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Subversive Innocence

Subversive Innocence

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Published by David Kennedy

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Published by: David Kennedy on Nov 05, 2009
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Childhood 
6,2 (May 1999).SUBVERSIVE INNOCENCE: A REVIEW OF
THE INNOCENT EYE
The Innocent Eye: Children's Art and the Modern Artist
, by JonathonFineberg, Princeton University Press, 1997. 249 Pages.ABSTRACT:Fineberg’s analysis of the influence of children’s art on modern artists—themost prominent of which are, Kandinsky, Klee, Miro, Picasso, Dubuffet, andPollock— implicitly understands the influence of the child in modern Westernmythologies of the self as deconstructive of a rationalized culture bound bybureaucratic life-ideals. Artists of the first half of the twentieth century turnedto children’s art—as they did to “primitive” art as well—in order to deconditionthemselves, to clear away cultural conventions, and welcome the powerful,irrational forces of the unconscious mind. The aesthetic revolution of whichthey were the vanguard, and in which their dialogue with child art played sucha central role, sought a revolution in the aesthetics of lived experience ingeneral, with learning to appropriate what Fineberg calls "the primaryperception which is childlike in its directness, an experience filtered by theperservering presence of the childhood mind." But this “innocent eye”uncovers more than just candor, spontaneity, a "state of newness" or a"childlike freshness of vision." Sometimes it reveals a terrible innocence—theinnocence of Freud's doomed child-hero gazing in horror, jealousy andfascination at the primal scene, or Melanie Klein's infant at the breast, splittingoff the "bad mother" in rage and hatred. This emerging evocation of "destructive and destabilizing instinctuality"--the frank sexuality, aggressionand possessiveness of one aspect of the child—was experienced in the 20
th
century both existentially and as cultural politics, in that it represents adeconstruction of Enlightenment Reason. Fineberg invokes Rimbaud--perhapsthe most stunning enfant terrible of the 19th century--and his idea of the"childman" who ushers the "revolutionary forces of irrationality into society.” The childman is bent on "examining fundamental values with a child'scandor," "assaulting the hierarchies of adult civilization with a subversiveinnocence." The hero of this book is anonymous, a species hero--the archetypaldivine child that 20th century depth psychology traced into the collectiveunconscious, and popular psychology rendered a media event as the "inner
 
child." C.G. Jung described the archetype as "a symbol of the unity of personality, a symbol of self, . . . the distant goal of man's self-development."1 He claimed that the appearance of this bisexual, primordialbeing in myth and dream announces to the adult searcher the advent of aunion of the conscious and unconscious elements of personality. Thechildren whose art Jonathon Fineberg reproduces in
The Innocent Eye
are of flesh and blood, but the images they produce evoke--at least for the artistswhose work he links with theirs--this heroic vision of unity.Fineberg does not mention the divine child, but the latter has beenappearing for thousands of years in mythic narrative. He was only"discovered" in this century--which, as it dawned, the Swedish feminist andmillenarian Ellen Karolina Sofia Key dubbed "the century of the child." "Thetime will come," she wrote in her best selling book of that name in 1909, "inwhich the child will be looked upon as holy."2
The Innocent Eye
surveys thecentury from its other end. If we follow Fineberg's implicit account of thesacralization of childhood in our time, it might appear that Key chose theright word but the wrong sense. Her holy child represented an odd mixtureof Victorian eugenics, maternal soteriology, sentimentalism and progressiveeducational theory. Fineberg's, by contrast, is a messenger of the terriblesublime, sent to a repressed and hyper-rationalized adult world to conveywhat he refers to as "the unspeakable revelation of the unconscious mind."(23)Even as Key's manifesto went to print, the veils which the European
 
bourgeoisie had thrown over the instinctual abyss were being rent by whatMax Weber called "the revenge of the animalic."3 Rather than a prophet of genetic purity, innocence and social solidarity, the child came, as thecentury progressed, to assume the role of psychopomp of the return of therepressed. She shared this dubious privilege with the madman and the"primitive"--the very genetic riffraff Key was wondering aloud how to breedout of the race. This child is an enemy within the gates of a civilizationmastered by materialism, calculative reason, and what Fineberg refers to atone point as "the rigor mortis of its cultural hierarchies." (11) A pyrrhicenemy in a sense, for unlike the psychotic, she will be conquered gradually,unwittingly, by the life-cycle itself--an eternal, implacably iterative enemy inthat as one child falls to the onset of adulthood, another is born. Finebergdescribes her as "a kind of domestic noble savage," always present toremind the adult of his "prehistory." (11)Although Fineberg doesn’t mention it, the child has a long history of playing psychopomp in adult consciousness. According to Lao Tzu, "He whois in harmony with the Tao is like a newborn child. It's bones are soft, itsmuscles are weak, but its grip is powerful."4 In ancient Athens, a child waschosen every year to act as intermediary between the initiates and thedivine presence in the Mysteries of Eleusis.5 It is the child's very marginalitywhich so privileges him, for the gods are marginal too. He represents a limitcondition of the "human," sharing place with other elementals. Thus, the
 putti
which swarm through Hellenistic and Renaissance art emerge at the

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