Real Art vs. Fake Art, Revisited

Revisiting my rant (sporadically on 4/10, 4/22, 4/29, substantially fleshed out on 7/14, 8/4, and 8/8), I definitely have some more interesting things to talk about given my children’s literature class.

Last spring, I took 21L.430 / CMS.920 – Narrative and Popular Culture. The theme changes depending on the teacher, but for this professor, Marah Gubar, it’s about Children’s Cultural Blockbusters. I really like children’s literature. I often joke that I’m the “team expert in children’s literature”, which is both a reference to quiz bowl (there was one national tournament where the only questions I powered on were about “Puff the Magic Dragon” and “The Lorax”), so when Professor Brinkema suggested that I take 21L.430, I leapt at the chance. I’ve really enjoyed the class (although the final essay really took way too much time T_T (It’s one of the few essays I’m very proud of though)). Basically, the premise was to look at famous figures in children’s literature (ex. Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Little Orphan Annie) and to see how they change over time and to see how the perception of childhood has changed over time as well.

From this class, lines from my previous rant such as the following amuse me:

That coupled with the really crappy indie outdoor band and the bar selling craft beer just made it feel like an attraction for twentysomethings to feel cool, snapping their fingers being like “yeah, man, free play, it’s like return to innocence or whatever”

The idea of “return to innocence” is actually a Romantic conception. Originally, from the Puritans and earlier, children were actually considered repulsive and living in “original sin” not “original innocence”. So, as a regular God-fearing Christian, you want your kids to go to heaven. If they die young (which they did) and they didn’t fully believe in God, then they were going to be damned. You don’t want that! So that’s how you get things like swaddling and forcing children to walk before they crawl (so they don’t look animalistic on all fours. The idea of children’s literature didn’t exist for a long time. Kids would read just normal books, including Pilgrim’s Progress! This is also why kids in Renaissance paintings look like small men rather than children.

So the idea of kids as a bastion of innocence starts in the Romantic era, where kids are seen as “original innocence”, a pure figure that is attuned with nature that later gets corrupted by the horrible modernity of growing up. The most characteristic poem of this concept is Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” This idea eventually gets corrupted by the Victorians into the “Cult of The Child”, which kinda sounds like how it is – a over-adoration of children and their purity / precocity that you get really creepy things as the language of love is corrupted to describe children. There soon becomes the idea that the adults try to force the idea of what childhood should look like on to children, including forcing free play upon them. The story “The Easter Egg Party” is a pretty good literary example of this. It’s an interesting story and dates from 1938!

What the swing-set-art-exhibit failed to realize is that childhood and innocence isn’t something that can be demanded of “you play here”. It felt more like it was trying to make a place where people could pretend to recapture the innocent days, but in by so constructing a system, they have in fact failed to remember the great chaos of being a kid. It’s like the huge failure mode of talking to kids that adults suffer from – they have forgotten how to be a kid and thus end up condescending towards them or not valuing their opinion.


I’ve earlier sent a really fascinating article from Thomas Holt about the “Children’s liberation movement”, which happened in the 70’s around the same time as the “Women’s liberation movement” and others. I can forward it again, but he definitely brings up a lot of these same points. One of the things that he mentions is that there’s a sense of condescension when interacting with kids and that we use children for our own satisfaction (he constructs a really creepy analogy to say that we objectify children in their “cuteness” like we objectify women in their sexual appeal, which I don’t 100% buy). The interesting corollary that comes from this is that kids are aware that the adults desire this behavior from them and then start acting sickingly cute to try to wheedle how they want (Think Shirley Temple). For more evidence of “forcing adult standards and expectations on children”, check out this very very very creepy video of “Baby Burlesks”, some of Shirley Temple’s earliest work. As Temple later said, it’s “a cynical exploitation of our childish innocence”.

I guess this is why some West Campus people call the East Side “childish” and “immature”

I brought up this point with Professor Gubar (who having just moved to MIT, didn’t know the stereotypes) and tencate, who was in the class and walking with us. Professor Gubar pointed out that “childish” was being used as insult but I can’t remember what else she said about that point. I think tencate pointed out that this comment might actually be more about East Campus being contrary for contrary’s sake. I don’t remember what she said very well and feel like putting words in her mouth, so not going to try to put back in :\

(NOTE: the below paragraph was written on one of the April dates. Spoiler alert, as of July 2015, I am feeling much happier and healthier. I am very happy that I wrote the original “Real Art vs. Fake Art” manifesto and still maintain those values. Turns out core principles don’t change that much)

Given how badly this semseter has been going for me, I’m a bit curious if I still retain these values. Recently, I haven’t been as excited by anything lately and ghosted a lot in my room and away from Clam. Now, I have realized that this was entirely related to me trading a lot of physical wellbeing to get tooling done, putting me on the literal tipping point for emotions, where the slightest breeze could wreck me (and it did). Sleeping again has made me feel a lot more though, so hope spring eternal.

An amusing metric of how bad this term has been for me is note how the number of observe reports have just dropped off and when. There is a clear drop between 1/22 to 3/21 and then a few scattered observes from other people in May. (on a side note, I’ve realized that I didn’t send out the email titled “Thanks” on 3/2 to this list – only to chilly-lin@. I’ve healed a lot since that point (and actually feel like talking to that person again) so the feels are no longer as relevant, but if people are interested, I can forward it to you.)

Digressing from that, I talked with Lemur quite a bit on the original topic. An excerpt from me in that conversation:

Actually, on second thought, have you read American Gods? I guess MetaLand and Hamtramck Disneyland are all part of the idea of “real America” kinda like the House on the Rock


Ironically (given the main thread of this conversation), it was the first book that made me feel like I’d grown up. It had a much different feel from the “adult” books I had read like classics like Great Expectations or Handmaid’s Tale. I believe that I was still too young to fully appreciate those books. I had read Brave New World young enough that I didn’t know what an orgy was (middle school). Last year, when bored at the Caltrain, I popped into the library there and got halfway through it again. Definitely felt like I got more out of it (and got shivers about the easy life form of subjugation, so different from 1984, yet more insidious at times).

Stay literary, my friends


P.S. very side digression:

I found myself even more disappointed by the fact that the swings were part of an art exhibit, not as just some adult playground thing

I was walking on the Esplanade with Lane (May 9th) and saw what an actual adult playground is – a whole empty space filled not with swings and fun stuff but parallel bars and not very fun stuff. Even more disappointing! Here’s a picture that’s not disappointing instead.

One of my friends informs me that “The adult playground you mention is for runners to stretch, not as a playground.”

Pingback to earlier mention

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