development of visual expression – a socio-cultural approach

Outlining the socio-cultural path of visual-aesthetic development

At the time I was doing my master’s studies in art education in the 1980’s, children’s picture making and their visual/aesthetic development was approached (if at all) almost exclusively from the point of view of developmental psychology. This usually meant going through the common regularities that appear in children’s drawings through different ages, moving on from disordered to more ordered scribbling, from a circle to a head which, with the additions of stick legs and arms, becomes a human figure, and from there to increasingly realistic depictions (see e.g. Drawing Development in Children). The focus was on drawings or pictures made on two-dimensional surface, which, in turn, was a rectangular piece of paper.

Whenever there is no personal relationship to the substance to be learned, the learning can easily remain superficial, non-internalised. This is what happened with these developmental theories, of which only some of the most well known generalizations stayed with me. It was only after I had my first child, on the eve of my master’s graduation, that the acquired theories gained some connection to real-life, and thereby motivated me to rethink them.

In the early stages of my doctoral studies, which started in 1995, my research interest in gender construction also inspired me to observe my own children’s picture making: how did gender enter it and how did the cultural influences gradually begin to show in it. I discussed the picture making with my children, and I wrote down our little conversations as well as their comments and descriptions about their works. I used some parts of this data in my doctoral thesis as examples of how gender meanings can be negotiated and socially constructed between children in image making situations.

A view composed of the data about my children’s picture making from the multimedia ethnography I built as part of my doctoral thesis

Later on I began, more systematically, to collect and transcribe these notes from my handwritten diaries and from the back side of the drawings. This material now enables me to reflect upon visual-aesthetic development, and how gender enters into it, as a socio-cultural phenomenon. For this enterprise the stage theories of cognitive development give helpful points of reference, for clearly the learning of cultural forms and values is no less a mental process as it is social, and no less intertwined with cognitive capacities. However, my aim is not, yet again, to confirm any theory of universal developmental stages, with my own example, but to focus on those aspects of children’s picture making that indicate socio-cultural impact.

Approaching a particular theory, phenomenon or subject of study through one or two children of your own is not new. Charles Darwin, Clara & William Stern, and Jean Piaget are classic examples of this, but there are also more contemporary names like Antero Salminen, Sylvia Fein, and Marianne Grabrucker who have made significant realisations by observing their own children. (See also: Research in the Crib)

At the time of writing my children are 20 and 23 year old adults, and have been able to give me permission to reflect upon their childhood visual activities and use their images to illuminate them.

“Draw a woman” – Gendering of children’s visual expression

When my children started making images, being a boy or a girl didn’t seem to make a difference in the process, the outcomes, or in their aesthetical values. However, through the years, gendered meanings gradually entered their lives and their image making. Already in kindergarten the trees, flowers and humans in my son’s drawings were replaced by dinosaurs and mutant ninja turtles, then those by soldiers with their fire-shooting guns and war weapons, whereas my daughter concentrated more and more in depicting characters, clothes, colors, and objects commonly held as feminine.

Such differentiation in visual preferences has, until recent decades, been considered and approached as belonging to and a signal of the natural, inevitable process of psychological development into boys and girls (see e.g. Mortensen 1991). However, understanding the socio-cultural processes as important factors in the identity formation of an individual makes it possible to question the gendering of expression as a biological necessity. If gendered cultural meanings permeate all aspects of our social reality and the main stream culture, why would they not find their way into how children experience the world and themselves, and finally into their aesthetic preferences and visual works? (See Nielsen 1995, 122-124.)

A woman by Tessa, 5 yrs (1996)

As, for example, Anne Maj Nielsen (1995) has pointed out, visual expression can be seen as a culture specific language with its vocabulary, functions and meanings, which children actively use. The certain recurring schemas typical to children’s representations of men and women stem from the plentitude of gender symbolism present in the cultural imagery available to children, such as cartoons, toys, picture books and the like.

Although the (western) imagery of art and visual culture in general has radically changed through time, the repertoire of children’s visual language has not changed at the same rate, because the images offered to them in culture are still about idealized representations of observable things (see e.g. Nielsen 1995, 138 and Palmu 1992). Children partake in the common culture and produce images into it, but from a different position than grown-ups; they are still only learning the cultural conventions by means of which they practice their own spontaneous expression. Thus, as well as the visual competences from techniques to analysis, the visual aesthetic development of children includes adapting and learning the prevailing visual languages of the culture in the framework of gender meanings. (Nielsen 1995, 120-134)

