Were Young: the art of the child will be published next year

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