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.