Contesting Childhood: On child art competitions

You might expect this drawing to win a children's art contest.

It's lovely, technically sophisticated, and positive.

So it's no surprise Mirna's picture won first place, elementary school category, in a contest sponsored by a state museum in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, not long after the country's authoritarian regime was overthrown by a student-led movement.

But what about this drawing?


It's cruder, and your eye doesn't quite know where to go, but in some ways, it's more interesting.

That's an observation CUNY anthropologist Karen Strassler makes in her article about the children's art contest, Reformsi di Mata Kami (Reformation in our Eyes), which she came across while researching her new book, Refracted Visions (here's a collection of child art from the contest and a summary of her argument).

In the second image, the bucolic background--an iconic double-mountain scene all Indonesian children learn to draw--is fenced off from violence: demonstrating students dominated in scale by houses, trees, and vehicles lit up in flames. This kind of dissonance is not the kind of thing that wins a prize.

And that's because Strassler says what the contest judges were really looking for when they evaluated these drawings was redemption. The "child as witness"--innocent and pure, a symbol of the future--transforms violence into a narrative of healing, progress, and pride at a time of intense uncertainty.

And in case these events seem far away... While I was composing this very post, I got a tweet about a public media-sponsored teen video contest, the youth organization I work for awaited news about a foundation-backed competition we'd entered, and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan had just announced the winners of Obama's "Race to the Top" school reform competition.

Obviously, American non-profits and government agencies love contests for kids. And within our own period of intense economic and political uncertainty, the winning and losing entries tell us a lot about ourselves--what we find healing, what makes us proud, and just what we want from our young.


  1. Odd mixture of English and Indonesian in that first picture: “Indonesia bersatu yes” (“Indonesia united yes”). “KKN no” (“corruption no”)

  2. Link to book Refracted Visions and the art collection don’t seem to work.

    Interesting post!

  3. That first one seems fake. Look at the eyes and mouths all aligned
    the faces all colored 2 colors
    the outfits
    anyone who could color within the lines so clearly would be making better hands and arms.
    This looks like it’s a small world. Or one of those Unicef Christmas card made by Chagall-imitators somewhere in Latvia.
    Fake. Glad it didn’t win

    1. anyone who could color within the lines so clearly would be making better hands and arms.

      Unless they’re not meant to be realistic, but some kind of Indonesian cartoon style. You really think Yogyakarta doesn’t have a single child who would make something like this?

  4. I don’t know anon, I was thinking, ‘you’re right’, but then, perhaps ‘Mirna’s’ timidity when crafting the outline turns to advantage when colouring in. Either or.

  5. anyone who could color within the lines so clearly would be making better hands and arms.

    I’m not so sure. Even as a young kid, I was really OCD about not colouring outside lines. Bugged the heck out of me when others did, too. Good anatomy requires lots of observation and practice, but colouring just requires more care and precision. Also, kids can develop interesting/appealing personal styles, especially the ones who draw often and for their own pleasure, as opposed to kids who draw only when prompted.

  6. I recently was part of a panel of judges that selected prizes for a federally sponsored art exhibition within the Los Angeles Superior Court System. The work was divided into age categories, including a teen category and a childrens’ category.

    It’s really, really hard to apply the same kind of curatorial and contemporary art know how that I use in my daily work to children. I don’t think adults are well equipped to judge the work of children, and I don’t think that our assessments, besides being adult misinterpretations of works made by children, are of the greatest value.

    When it came to the teens, there were clearly students who were working hard to develop an art practice, so our ability to gauge skill, narrative, composition, etc… was relevant and useful, but below the ages of 10-12, I don’t know what the benefit either awarding prizes or judging was.

  7. The whole concept of an ‘art contest’ seems utterly ludicrous to me, and an affront to the freedom of creative expression.

