Century of the Child

Growing by Design

by James F. Cooper

El Lissitzky, USSR. Die russische Austellung (The Soviet Russian Exhibition), 1929  The Museum of Modern Art, New York City  © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn  In “Century of the Child: Growing by Design 1900−2000,” the Museum of Modern Art has installed, very creatively, an entertaining exhibition that purports to explore the positive influence of modern design on children’s education. Not all the artifacts are engaging, but the integration of the parts makes the whole visually exciting. Light-hearted as the exhibition appears at first glance, the 500 toys, artworks, posters, furniture, books, games and colorful thingamajigs raise some contradictions. Part of the problem is that most of the objects are modernist, and modernism is, or was, a serious art movement, created by adults for adults. The titles of the first galleries—“Avant-Garde Playtime,” “Bauhaus Play and Pedagogy,” “Constructivist Play” and “Soviet Children’s Books”—suggest that something is awry. The three-foot-high wood and leather High Chair (1919) by Dutch artist Gerrit Rietveld not only looks awkward, but also seems unsafe for a small child. Cor Alons’s Children’s Furniture (1927) consists of desks and chairs made out of red lacquered planks of wood. Soviet Children’s Books are residues of Stalin’s brutal education policies. Some of the artists, such as Kazimir Malevich, were sentenced to gulags or mind-altering re-education detention camps. Malevich, Alexander Rodchenko, El Lissitzky and others were the cutting edge of twentieth-century modernity with Supremetism and Constructivism. But these illustrations are far above the head of any child.

Several galleries are devoted to “Children and Politics.” Again, the emphasis is on Soviet art and education. From an early age, Russian children were taught to be productive, politically aware and involved in business management. Lissitzky’s famous 1929 poster USSR, encouraging children’s loyality to the state, shows a young boy and girl photographically fused into a single entity with the letters USSR emblazoned in red across their foreheads. Similarly, the Germans, Italians and Japanese used graphic design to further their militaristic agendas. Some designs are good: one example is Dutch artist Paul Schuitema’s Nutricia, le lait en poudre (Nutricia, powdered milk, 1927–28), a bold photo-collage of exuberant faces. In many cases, however the objective is to conquer or liquidate other nations and races. This period, the early 1930s, before things really turned ugly, witnessed the brief ascendancy of totalitarian propaganda films: Sergei Eisenstein’s Ten Days that Shook the World (1928) and Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1934). Eisenstein was influenced by Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916), by the American master D.W. Griffith; Riefenstahl’s style was influenced by Eisenstein and the early works of Alfred Hitchcock. All four totalitarian nations gravitated toward figurative art, sculpture and faux classicism. The avant-garde artists and poets eventually faced harsh reprisals from the regimes they had originally, idealistically supported. Thus ended quickly the cultural integrity of all four regimes.

Paul Schuitema, Nutricia, le lait en poudre (Nutricia, powdered milk), 1927–28. The Museum of Modern Art, New York City The absence of American contributions is what surprised me most about this exhibition. Perhaps, at MoMA, modern design is still thought of primarily in terms of the European aesthetic, and the curators realize that design and propaganda work well together. Still, American culture was a dominant influence. The exhibition displays some good graphic work by talented European artists, but Americans arguably produced the greatest industrial designs, graphics and entertainment—including movies, illustrations, comic books and popular music—of the twentieth century. If the curators wanted to show how design and aesthetics are learning tools and shape children’s imagination, American goods are a big part of that story. Indeed, the culture of the 1930s has been called an American golden age of design, with its distinctive skyscrapers, automobiles and print graphics. Why then so few American works displayed? Why emphasize the ideological rather than the artistic and educational?

There are two unimportant paintings by Ben Shahn, the last in a line of American artists who attempted unsuccessfully to merge modern design with a benign socialist influence during the 1940s and early 1950s. Liberation (1945) is a gouache painting of three girls swinging on a pole set in a desolate urban landscape. We Want Peace. Register, Vote (1946) is a lithographic poster created by Shahn for the socialist Congress of Industrial Organizations. The other featured American is Pee-wee Herman, the host of Pee-wee’s Playhouse (1986−90), a popular children’s television show. A photographic mock-up of the playhouse interior, with talking furniture and amusing wall decorations, brings a lighter touch to the exhibit, but its awkwardness contains strong postmodern elements of kitsch and irony.

A wall plaque for the exhibition states: “Many avant-gardists sought to recapture a playful, untutored [child-like] attitude toward the world—the innocent eye.” “Stripping away extraneous elements such as historic ornament gets back to the purest forms of human experience and language,” the curators explain: “Children’s naively subversive modes of questioning the world around them offer a model for creative experimentation.”1 A few Europeans capture that subversive spirit, as in Antonio Rubino’s Il bimbo cattivo (c. 1924), a cartoon bedroom panel featuring a jack-in-the-box devil and a menagerie of semi-human and animal grotesques. But what could stimulate children’s imagination and creativity more than the animation of the Walt Disney Studios? Not until Pixar and CGI seventy years later would there be children’s films as creative and entertaining. The Silly Symphonies series and Mickey Mouse, introduced in the late 1920s, equaled the popularity of Charlie Chaplin. Through the 1930s and into the early 1940s, Disney produced a series of shorts, such as Three Little Pigs (1933), and began releasing features—Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940) and Bambi (1941)—that are both formally sophisticated and dramatically satisfying. Pinocchio was his masterpiece.