Developmental psychological research has produced normative indicators for planning goals and contents of art education. As an approach that has informed analysis of children’s images and visual production it seems educator-oriented and educator–centered, diagnostic, and evaluative (c.f. Outinen 1995). It allows an art teacher to look at children’s image making as a phenomenon outside the art-world to be assessed by its own criteria, but at the same time loses the value, the many meanings and functions that image making can have to children themselves. Research that produces generalizations, statistics and typologies, tends to overlook or pathologize exceptions, and the ‘normal’ becomes a norm according to which the representations of princesses made by a boy can be interpreted as symptoms of “unhealthy” gender development regardless of what he himself wanted to express with them. However, when looked at from the socio-constructionist point of view, such deviations from the gendered “developmental paths” and expectations for boys and girls are simultaneously proof of the possibility of a different kind of being, and of the power of the socio-cultural in piloting us towards a gender. (C.f. Duncum 1997, 109)

Topias and the girls (Tessa & cousins Pauliina, Susanna and Julia) had a drawing competition at their grandma’s yesterday. The subject was “woman’s face”, and the judges were Susanna and Julia, so there were only three contestants. When it was time to reveal the works and decide the winner, Topias had drawn an entire woman, with the physical signs of femininity, boobs and bits (“pimppi”), visible in her naked body. Topi seemed to have drawn the woman naked with tongue in cheek, because he was sniggering when presenting his work. Next moment, he apparently realized from the girls’ comments that he had been focusing in the wrong aspects and was a bit apologetic about having drawn “those bad things”. I said the boobs and the bits were not bad things, but if the given subject was “woman’s face”, then maybe it was unnecessary to concentrate on the whole body. At that point Topi was clearly upset that he hadn’t tried his best with the face. I asked if he would also have drawn a man’s willy when only asked for his face, he said no. Then, to give a sample, he started to draw a man’s face.

Topi’s (9 yrs) man who “looks like woman somehow”

At some point in the process – after drawing the lips, as far as I remember – he said his image of a man looked like a woman somehow. I asked why, but he could not tell. Finally he complained that surely it had been easy for the girls, as the subject had been woman, and why was it not man’s face. To this Pauliina (who won the competition with her Christina beauty) muttered that she would not be able to draw a man at all, she might just draw some beard stubble… I still asked if a man always had short hair and a woman long hair, to which Pauliina and Susanna responded that it wasn’t always so. Pauliina remembered that their father had long hair in one the photographs from his youth.

Tessa had decorated her woman’s face with a forehead mark, which we were contemplating with children. Evidently it was an imitation of a forehead jewel worn by a cat princess featured in the “Journey to the centre of the earth” tv-cartoon. (…)

When we had returned home, Topi drew the woman’s face again; having become the last at grandma’s, he still wanted to win the competition in a way. This time he took the task with great seriousness, colored the woman’s lips with pink, and carefully drew lashes and even pink irises in her eyes. He placed the woman’s head at the top of the paper on purpose, because, according to him, this way her hair came out better, more even. He colored her nose dark, because that made it better somehow, “better looking”. He decorated her cheeks with “beauty spots” (i.e. freckles). Apparently a girl in his class also had them.

(…) I just asked Topi to draw an entire woman as carefully as he could. As a reward I promised to give him a small notebook he’d recently asked for. There they are both now, drawing in my study. Tessa just came to show me her drawing of her father’s face: there was a short haired man colored in dark tones with a tie on his neck and “daddy” written on the side. Topi pointed out a new difference between woman and man in his work; he had wiped away the eyebrows above the woman’s eyes because, in his opinion, they made the woman look like a man. This came up when I asked Topi which means he found suitable for illustrating a man and which for a woman. He explained that to a man he would now draw eyebrows (because they did not suit a woman) and short hair… or it could also be long. But to a woman he would draw eyelashes and beauty spots. When I asked if only women had beauty spots, he admitted that also boys had them. Meanwhile I noticed him watch my face intensively. I asked why he was looking at my face, and he disclosed that he could not understand why Daddy and I looked so different.

(…) We had yet another brief chat about drawing a man and a woman. I pointed out that boys also had freckles, beautiful lips and bushy eyelashes, and boys were actually as pretty as girls. Topi admitted this, but then noted that it was, in fact, difficult to draw a boy if all this was included, because the boy would then end up looking like a girl. (Diary 24.2.96)

I described these events in my diary when I was preparing for the empirical part of my doctoral study, a period of participant observation on school art lessons. The drawing competition episode that emerged spontaneously during a family visit shows, in a concrete way, how gender can become an issue in an image-making situation between children. During and after the competition, when children discuss and study the correct gender representations by drawing, making interpretations of how gender signs are divided, gender becomes highlighted as arbitrary and negotiable. However, the intense involvement in the reflection shows how important it is for the image-maker to represent gender correctly, and to make some kind of divisions between genders (Davies 1991, 20; c.f. Duncum 1997, 109). The ability seems to be connected to the image maker’s identity: each child was concentrating on his/her ‘own gender’, believing he/she could represent it better than the other, or that at least it would be easier.

