A boy, about 10, sat down on a bench with his mother and me the other day to watch a film at the National Gallery of Art. The short was about the work of the primitive artist Henri Rousseau. You don't have to be an art connoisseur to enjoy Rousseau, with his lush jungle scenes of lions and snakes, painted with both whimsy and menace. Monkeys hang from trees high above the action.
At first I thought the boy would get a kick out of the images; this is a child-friendly, even a particularly boy-friendly, show. And indeed he might have enjoyed it more if he had given it half a chance, but Rousseau's colorful jungle was no match for his electronic video game. He watched it for the duration of the film.
It wasn't my place to tell him what he was missing, but I was tempted. His mother, enthralled with the visuals, seemed content to enjoy the film without hassling her son to watch, too. Could this little vignette make a statement about what kids enjoy today? Sometimes a single anecdote can raise troubling cultural questions. Children are growing up in an image culture, but the image ain't what it used to be. Every day a "new study shows" how electronic images play on vulnerable minds, and a lot of the play is ill.
Random stories emerge from recent research. Third-graders with television sets in their bedrooms perform significantly poorer on standardized tests than their peers who go to sleep without the soporific of the tube, a "new study shows" in the work of researchers of Stanford University School of Medicine and Johns Hopkins University. In a typical day, more than 8 of 10 children under the age of 6 watch the television screen on average of two hours a day. Kaiser Family Foundation researchers found that four of 10 children under 2 watch television every day.
The mother of a 4-year old uses television to slow down the son she describes as "hyper." Television changes his mood, which is "much better for him and for me." A study by Wake Forest's Baptist Medical Center found that teenagers who watch wrestling regularly are likely to fight with their dates, and even carry a weapon.
"It's yet more evidence that, when it comes to kids and media, learning happens," says Kimberly Thompson, a professor at Harvard University's School of Public Health. "Parents have to pay attention to what's in their kids' media diet and what they're seeing and experiencing."
All this seems fairly obvious at the same time we know that such studies are snapshots, and aren't necessarily doomsday scenarios. Nevertheless, the research gives parents that pause that depresses, which leads me back to my experience at the National Gallery of Art. If images can have negative consequences, they can influence in a positive way, too. Arts education, for example, can increase literacy. A new study by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum shows how. Dynamic approaches to viewing, discussing and creating works of art were found to improve the ability of third-graders to think and read.
This is hardly the equivalent of the Soviet Sputnik, the first ship in space in 1957, which galvanized the United States to increase spending on science and math education. The arts have never had a high priority in Washington. But had that mother at the Henri Rousseau show with her son known that he might gain more from watching the film about painting than in playing a solo electronic game, she could have done more to get him to pay attention.
Parents who worry about what their kids see on television or prowling the Internet should encourage them to visit the National Gallery's interactive art zone for children of different ages (http://www.nga.gov). Parents are so afraid not to be up-to-date and hip that often they allow children to determine what's best for them. You don't have to ban electronic games or television from a child's repertoire of fun and games, but there's a greater danger that parents will overlook more imaginative ways to engage their children.
We want our children to understand the latest developments in technology, but we should also want to stimulate their minds to appreciate beauty. Children today are subject to so much ugliness and brutality, we run the risk of depriving them of aesthetic triumphs. Once nearly every school child could quote that line from Keats: "A thing of beauty is a joy forever." No longer true, and more's the pity.