10.29.2013

A Question About: Childhood Genius in the Visual Arts

In A Question About we talk with experts to get a deeper understanding of photography questions related to their areas of knowledge. Dr. Hilary Levey Friedman is a Harvard sociologist and expert on beauty pageants, childhood and parenting, and competitive after-school activities.

The question: The idea of childhood prodigy or genius is commonly used around the musical arts - Mozart and Handel, for example - yet infrequently associated with the visual artists. Is this perception accurate and if so, what accounts for the difference between the formation of prodigies between different areas of the arts and what explains the relative absence of childhood prodigies in the visual arts?

Dr: Friedman: It is true that prodigies are much more prominent (or, more accurately, much more likely to be recognized) in the musical arts. This is also true for prodigies in mathematics, as opposed to literature, and in activities like chess as opposed to sports. Music really stands out among the arts for "producing" prodigies, likely related to the fact that there is a recognized canon that can be mastered; if mastered at a young age a child is recognized as precocious or as a prodigy, or for composing. Other forms of art are even more subjective, which makes it harder to identify those who all agree truly excel in an extraordinary way at a young age (also why this is "easier" to do in chess and mathematics, for example). In my recent book, Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, I briefly talk about the history of prodigies in Chapter One, and why we have such a growing predilection for them in contemporary society today. Needless to say, the fact you are reading this on the Internet has a lot to do with it-- helping to spread the word about special kids, and then parents want to get in on the action as well.