In many ways it detracts from the overall experience. There is no losing oneself in contemplation whilst maintaining the necessary vigilance— no-touching-no-running-no-shouting-no-climbing-no-pushing-no-fighting perpetually on the tip of the tongue, a matronly mantra. They do not understand how to move slowly and systemically through a gallery; they flit from here to there, crisscrossing and backtracking, skipping entire sections and dawdling in others. They are butterflies in a flower garden, but noisier and potentially destructive. They might invest mere minutes of focus on a virtuosic masterpiece, and yet will give a seemingly inordinate amount of attention to Not Fine Art (e.g. elevators, benches, that person over there, grates in the floor, a small piece of trash appropriated days ago and carried hence as a pocket talisman, etc.). Also, forget it: there is no hope of seeing the entire museum; they do not have the stamina to last more than an hour or two, and even that must be punctuated with trips to the drinking fountain, café, and museum shop so that they can fulfill their daily quotas of Touching Things and Asking for Stuff.
But even so, and even knowing it might come down to an abrupt evacuation of the premises before you have seen quite enough, and with soup stains down the front of the children’s shirts and chocolate fingerprints (or worse) on yours, trailing apologies to curators and fellow visitors, corralling and shushing whirling dervishes and wailing banshees through crowds, past still unexplored wings—don’t-stop-now-stick-together-come-on-be-quiet-let’s-go-I-said-NO!— even so, it is worth the undertaking every now and again… and not merely for the edification of the young people themselves.
Small children by and large lack the worldliness to have developed much of a sense of aesthetics. They are in the earliest stages of cultivating taste. They come at a museum fresh as daisies, not yet jaded, without pretension or preconception, eyes wide open to anything and everything. When it comes to art, they do not not like anything yet. It does not occur to them to dislike something that does not interfere with their desires—bad art does not take their toys or make them nap or hurt them— and so, unless coached to do so, there are no negative critiques from these newest museum-goers. Art that fails to capture the imagination is simply passed by without comment (how refreshing!) and intriguing art will draw questions and comments—What is that? Why is it blue? I see foxes!— but rarely judgment. It is invigorating to see the world through their clear eyes; it is entertaining and sometimes unexpectedly illuminating to hear their naive remarks; and it is amazing to watch even the youngest child make connections between works of art and the real world: On a trip to an art museum when Milo was not yet two, he saw an Early Byzantine mosaic fragment and exclaimed, “Bunny wabbit! Birdies! Mommy birdy! Grapes!” He was delighted and so was I, mind blown by the fact that after so short a time in this world, he could be receptive to a message laid down by an artist fourteen or fifteen centuries ago. Why can we do this so well and so young?
From the littlest ones, the highest praise is an unsolicited “Wow!” or “Oh!” or “Look!” followed by thirty seconds of stillness and focused quiet before the spell is broken and they must scramble down out of your arms or wrest their hands from yours and go squirreling off to see something else. Those moments are sufficiently sweet and magical in their own way, but the goose bumps come when a child is just mature enough that every so often a work of art will evoke a surprisingly insightful comment, giving you a new perspective on it, and also a glimpse of the person the child may become: Four tons of limestone fragments arranged in a circle on the floor of the modern art wing at the St. Louis Art Museum brought scoffing from a number of viewers— “This isn’t art,” they declared with authority, and I was not certain I disagreed. But Wyatt, a devoted rock-collector himself, piped up, “What if,” he asked, “what if the person that made this collected all those rocks from beaches that are, like, all black rocks or all gray rocks and there’s just one white rock here and there? Like, one on each beach?” That’s not exactly the case—I know this because I read the wall label—but it is true that the artist collected the stones from the banks of the Mississippi and knowing that does enhance my comprehension of the piece— but now I am taken with the idea that this weighty ring could represent a lifetime’s worth of “special rocks”, each one marking a moment in which the artist stopped and stooped, fingered the stone, weighed it in hand, carried it home to show and share and remember, against varying backdrops of water and weather, seasons and ages, moods and milestones. A pile of memories— of course it is a circle.
Here is another thing about taking children to art museums: they laugh. Aloud. Freely and unselfconsciously, they laugh in surprise or recognition or because, really, that lady’s hat does look like a floppy muffin, or just for the joy of it. And because you are with a child, you can join them without need of justifying whether the artist intended the work before you to be whimsical, facetious, or farcical. Entering a gallery, Duncan, aged four, laughed in delight. “Look at that!” he exclaimed, and I followed his gaze and pointing finger to see a cushioned bench in front of a windowed wall. “I want to try that,” he laughed again and trotted over to throw himself belly-first onto the bench. For him there was no hierarchy of significance of the various pieces that made up the museum-going gestalt. He did not distinguish between the art in the room, and the room itself. He looked at the paintings, yes, and the sculptures and installations, but also the ceiling, the floor, under the benches, out the windows. He was wild about riding the elevator! (He was interested in the buttons and the automatic doors.) He also liked the clompy sound his shoes made on the stairs. In his eyes, I saw more in the mundane: Look at this building. Somebody thought this up! People made this! People are incredible! And look at those windows… Windows are incredible! Glass is incredible! It’s sand, but it’s so… so see-through.
If you have no young child of your own to take on an art-viewing outing, you can probably borrow one. Parents of young children are in a harried and worried phase of life; it is an extremely attractive proposition to them to have a couple hours off, especially knowing that while they relax, or more likely, try to cram too much into too small a child-free window, The Child will be steeped in Culture and Enrichment and Individual Attention from a Caring Adult. You will need only the mildest qualifications to convince your friends to hand over their offspring to you, although, depending on the anal-retentiveness of the parent in question, be prepared to tolerate clusters of condescendingly instructive text messages throughout the day of your excursion.
In sum, I believe it is a worthwhile endeavor to take the children in your life to see art. Sure, it’s a hassle and schlep. At points you may have to carry two armloads of flailing child while lugging a bag crammed with hand wipes and sunscreen and snacks and extra pants. But unless you have calcified to a state of intractable curmudgeonliness, you will not regret it. Through children we can remember again what it is like to view art (and indeed the world) without the scaffolding of history, education, and experience, plunging headlong into the inherent hedonism of simply looking. When it comes to enhancing your personal experience of art, you could do worse than to abandon wall labels for a day and start again like a child, with a child by your side.