Townscape 1550, painted in school at age 14
I painted the picture above, depicting a fictitious medieval city, in school, at the age of 14, and thought little of it at the time. It was just another one of many that I churned out during my Ordinary-level classes in Art. We were largely restricted to inventing subjects from our imaginations, because there was little reference material available and we weren’t allowed to leave the school during classes.
However, about a year later, my teacher chose this particular picture as an entry in a national art competition, where it was awarded a “runners up” certificate.
That was not the first recognition I’d won for my art skills, despite never having sought prizes for any of it. In fact, the first prize I ever won for anything was for drawing, at Newby County Primary school when I was aged 6. The award I was given for that was a copy of the book Little Grey Rabbit finds a Shoe, by Alison Uttley. Given the nature of the book, I’ve always suspected that the person responsible for obtaining the prizes had assumed that the winner would be a girl, because it didn’t seem like an ideal choice for a six-year-old boy!
Unfortunately, in the case of my 1974 painting above, and as with many of the other surviving paintings that I did at school, the cheap poster paint that we had to use is decomposing. You can see many white blotches in the blue sky, looking somewhat like aerial smoke bombs detonating! Those were not originally present, but are the result of the white paint compound separating from the tinting chemicals.
Thus, I recently took the opportunity to scan the painting before it deteriorates further, which was partly what prompted me to write this article now. The original dimensions are about 16“ x 11”, thus too large for my scanner. However, I was able to scan the paper in parts, then stitch the result together in such a way that the edges are almost invisible.
The Kellogg’s National Exhibition of Children’s Art
It seems that the American cereal company, Kellogg’s, organized a National Exhibition of Children’s Art in London every year, from the 1960s through to some time in the 1970s. The only online record of it that I’ve been able to find is a copy of an invitation to enter the “exhibition” in 1976, which apparently appeared on the back of packets of Corn Flakes. (The clichéd “happy corporate collage” artwork on the cereal packet is amusing. Of course, they couldn’t possibly promote a children’s art exhibition by using…er…actual children’s art, could they?)
As far as I recall, I was unaware of those exhibitions at the time, and my entry in the 1975 contest was entirely initiated by my teacher. I definitely didn’t fill in any back-of-a-cereal-packet entry form. The only official acknowledgement that I received was the certificate below (which isn’t even dated). Nobody invited me to attend the actual exhibition, during that or any other year.
The Undated NECA Runners-Up Certificate
It was certainly also the case that my parents did not encourage me to exhibit my artwork. Unfortunately, they took a pessimistic attitude to most things along the lines of, “it’s not worth trying because you’re bound to fail”. When faced with other parents who actively helped their children in such activities, they simply dismissed such behavior as being “pushy”. Nothing worse than a “pushy parent”, you know!
Competitive Art? I’d Rather Not!
While I have no objections to art exhibitions, I have become increasingly skeptical of the benefits of “art competitions”. After all, who has the competence or authority to decide which works of art are “better”? Yes; you can determine that one artwork is better-drawn or better-executed than another—that one artist is more technically competent than another—and I do that myself all the time. But does that make one artwork “better” than the other? Not necessarily. If you must turn an exhibition into a competition, wouldn’t it be better to make it a “artist contest” instead of an “art contest”?
I understand that, even in a non-competitive exhibition, there has to be someone to decide which entries will “make the cut”. Given that Kellogg’s were soliciting entries for their exhibition on the backs of cereal packets, someone would obviously need to review all entries, even if only to determine which entries met the basic conditions (e.g., to determine that they were actually produced by children). That kind of basic judgment doesn’t really turn an exhibition into a contest, unless the promoters deliberately aim to do that.
Unfortunately, we live in a culture where some people seem to want to turn every human endeavor into a contest, so when someone promotes contests in inappropriate areas, all too many people support the idea, instead of treating it with the skepticism, or possibly even contempt, that it may deserve.
It’s true that I have entered my own artworks in exhibitions that involve judging and prizegiving, such as my Moggies cartoons, which were displayed at some Sonoma County Fairs. Sometimes my entries have won, but sometimes they received no award at all. I try to maintain as detached a view as possible of those events and the responses to my entries.
Surely, art is about the wide variety of ways in which artists see and interpret the universe, and reducing all that to a contest misses much of the value of art. The judgments that are necessary to determine contest winners will inevitably give the impression that one or two viewpoints are superior to all others, thus discouraging the very exploration and variety that is essential to art.