Without the basic signs of a naked body it is difficult for a child to capture in a visual representation that which seems obvious in her/his experience. If things are drawn exactly the way they look, gender does not get transmitted. Therefore, to maintain the difference visible also in the depictions of faces, features must be shared between men and women. Details become important, as well as the gendering tips offered by the media. If the subject is “woman”, it is worth concentrating in beauty, adding lashes, freckles, painted lips and long hair. What ensues is “woman” in general, not ones own mother or any other particular woman. A “man” ensues, when the beauty factors such as eyelashes are left out, hair is shortened, eyebrows and beard-stubble added. The stereotypical gender signs help in representing gender unambiguously.

The following excerpts from discussions between myself and my children show how they had already encountered the cultural limits associated with masculinity and femininity (see Strandell 1993, 28).

Tessa (5 yrs): I will make a paper doll for daddy as well, it’s OK to make it for a dad, too, isn’t it? This (paper doll) will be a boy, mom. This will be trousers like that for this boy. (Diary 5.4.1996)

Topi (9 yrs): Olli didn’t like the present Jenni gave him, because there was a picture scrap* on it.
Me: Do you like picture scraps?
Topi: No.
Me: Why not?
Topi: I dunno.
Me: But you used to like picture scraps. When did you stop liking them?
Topi: I dunno. Maybe when I got ice-hockey cards. (Diary 5.4.1996)

(*cutout images of flowers, hearts, animals or fairy tale scenes typically collected by girls)

My children analysed the world around them and expressed their observations by asking questions, pondering, and sometimes making categorical statements like “red is a girls’ color, boys must not like it”. Like someone who has been declared as a boy at birth but who feels a constant urge to study and adopt the feminine style and gestures to pass for a woman (see Garfinkel 1984, 116-185), they seemed to be equally involved in learning ‘the correct’ way of being a girl or a boy and blending in with their ‘own’ group.

(to be continued…)

Literature and reading:

Darwin, Charles 1877. A Biographical Sketch of an Infant. Mind, Vol. 2, No. 7 (Jul., 1877), pp. 285-294 Published by: Oxford University Press.

Davies, Bronwyn. 1991 (1989). Frogs and Snails and Feminist Tales. North Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

DeSantis, Karin and Housen, Abigail 2007 (1997): A Brief Guide to Developmental Theory and Aesthetic Development.

Duncum, Paul 1997. Subjects and Themes in Children’s Unsolicited Drawing and Gender Socialization. Teoksessa A. M. Kindler (toim.): Child Development in Art. Reston: National Art Education Association, 107-114.

Fein, Sylvia 1993 (1984). Heidi’s Horse. Heineman.

Garfinkel, Harold 1984 (1967). Studies in Ethnomethodology. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Grabrucker, Marianne 1988 (1985). There’s a Good Girl: Gender Stereotyping in the First Three Years of Life: A Diary, London: Women’s Press.

Ivic, Ivan: Lev S. Vygotsky (1986-1934).

Mortensen, Karen Vibeke 1991. Form and Content in Children’s Human Figure Drawings – Development, Sex Differences, and Body Experience. New York: New York University Press.

Nielsen, Anne Maj 1995. Gender in Children’s Pictures. Teoksessa Ruotonen, Boysen, Krogh-Jespersen & Lahelma (toim.): Content and Gender: Transforming the Curriculum in Teacher Education. Association for Teacher Education in Europe, PAVIC, 117-139.

Outinen, Kira 1995. Ala-asteen oppilaiden ihmispiirustusten visuaaliset laatuominaisuudet. Helsingin yliopiston kasvatustieteen laitoksen tutkimuksia 145, Helsinki.

Palmu, Tarja 1992. Nimetön Hiiri ja Simo Siili. Aapisten sukupuoli-ideologia. Teoksessa Näre & Lähteenmaa (toim.): Letit liehumaan. Tyttökulttuuri murroksessa. Helsinki: SKS, 301-313.

Salminen, Antero 2005. Pääjalkainen. Kuva ja havainto. Helsinki: Taideteollinen korkeakoulu.

Strandell, Harriet 1993. Yhdessä ja erikseen – sukupuoli lasten päiväkotimaailmassa. Teoksessa P. Korvajärvi, R. Nätkin & A. Salaniemi, (toim.): Tieteen huolet, arjen ihmeet. Tampere: Vastapaino, 23-43.

The Vygotsky Project:

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