Every Child Is an Artist. The Problem Is How to Remain an Artist Once He or She Grows Up

John Lennon? Pablo Picasso? Carleton Noyes? Percy Mackaye? Dudley Crafts Watson? Agnes Snyder? Ricky Gervais? Anonymous?

drawing09Dear Quote Investigator: When a child is supplied with paint, clay, paper, and scissors he or she will experiment and construct images and figures. The artistic impulse is strong in the early years of life, but sadly it is often attenuated as a child matures. I believe that the prominent painter Pablo Picasso and the notable musician John Lennon both made statements on this theme. Are you familiar with these quotations?

Quote Investigator: John Lennon did mention children and art during an interview in 1969. Lennon was highly critical of many aspects of society during the colloquy, and he was asked about his alternative ideas for governance. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Just the idea that the individual is capable of looking after himself, that we don’t need centralized government, that we don’t need father-figures and leaders, that every child is an artist until he’s told he’s not an artist, that every person is great until some demagogue makes him less great.

Pablo Picasso died in April 1973, and a few years later in October 1976 a quotation about childhood and art was attributed to him in the pages of “Time” magazine: 2

Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.
—Picasso

This citation was the earliest linkage to Picasso known to QI; however, the statement was listed without a source or context. QI does not know where the “Time” magazine writer found the quotation. Perhaps Picasso spoke or wrote it in French or Spanish originally.

The thesis of a universal though evanescent artistic temperament in childhood has been propounded for more than one hundred years. For example, in 1907 the art critic Carleton Noyes published “The Gate of Appreciation” which contained the following passage: 3

The child is the first artist. Out of the material around him he creates a world of his own. The prototypes of the forms which he devises exist in life, but it is the thing which he himself makes that interests him, not its original in nature. His play is his expression.

But Noyes argued that the artistic instinct was usually lost as the child grew older:

Imagination surrenders to the intellect; emotion gives place to knowledge.
Gradually the material world shuts in about us until it becomes for us a hard, inert thing, and no longer a living, changing presence, instinct with infinite possibilities of experience and feeling.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In April 1907 the book by Noyes was reviewed in a Springfield, Massachusetts newspaper, and the author’s thesis was paraphrased. Thus, the thought was further disseminated: 4

There is reason to believe that Mr. Noyes is right when he says that in every individual the germ of art appreciation exists. All children are artists: their imaginative play is of the selfsame stuff as the artist’s dream. In the right environment this inborn gift need never die. What kills it is neglect and the encroachment of selfish material interests.

In February 1915 the poet and dramatist Percy Mackaye delivered a lecture to a “Drama League” in Indianapolis, Indiana, and he mentioned the fragility of the fledgling inclination to art: 5

Every child is an artist, with imagination and the artistic instinct. Life stamps these out—and in only a few cases, those we call geniuses, do they rise, and become sculptors, artists, poets—great creators. If you have a little theater or a civic theater in Indianapolis you will find them here.

In 1918 Dudley Crafts Watson who was the director of the Milwaukee Art Institute presented a talk to the General Federation of Women’s Clubs in Hot Springs Arkansas that was described in an Associated Press news article: 6

It is for every normal human being to be an artist. It is his divine heritage, every child is an artist. Human society kills it in us before we reach maturity. What baby cannot draw and sing before he can read and write. What child does not love to make things of the clay and sand at his feet. Do our systems cherish and encourage these tendencies? They can be developed so easily.

In 1951 “The New York Times” reported on an address given by a professor at Adelphi College that made a similar point about art: 7

All children are artists and will remain so if they are not “tricked or forced into the acceptance of adult standards,” Dr. Agnes Snyder, chairman of the Education Department at Adelphi College, declared tonight. “Children will carry their creative potentialities into adult life if adults will respect them as persons and stop trying to mold them into the adult image,” she added.

In 1976 “John Lennon: One Day at a Time: A Personal Biography of the Seventies” by Anthony Fawcett was published, and the author stated that Lennon scheduled a large number of interviews in 1969 at an office of the Apple record company. Lennon spoke about children and artistry during one of the interviews as noted previously. A search by QI in the Google Books database revealed that the interview was printed in “Penthouse” magazine in 1969, but QI has not yet been able to verify the precise details of the “Penthouse” citation on paper or microfilm. The following excerpt was constructed via the text in the 1976 book (verified with scans), and the text in the 1969 “Penthouse” (from the Google Books snippet database): 8 9

Penthouse: So your life style will continue to snub its nose at most of what society holds dear, that keeps the system functioning, but certainly snub-nosing is no end in itself. Do you propose putting anything in place of what you sneer at?

