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Male Mythology and Boys' Art Making

Sunday, December 06, 2009

By Anna Grahame

As a drawing teacher, I observe this over and over again: Girls have beautiful lines and a well-balanced sense of composition and mostly draw hearts and beautiful faces. Boys, on the other hand, have a way of drawing their lines and lack a sense of composition that often remind me of how acomplished artists draw after having had a stroke or suffered from serious mental illness (Josephsson and Hill for example). And boys’ pictures are bubbling over with content, drama, and fascinating stories.

I have come to a conclusion like this: Girls at a certain age have form and no content while boys at the same age have imagination and lack form. If anybody should analyse this in neuroscience I am sure they will find that this has to do with human development and our neurochemistry. The similarity in artists’ post-stroke penmanship and young boys is a sure hint. I will return to this. 

I have taught comicbook drawing over a couple of years. It is usually boys who attend these classes and I would often have one girl among five boys. There was never a moment’s hesitation in my group about what they wanted to draw – they immediatley jumped into it and started drawing. The stories were full of action and violence. I never censored them, because I knew something vital was expressed that needed to get out.

I sense that there is something that I as a woman don't understand in boys' imagery, and I found it simply interesting to observe. The drawing was accompanied by lively chatting and giggling. This is something that I didn't interrupt either, sensing that they needed an area where they could be allowed to be loud and excited and sometimes a little wild – something that other adults usually frown upon.

My approach to teaching art is based on my own experience as an artist. Having had to work hard for many years liberating repressed aspects in my personality and art making, I have realized how valuable it is to be able to be loud and even aggressive while working on an art piece.The integration of the whole personality and the protection of its integrity is very important to me as a teacher in an art classroom.

The boys’ stories just blurt out on the page: Some good guys fought against evil guys and then they went into a cave and then there were bazookas and helicopters and kaboom it all exploded and then they went running back with the bongtongs and then someone was injured.

It went on and on like this and I could never comprehend the storyline, so messy and entangled this thing seemed to be. Between the boys themselves the giggling went on and on. They completely understood the story and made suggestions to each other and had their own world. Should I teach them how to build up a stoyline? Show them how to organize it?

I decided not to. The three boys from third grade kept working on their beautiful, dramatic, and messy stories, while the 5th grader had a clean storyline that was unfortunately a somewhat disguised copy from a popular pixar movie. Is this always the case? Does form chase away innovation? Does form lead to conformism? One nine year-old boy brought a diary with him full of stories, figures, etc. Beautiful and very personal.

This type of boyish male imagery is very popular among some of today’s contemporary art venues. Unfortunately thirty-something males exploit the fresh dilettantism a little too much and the authenticity that is still there in the children's drawings seem a little too fabricated in the adult production.

Another observation I made is that it is not just the kids with emotional "issues" who depict dramatic, violent scenes. One boy in the drawing group who had a quiet, sweet personality and who lived in a calm, balanced, harmonious household drew exactly the same scenarios as his more rambunctious friends. It seems that this is part of the male mythology that young boys share.

In the documentary Raising Cain there is an interesting passage about a kindergarten where  children are supposed to write stories. The girls' theme are animals, friendship, etc., while the boys’ stories are violent, often resulting in a character’s death. How the group handled the situation after the girls complained about the scary content was very revealing.

The problem seems to be the lack of understanding for boys' need of dramatic stories with violent content. I seriously doubt that this particular need for boys to work with good versus evil, the battle, the peak of the battle, and the resolution, leads to violent behaviour or points to violent behavior and problems in the home. I think it is a basic fabric of male mythology and that it is developmentally necessary.

If we as parents, teachers, therapists, etc., forbid them to access this mythology we are taking something vital away from them. If we pathologize it we are overlooking something crucial.

Further reading on the neurological development of boys can be found in the book Raising Boys by Steve Biddulph. Here is an excerpt :

"The left side of the cerebral cortex grows slower in little children than the right side, in boys even slower.The testostreon in the blood of boys slows down this growth... While the right side of the brain is growing, it tries to form connections to its left counterpart. In boys the left side is not prepared to facilitate connections like this, that's why the nerve cells from the right side don't find a place to "plug In" and thus go back to the right side and plug back in there.This means that the right side of the brain in boys is richer in internal connections and poorer in connections across the brain halves. If the left and the right brain is poorly connected, they will have a hard time to solve problems that require both brain halves. Such tasks are reading, speaking about feelings, or to try solving a problem by calmly observing it instead of solving it with aggression or violence."
 


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