Children are, for the most part, perfectly decent people but even the very best of them are really terrible critics. Nonetheless, we have begun to look to them for cultural recommendations. This past decade, they have given us Twilight and Harry Potter when, really, they should have kept that bunk for themselves. While it is true that some of their better Pixar films have made this imposition easier to brook, it is also true that older children gave us Divergent and The Fault in our Stars and made it perfectly acceptable for adult humans to speak, with delusional force, about the richness of Dr Who.
Dr Who is a reasonable thing but it is not a Complex Text. Of course, children cannot really be blamed for our grown-up intoxication by their lolly-water. We have no one to charge but ourselves for the embrace not only of items intended for consumption by children but for our demand for childish techniques in ‘adult’ entertainment. Nowhere is this R-rated naivety more apparent than in Game of Thrones —basically, The Tales of King Arthur with lots of dirty sex –and Fifty Shades of Grey — basically (actually) Twilight with lots of dirty sex.
Children and “young adults” have always been winsome but this does not mean we should take what appears to be their aesthetic advice or borrow from the culture they enjoy. There have been a few clap-happy books and articles on the topic of embracing one’s inner child –notably Christopher Noxon’s fun but uncritical 2006 cupcake of a book, Rejuvenile.
A journalist, Noxon’s chief task was to observe the Western practice of adults refusing to put away their childish things. He doesn’t think it’s good and he doesn’t think it’s bad. I want to argue that it is bad and rage, rage in favour of the dying of the light of childhood.
Childhood for a good many people is understood to be a happy time and there is little harm in an occasional return to its seasons of easy pleasure. One now need no longer take a child as a prop to disguise delight at Disneyworld or resist the urge for fancy dress. Comic books are reborn as graphic novels and an interest in fantasy or science fiction is no longer shameful.
And all of this, is of course, okay.
But what is not okay is the shit this worship of the idea of childhood is producing for adult consumption.
When adults are not reading Young Adult fiction, they might be found reading books like E.L James’ fanfic horror that are directly inspired by them. When they are not watching fantasy or science fiction or speculative histories intended for children, they are watching bloodier and sexier iterations. When they are not blathering about Hunger Games protagonist Katniss Everdeen as a “strong role-model” for young women (presumably, a role-model to young women who happen to find themselves fighting to the death in a post-apocalyptic lottery) they are watching The Walking Dead. The Walking Dead is not a part of television’s new, if niche, golden era. It is a nightmare of repetitive gore that offers all the dramatic abundance that Pingu might if only someone would give him a chainsaw. That piece of crap is Baby’s First Dystopia and that it receives, as it has, middlebrow recommendations for us to take it as seriously as we would, say, the grownup good of Breaking Bad, demonstrates how we’ve begun to understand the manufactured idea of the Wisdom of Children as natural.
We make an intellectual rationale for the simple love of monsters or a feminist rationale for the love of young adult fiction. We won’t roll over and admit that our fondness for simple things is not complex but just a trip to Disneyworld.
But, as Noxon briefly mentions in his book, the big children of the West and, so, their tastes are produced by social conditions. A young middle-class stripped of its capital stays in the family home much longer than previous generations and a good way to get over the irritation of still being a child is by choosing to act like one. It’s not only the real mum and dad but also the moralising liberal parent of the state that turns us into toddlers. We no longer think of our governments as institutions that are really just there to collect, manage and spend revenues. We think of them as a soft moral daddy and we are pleased, and not disgusted as we should be, when officials start talking about our global ‘happiness’ instead of our unequal global debt.
We have simple and deluded ideas about power and we let this play out, like the children we have become, in our popular art. The feudal simplicity of Game of Thrones is viewed for What It Can Teach Us About Life. The answer is: bugger all. Let’s set aside for a moment our impatience with the Aristotelian idea that art can ever teach us anything about life and just ask the idiots who are writing about this poppycock as though it is something better than cosplay porn: how do I seek an injunction against your future professional use of a keyboard?
You can like Game of Thrones, sure. You just can’t go about pretending that it is a more reliable description of power and conflict than, say, a Murdoch press account of the burgeoning war in Iraq.
Then again, children will believe statements like “baddies against baddies”, because they are little and because they are terrible critics yet to develop any reliable taste.
While it is true children may demonstrate tastes in, say, literature or painting, they can certainly never explain them. Even if little Harriet appears to enjoy Rothko — and her parents insist that she does — this is likely due less to an ‘innate’ understanding of minimalist iconography than it is to the fact that Orange, Red, Yellow reminds her of The Wiggles.
There is nothing wrong with this approach to art appreciation but there is nothing particularly right about it, either; at least not in the aesthete who has passed their seventeenth year. The idea that art is less an adult exercise in active understanding than it is a passive experience of childlike emotion is discounted by good thinkers for good reasons. First, it presupposes that there are natural themes and universal aesthetics that transcend all cultural understanding. Second, it creates critical conditions that will never produce another Rothko. Why bother breaking with the conventions of your time and place if time and place have no relevance to art? After all, a child can ‘understand’ it.
Still, lots of people think of childhood as a natural state of understanding and adulthood as an unnatural one and this is why Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote a long and tedious book on the matter and why Oprah is always going on about the wisdom we can all see in the smile of a child.
There is real delight in the smile of the child. There is promise, too, if we choose, as we should, to see it. But there is no more wisdom there than there are sentences in the work of J.K Rowling that adhere to the most basic rules of English usage. Which is to say, none.
Rothko was one of those artists who gave inadvertent rise to the adage ‘my child could do that’. The B-side to this tedious tune is, of course, ‘my child could understand that’. And your child can’t because she is tiny and yet to develop an intellectual context that can make room for Rothko. She is a baby. You’re not. So, what then, is your excuse for making Rothko simpler than he is and Stephanie Meyers more complicated?
And don’t say the wisdom of children.