  8. I have worked with children for almost 35 years- have run a number of art programs… Marshall above has made some statements that I basically agree with, but will add a few more.
    I think there is an agenda when judging children’s art which has utterly nothing to do with a child’s ability to communicate or express an idea. When I have had to deal with these “contests”, I feel it is more like an ad agency trying to sort out what is the best representation of the concept or product being promoted.
    The first illustration shows this. There is nothing wrong or right about it- it is just more visually pleasing and easy to understand. The second one tells more of a story but does not have as strong and easy an impact as the first one.
    Teenagers are finding their way with materials and concepts and quite often do art to please as opposed to doing art.
    When I have done children’s art shows, everything goes up, it is critiqued by the children based on what and how they think the work was done by their peers. Yes, some children are more skilled techinically at presenting an idea, but all should be given the opportunity to display without it being a full blown crowd pleasing competition. This does not mean that quality is scrapped- it means that defining quality should be based on what the young artist is capable of doing within their realm of skill and developmental level.

  9. There are plenty of art contests in the world. Just walk into any art museum in the world and you will see the results of art contests. If you want proof, look at the ratio of male to female artists. It’s a popularity contest. It’s who is in with the in crowd. And it is very much a matter of trends. And, so? It’s life. Sucks for those not at the top of the food chain, but there you go…

    That first piece does rock. I do like it better than the second one, much. I’ve known plenty of young artists and I’m as picky about kid art as anything else. There are many children who are talented in ways you might dismiss as conventional. There are kids who take that pattern-recognition instinct and sit down and mess with it. Just like there are wee folks with a natural gift for taxonomy. Often they are the same kids.

    Young people can learn good design, you know, just like they can learn to play beautiful music and other things that most adults can not do.

    And art! The older I get the more I run into people with preconceived ideas about what an artist is, or what a scientist is, or what a child should be, or what a man should be, or a woman or what what what. Let it go, let it go.

    Art is a way of seeing the world, of making sense of it, as is science. There is some overlap, but you use different tools.

    Don’t confuse the business, the career, the money-making trade that is art with just flat out art. Don’t assume one is better than the other. There are people who think that real art involves making representational images in oil paint on stretched canvas and not much else (well, you can chip representational forms out of stone or cast them in bronze) and once upon a time these formats were cutting edge media. But really, but really…

    Sometimes art is about expressing yourself in an unfettered way, sometimes it is not. Sometimes art has a very specific agenda, sometimes art is about problem solving. Guess what, you are allowed to think about it. You are allowed to analyze what you do, what succeeds and what fails. And you are allowed to be smart. EVEN IF YOU ARE A KID.

    There are those who give art a very tiny place, and they get uncomfortable when their boundaries are crossed. I had a friend, years ago, who just hated Laurie Anderson. How in hell, I asked him, could you have such anger about this woman and her performances. His issue, it seemed was that she straddled the line between art and pop music and this made her, to his mind, pretentious. It made him sputter, the poor dear. I’m afraid he was like that about a lot of things, wound as tight as the proverbial two-dollar watch.

    If you don’t like the idea of children (or anyone) working on their art, learning and experimenting and improving. If the thought of a twelve year old or nine year old bright enough to sit down and have a good hard think about what might make a successful poster design, well, first off I feel sorry for you. The children you know are exceedingly dull. But if it bugs you, because of your ideas about childhood, because of your ideas about art, I propose we simply repackage the whole event and call it:

    A Design Competition for Young People


    If not, go have a beer or a bowl or something and then come back.

  10. I’m Indonesian, and I’m confused with this
    “… is fenced off from violence… “.

    If you refer to the “fence” like drawing in front of the two mountains, then, well, you know it was power transmission line which also an iconic scene all Indonesian children learn to draw

  11. I have doubts that the first picture was done by a child. There is a burnishing technique used that is a magnitude of sophistication higher than the average child’s capabilities. (note the background white lines and the rhythmic texturing throughout). Unless this child had been coached by artist parents, and had taken time to perfect a technique like this, which I suppose is possible. Additionally, perhaps the hands-on textile oriented culture in Indonesia would produce a mind like this vs. the average American child who has little to no hands-on artistic or craftsmanship skill to speak of beyond paste and popsicle-sticks.

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