Lennon: People. Just the idea that the individual is capable of looking after himself, that we don’t need centralized government, that we don’t need father-figures and leaders, that every child is an artist until he’s told he’s not an artist that every person is great until some demagogue makes him less great. Government was an invention that I think didn’t work.

In October 1976 the quotation attributed to Pablo Picasso was printed in “Time” magazine as noted previously. The statement was further propagated in the pages of “The Rotarian” in December 1976 and “Reader’s Digest” in May 1977: 10 11

Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.
—Pablo Picasso

In 1988 the reference “Simpson’s Contemporary Quotations” listed the Picasso quotation; however, the supporting data simply stated “Recalled on his death 8 Apr 73”. QI searched for the remark in several obituaries of Picasso and was unable to find it. 12

In 2011 the English comedian Ricky Gervais referenced the saying while writing in “Wired” about twitter: 13

You have to let yourself go to be creative. Children possess this quality but then seem to lose it as they are told, “it’s not the done thing”. Pablo Picasso summed it up well; “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up”.

In conclusion, the unhappy theme of children losing artistic engagement has a long history, and the core thought has been expressed in many ways. John Lennon mentioned the topic in 1969. By 1976 Picasso was linked to a pertinent quotation, but the linkage was not decisive because Picasso died in 1973, and no citation currently known to QI provided details about where or when the statement was made.

Image Notes: Picture of a child drawing from jarmoluk at Pixabay. John Lennon circa 1969. Source: Photo by Roy Kerwood. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license.

(Great thanks to Andrew Old, Theric Jepson, and other twitter participants whose inquiries and discussion led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to S. M. Colowick who pointed to the 1951 citation, and thanks to several other Wombat discussants.)

Notes:

  1. 1976, John Lennon: One Day at a Time: A Personal Biography of the Seventies by Anthony Fawcett, Chapter: The Peace Politician, Start Page 45, Quote Page 55, Published by Grove Press, New York. (Fawcett stated that the quotation was spoken during an interview given by John Lennon and Yoko Ono in an office at Apple Records in 1969)(Verified with scans)
  2. Date: October 4, 1976, Periodical: Time, Article: Modern Living: Ozmosis in Central Park, Note: The quotation appears as an epigraph at the beginning of the article. (Online archive of Time magazine)
  3. 1907, The Gate of Appreciation: Studies in the Relation of Art to Life by Carleton Noyes, Quote Page 29, Published by Houghton Mifflin, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1907 April 21, Springfield Republican, Books, Authors and Arts: Some of the Day’s Literature, Quote Page 27, Column 2, Springfield, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1915 February 21, The Indianapolis Star, Dramatist Talks on Civic Theater: Percy Mackaye Urges Members of Drama League to Encourage Local Artists, Quote Page 9, Column 4, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1918 May 3, Oshkosh Daily Northwestern Fine Arts Easy for Everybody (Associated Press), Quote Page 7, Column 1, Oshkosh, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1951 April 7, New York Times, Calls Children Artists, Quote Page 18, Column 7, New York. (ProQuest)
  8. 1976, John Lennon: One Day at a Time: A Personal Biography of the Seventies by Anthony Fawcett, Chapter: The Peace Politician, Start Page 45, Quote Page 55, Published by Grove Press, New York. (Fawcett stated that the quotation was spoken during an interview given by John Lennon and Yoko Ono in an office at Apple Records in 1969)(Verified with scans)
  9. Year: 1969, Month: October (uncertain), Page Number: Unknown, Periodical: Penthouse, Article: Interview of John Lennon and Yoko Ono by Charles Childs, Publisher: Penthouse International, New York. (Google Books snippet view; this data has not been verified on paper or microfilm and may be inaccurate; the October 1969 issue in the U.S. contained an interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono)
  10. 1976 December, The Rotarian, (Picture caption), Quote Page 31, Published by Rotary International. (Google Books Full View) link
  11. 1977 May, Reader’s Digest, Volume 110, Quotable Quotes, Quote Page 177, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on microfilm)
  12. 1988, Simpson’s Contemporary Quotations, Compiled by James B. Simpson, Section: Pablo Picasso, Quote Page 259, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified on paper)
  13. Website: Wired UK, Date: October 5, 2011, Section: Technology, Article: ‘I may have been wrong about Twitter’, writes Ricky Gervais, Author: Ricky Gervais. (Wired magazine archive at wired.co.uk; accessed March 7, 2015) link