Playing with Form

“The data of this study are, I believe, unique. This book is the first published cross-cultural anaylsis of children’s drawing in which data from several cultures were collected under controlled conditions and in which children were filmed in the process of making pictures.”
The data are coloured drawings some 250 of them from Bali, Ponape, Taiwan, Japan, United States, and France by children aged from 2 ½ years to 13 years of which about 100 – essentially those by the pre-school children in the sample – are reproduced here in black and white.
Alland takes these drawings to the ‘unique’ not in the ontological sense of being the only ones of their kind which exist (though given the effect whereby field work influences subsequent features of cultures being studied, this sense can never be entirely absent), nor in the looser sense of being rare specimens (though children’s drawings from the tiny Micronesian island of Ponape have presumably never been published before), but in the methodological sense of being proper scientifically gathered data. Thus each child has presented with an identical sheet of paper, allowed to draw on one side only, offered exactly the same selection of felt tipped pens, kept in influence-free isolation from other children whilst drawing, and was told (or asked – it’s not clear which) in his/her own language ‘to draw a picture’. The bulk of Alland’s book is taken up with his descriptions of the drawings that are reproduced for us in which details of colour and the way the drawing was carried out are supplied. These descriptions are, unfortunately, tedious and, after the first few, tiresome to read. Their concern is the purely formal one of describing the drawings as marks on paper (colour, placement of marks on page, degree of white space, density, type of mark or scribble or thread or ovoid or circle) which are formally related to each other through aggregation, filling, overlap, and enclosure.
Various differences between the drawings from one culture and another emerge. Those from Bali tend to fill the page with a large number of non-touching elements, to produce dense designs in many colours, and to contain fairly primitive human figures. The drawings from Ponape were on the whole monochrome, repetitive, impoverished in their range of forms, with virtually no attempts at representation. Taiwanese children like the Balinese tended to fill the page though with units (built up from simpler marks) rather than with separate marks; they also produced complex drawings which were far less dense than the Balinese ones. Japanese children drew the most varied and complete designs with much lively individual perception and attempts at representation. The French drawings were complex in design more like those from Taiwan and Bali than those from America; they were also unlike any of the other drawings in that some were based on large units filled with colour. The American drawings tended to be simpler in design than the others and more quickly executed with a greater degree of purely kinetic shaping and, like the French, with no discernible tendency to fill the page.
These differences are interesting and will no doubt be of value to developmental psychologists, enabling them to find counter-examples to generalisations about children’s drawings. They would be more interesting and valuable to the wider audience the book addresses had they been gathered and presented in the name of a less restricted methodological framework.
Essentially, Alland’s methodology is a behaviourist one: by confining himself to formal characteristics of the drawings – to what can be measured, counted, and observed – he avoids as far as he can any mention of feeling, motivation, intention, subjective meaning, or psychological value the drawings might possess for the children who draw them. Thus the drawings, which are surely the signs (marks with significance) are reduced here to mere signifiers, physically observable scratchings cut loose from any cultural or psychological matrix which would give them meaning.
It is unclear how aware Alland is of the nature of this reduction, since not only does he conflate the possession of meaning with the result of ‘communication’ but when presented with a meaning – as when a child gives an account of his/her drawing after it is finished – he manages to deny it by declaring it to be almost certainly the result of ‘romancing’.
In fact, it is probably Alland’s theoretical stance as much as his methodology which manages to render the drawings in his book so opaque. He is he tells us in the introduction, a nativist, an ardent believer in innate human dispositions, and an enthusiastic follower of Chomsky in these matters. And just as Chomsky and his disciples believe that “All languages (including all possible future languages) are restricted by a single set of rules that control the generation of meaningful sentences. This common structure is called the universal grammar, or UG. This UG underlies and restricts all particular grammars.” So Alland seeks an UG governing the production of aesthetically meaningful forms which will reveal formal aesthetic universals deep beneath the surface variation of drawings from particular cultures.
This is not the place to rehearse the many arguments and substantive criticisms that have been leveled against Chomsky’s idea of an innate universal grammar. Suffice to say that the debate over UG is now pretty well over, and anybody who pins UG to their mast as Alland does without comment, that is without some attempt to acknowledge the complexities of the issues involved, is being either willfully partisan in an unhelpful way or naïve. One suspects the latter since on Alland’s own admission his data do not allow him “to judge whether or not universal aesthetic principles underlie the observed diversity, but they do not really contradict the idea either. In fact they can be interpreted to partially support it, provided the interpretation is guided by a nativist theory”.
But, since Alland’s notion of an aesthetic universal is inseparable from his nativism, the proviso here is simply an avenue for self-confirmation rather than any independent basis for regarding the drawings presented to us. If we ignore Alland’s attachment to UG and its attendant nativism, we are left with an entirely formalist account in which, for example, the propensity of children in Bali to fill the page with a repetitive pattern, is seen as merely the application of a recursive rule which generates an unlimited series of marks. Is one really any wiser – either about the art of Balinese children or the human desire for repetition – after being told this?

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