One of the attractive things about Pee-wee’s Playhouse was that it had no political or ideological agenda. His work tapped into the anarchic fun of the Marx Brothers films. Like its predecessor, The Soupy Sales Show of the 1950s and 1960s, it appealed as much to adults as to children, which is why media stars such as Frank Sinatra frequently appeared unannounced on the show.

The introduction of design or, to broaden the matter, the idea of aesthetics and beauty, has been ignored for too long, not only in the arts, but in children’s education. Juliet Kinchin, curator of MoMA’s architectural and design department, observes that no period in human history was more invested in concern for children than the twentieth century. Sadly, here I must disagree. The biggest obstacle in children’s art education is the absence of standards and discipline. Modernism was created by a generation of artists who had first mastered the academic tradition, before deconstructing it. The members of the National Committee for Standards in Arts Education K-12, originally organized by President Bill Clinton, opposed introducing the acquisition of sequential educational knowledge, such as drawing, anatomy, nature, composition and design. The chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts upheld the ruling, saying: “teaching students to draw from the human figure is revisionist and stifles creativity.” The subject of “Drawing” was deleted from the committee’s final published guide for visual arts standards.

Ninety percent of the MoMA exhibition consists of works by European modernists such as Gustav Klimt, Oscar Kokoschka, Paul Klee and Rodchenko. Many of the artifacts seem unwieldy in the world of a real child. Zocker Chair (1972), by Luigi Colani, and Ozoo Desk (1967), by Marc Berthier, are pretentious objects no one would find comfortable. Their makers adhere to avant-garde aesthetic political guidelines that promote the kind of awkward forms found in public-funded government buildings, schools and playgrounds designed by sociologists and educators.

Ironically, although many objects in the exhibition lack good design quality, walking through it is comparable to wandering around a wonderful antique shop filled with objects from the past. The exhibition catalogue notes the background of each piece—a tiny wooden chair, a German poster for fascist youth, an ugly Swedish miniature doll house influenced by the Bauhaus school and several pieces of lacquered-wood school furniture that defy rational use. These are not really for children. They are the language of professional educators and bureaucrats.

Century of the Child: Growing by Design, 1900−2000, the handsome catalogue written by the curators, Juliet Kinchin and Aidan O’Connor, begins with a seven-page list of several hundred collaborators, donors, institutions and business corporations that supported the research and installation of the exhibition. The exhibition is subdivided into galleries with titles such as “Deschooling Society,” “Classroom Without Walls,” “Children in Soviet Russia,” “The Unruly Child” and “Bauhaus Play and Pedagogy.” Pedagogy is reinforced by the use of small, dense type in the catalogue.

How many times during the twentieth century have we heard about artists’ deep appreciation for the art work of children? How natural, how primal, how imaginative the works of children are, they gush, and how misguided are the parents, adults and teachers who grind down and suppress their creative innocence before puberty sets in. This exhibition offers little evidence to support this claim. Some works are very detailed and complex. Others are very simple, particularly the furniture. I would think that children initially would find the MoMA galleries lively and fun. A child looks at the individual object, an adult scans the entire group.

The preponderance of Soviet propaganda for children is not justified by the avant-garde art of the Russian Revolution, unless, of course, one believes that political propaganda is the basis for design. Rodchenko’s gelatin-silver photograph Physical-Culture Parade (1936) shows a battalion of children carrying posters of Stalin and Lenin. Though they don’t always connect with the gallery title, the works mesh in a way that reminds me of the original arrangements of the Barnes Collection. Still, the Barnes contains masterpieces, including the greatest private collection of Cézannes in the world. This exhibition has the charm of a pre-World War candy store, with miniature lead soldiers and penny gumballs and baseball cards.

Antonio Rubino, Il bimbo cattivo (The bad child), c. 1924 Wolfsoniana-Foundazione regionale per la Cultura e lo Spettacolo, Genoa, Italy The misapplication of the complex ideology of today’s American educational system will be hard to overcome. The design imperative is very important. Design, or aesthetics, stimulates sensory perception to appreciate music, drawing, sculpture, poetry and architecture. This, in turn, leads to an appreciation of nature and universal truths. In her book The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture and Consciousness, Virginia Postrel argues that the aesthetic imperative is vital in a healthy, forward-looking society.2 An economic columnist for The New York Times, she discusses the corporations, such as McDonald's and Apple, that have grown by successfully designing and re-designing their products and facilities. Other firms, such as Sony, have experimented with high-tech toys, including Hajime Sorayama’s Aibo Entertainment Robot (ERS-110), from 1999, which has an ET-like appeal.

