CTR Home Internal  Relations and Communications Home About CTR Publication Schedule CTR Archives

November 23, 2000 David Pariser studies artistic development



Photo of David Pariser

This is not the work of a great artist, David Pariser says of a screen he painted at 15. On the other hand, the pop artwork by 19-year-old Chinese artist Bin Wan, now residing in New York, shows a talent at work. “The only thing we don’t know yet is if he is going become a great artist,” Pariser said.

by Debbie Hum

Some of the childhood drawings by Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec and Klee wouldn’t even be chosen to grace the refrigerator at home, says David Pariser, Professor in the Department of Art Education and Art Therapy.

In his previous research, Pariser has found nothing extraordinary about the patterns of graphic development of recognized artists. As children, they produced artwork that varied from the hackneyed to the remarkable.

Now Pariser, recently named a Fellow of the American Psychological Association for his research, is continuing his investigations with two projects that look at both sides of the issue of giftedness and artistic greatness: How is art judged, and how do children develop in art?

“It is very difficult to tell who is going to become a great artist and who is not,” Pariser said. “As the status of ‘great artist’ is socially constructed, different cultures will have different criteria for the same exalted role.”

That’s not to say that the designation “great” is completely arbitrary, he added. “There may well be some common denominators to greatness, but until we learn more about cross-cultural instances, we can only guess at what the universal properties of artistic greatness may be.”

The first project asks: By looking at their childhood work, can judges distinguish the juvenilia of great artists from that of other gifted children? In collaboration with Susan Rostan of Hofstra University and Howard Gruber of Teacher’s College, both in New York City, Pariser is asking artist-judges to distinguish between the drawings of children who are artistically gifted and the juvenilia of known world-class artists.

The research is supported by a two-year grant from the Esther Katz Rosen Foundation. The study uses actual juvenile work by great artists, and looks at the question of identifying children destined for noteworthy adult artistic performances in two cultures, North American and Chinese.

The researchers anticipate that regardless of the judges’ cultural backgrounds, there will not be much difference in their ability to distinguish the juvenile work of contemporary gifted children from that of great artists.

The second project, with Anna Kindler of the University of British Columbia and Axel van de Berg of McGill University, asks: How do people from three cultures (Brazil, Canada and Taiwan) rank the relative merits of child, adolescent and adult artwork? It is supported by a three-year, $130,000 SSHRC grant, and builds upon a 1994 Spencer Foundation study by Pariser, van den Berg and Jessica Davis of Harvard University that found strikingly different assessments of the same set of drawings by judges from different cultural backgrounds.

That study tested the viability of Howard Gardner’s notion of U-shaped aesthetic development. Gardner’s theory “naturalizes” the idea that little children are born artists, and that as they grow up, most children lose their artistic originality and expressiveness — save those who do become adult artists.

Davis, Pariser and Van Den Berg found that judges with a Western artistic background concurred with Gardner’s perspective, and emphasized expressiveness and originality when they ranked drawings, whereas judges with a traditional Chinese background in the arts found no curve at all. They used technical ability and mastery of style as their criteria for judging drawings.

The new study expands on the Spencer study by creating a much larger database of drawings and using more judges, from Brazil, Canada and Taiwan. The 120 judges will rank and assess drawings by children and adults from all three geographical regions. The research team expects that once again, judges from different cultures will assess the drawings differently.

Aesthetic criteria within and across cultures are notoriously changeable, Pariser said. For example, the drawings of contemporary Chinese children tend to be technically far in advance of their North American age-mates, but 19th-century North American children’s drawings rival the technical excellence of contemporary Chinese children. This sort of shift is “one more reason why it is so difficult to decipher the true path of children’s graphic development, let alone children’s prospects for recognition as great adult artists.”

Pariser, who joined Concordia in 1978, has written numerous articles, essays and several book chapters outlining the special qualities of recognized artists’ juvenile work and the work of gifted children. He has written introductory essays to two books by Montreal painter and art educator Yao Kui. Pariser is currently writing a book on children’s graphic development for the Canadian Society for Education Through Art. .