An update on the cult of childhood

I just wanted to expand here a little bit on what I will say in the presentation about Darger’s reception in the 21th century and what it says about how contemporary audiences look at the cult of childhood now. And I would argue that the cult of childhood, though still a referrent in our minds, has become very much associated with a larger nostalgia for ‘how things used to be’.

There has been the emergence in the 60s and 70s of the new ‘problem novel’ which featured lonely children with less space for imagination, growing old before their time. Many parents say now that their children know more than they themselves knew at their age. In this sense, the age of Protection has ended and the age of Preparation for the challenges of adult life has begun.

We have talked about how context and genre dependent the reception of images of children are. We saw how prevalent the idea of protecting childhood innocence as a marker of first world priviledge is in documentary photography and film. In artistic circles however and especially avant-garde art which outsider artists such as Darger are often included in, I would say that  depictions of children which challenge or provoke this ideal are actually prevalent. We could think of the photographs by Bill Henson which Ryushi first brought up, or of the works of The Kid which come to my mind This work is considered provocative and the reason why is that it feeds exactly into this typology of shattering the cult of childhood ideology. These are beautiful, young bodies put in situations of violence and agressivity, which are also clearly socio economic and political.

I think what this points to is an underlying assumption: that the public looking at these images is not ill-intended, that they in the first place hold a protective view over children and that this subversion/provocation being shown to them is necessary. Therefore the images will be provocative, because they will bring about a realization for the viewer. It’s related to the expectations that we have of an artistic audience: that they are educated and have a certain economic status. However when we look at the eroticism of The Kid’s works for example, it is a real question whether the audience is not participating in another kind of fetishizing young bodies. We should probably learn to not be too complacent audiences and wonder whether our gaze really is protective.

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