In one kind of European class system, the oligarchy, technocrats or political apparatchiks enjoy an elevated cultural diet, whereas the common people are fed a diet of low culture. A funny thing happened on the way to the twenty-first century: low culture evidenced more quality and influence than the high culture. This is particularly true of American low culture, a point underscored by Kirk Varnedoe, the late director of MoMA and co-curator of the 1990 exhibition “High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture.” The big difference between that exhibition and “Century of the Child” is the latter’s emphasis on politics. In contrast, “High and Low” emphasized the influence of popular culture upon Pop Art artists such as Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist and Jasper Johns. Few cognoscenti will admit it, but the low works were often superior in design and quality to those in museums. The same was true in the 1984 landmark exhibition “Primitivism and Modern Art.” With a few exceptions, the masks, guardians, beadwork and metalwork of primitive craftsmen outshone the works of Picasso, Braque, Matisse and Gauguin.

Hajime Sorayama, Aibo Entertainment Robot (ERS-110), 1999  The Museum of Modern Art, New York City

Design is basic Art 101. Every one is born with some appreciation for design. Postrel, for instance, associates design with convenience, hygiene, mobility, household items and living space. She writes: “Back in the 1970s a wonderfully designed product was designed with aesthetics in mind, the venue for sophisticated buyers and very upscale markets.”3 Less self-conscious and more creative were children’s books designed by talented American artists such as Maurice Sendak, who died in 2012 at the age of 83. Although many of his extended family were exterminated in the Holocaust, he chose to study in Germany after the war. He was particularly influenced by the sixteenth-century Northern Renaissance graphics of Albrecht Dürer and Albrecht Altdorfer. Sendak received dozens of awards for graphic design, including the prestigious Caldecott Medal for his famous book Where the Wild Things Are (1964), and the National Medal of Arts. He influenced generations of children, as well as other writers and artists. Why exclude his work from this exhibit?

So what is it that children can learn from design? If they’re lucky, they eventually will discover that design is the first step toward creating beauty, and beauty, as T.S. Eliot wrote, leads to the sacred. An appreciation of design is built into our DNA. It’s everywhere in nature and the universe. A political ideology is not the creative source of design; rather, design is the tool, the organizing principle of an idea. If the ideology is flawed, the design becomes compromised. The Russian and German art—painting, sculpture, public art and architecture—sponsored by the totalitarian governments of the 1930s and 40s was terribly flawed. In contrast, American culture flowered during the same period, as it has rarely done since. This cultural golden age occurred during the Great Depression, the worst financial crisis in U.S. history. The European architects, painters, writers, scholars and filmmakers who embraced freedom and democracy fled to America to escape the ugly, stifling culture of totalitarianism. Ironically, those artists who elected to work for the state created a crippled version of faux classical design. Even talented, cooperative artists, such as German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, were quickly ground down by the oppressive Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, run by Joseph Goebbels.

Which brings us back to the question: Why isn’t American culture seriously considered in an exhibition about art and education? Why so much emphasis on foreign politics, particularly socialism? No country is more responsible for shaping the worldwide culture of the twentieth century than the United States. The Soviet Union and Germany not only lost the economic war between democracy and dictatorship, but the culture war. American culture continues to influence the future. The emphasis that Steve Jobs placed on computers and software design is a great American story. If business and government want to maintain political and economic hegemony, they must take a more enlightened view of the contributions of culture. Design is important, but tying it to failed political ideologies argues a mistaken view. Culture matters, above all. Great artists are like actors on a stage. Without a script or director, they cannot achieve their full potential as performers.

Introducing design as an end unto itself is like designing a human body without a soul. Ignoring the hundred-year-old legacy of Duchamp’s famous Urinal, the business community is rethinking its former unwavering support for postmodern kitsch and irony. “Century of the Child” suggests that design and beauty were ignored for much of the last century. That is not true. When the history of the twentieth century is finally assessed, I believe that scholars will realize that the products that have been excluded from this exhibition were the same ones that kept alive the spirit of design and beauty for all Americans: classic Hollywood movies, industrial design, comic books, magazine illustration, fashion, photography, games and posters.

“Growing by Design” doesn’t work if the design quality is a failure. Mediocrity doesn’t establish a learning connection with a child’s sensory organs. “Century of the Child” would make it seem that a certain type of political content is irrevocably tied to design quality. A better case can be argued that free people can create beauty when they believe in the story or myth. To influence a child with the beauty of design, it is necessary to produce beauty.

“Century of the Child” is on view until November 5, 2012, at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, New York, New York 10019. Telephone (212) 706-9400. Moma.org


1. Wall text for “Avant-Garde Playtime,” “Century of the Child,” Museum of Modern Art.

2. Virginia Postrel, The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value is Remaking Commerce, Culture and Consciousness (New York: HarperCollins Publishing, 2003), p. 20.

3. Ibid., p. 47.

American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2012, Volume 29, Number 4