Masterpiece Theater: A Tale of Dueling Art Books for Kids

A second new art book spanning the centuries, “What Adults Don’t Know About Art,” is aimed at a more mature readership (ages 8 to 12). Od...


A second new art book spanning the centuries, “What Adults Don’t Know About Art,” is aimed at a more mature readership (ages 8 to 12). Oddly, it bears no trace of an author’s identity, as if to suggest that it was composed by a pool of experts pursuing an ideal of objectivity. Indeed, the book is the work of the School of Life, a London-based educational company founded and chaired by Alain de Botton, the well-known essayist and self-styled philosopher. This creates the expectation that “What Adults Don’t Know About Art” will contain at least a few fetching ideas.

But the contents are surprisingly puerile and self-aggrandizing. The book announces at the outset that its anonymous author has something to tell us that promises to be all-revealing, and that has long eluded grown-ups. No other book but this one, we are told, can unravel “The Big Question No One Answers (Until Now),” to borrow a chapter heading.

And what is this ostensibly essential bit of knowledge?

The book’s thesis maintains that the world’s masterpieces are the upscale equivalent of the posters and photographs with which children decorate their bedrooms. “Works of art are really just special posters that other people have wanted to put in their rooms,” the author asserts without irony. “And your room is really a private version of a gallery.” In a typically twisted analysis, Anthony Van Dyck’s radiant canvas “Charles I With M. de St. Antoine,” in which the English king is depicted on horseback, green draperies fluttering behind him, is described like this: “This picture was a special poster for the king’s bedroom.”

What? A poster is decidedly not a painting, and most any child is capable of understanding the difference between them.

Instead of clarifying the language of art, this book carelessly obfuscates it and argues, in a tone that is reminiscent of ancien-régime aristocrats, that art appreciation is rooted in the primitive satisfactions of ownership and private delectation.

Another shortcoming is that the book seems directed at children of privilege, and fails to acknowledge that very few kids are sufficiently fortunate to go to sleep every night in a bedroom arrayed with enticing objects.

The ability to see and to look deeply is an acquired skill, and this book does little to help foster it. In truth, a masterpiece is the opposite of the posters and photographs adorning the walls of a child’s bedroom. An enduring work of art possesses the power to speak to people who perhaps have nothing in common and together speak a hundred different languages. And when we stand before a Vermeer or a Goya at the Met or the Louvre or the Prado, we get a charge from knowing that we are adding our gaze to the collective sum of curious gazes that have searched the same surface over time.

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