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Mummy, why is there a dead cow in a box?

It's hard to teach children to love contemporary art
  • @philbycharlotte

"What's that, mummy?" The words echoed through the Tate Modern, my cheeks burning red as my daughter's tiny face stared up at me, her wide, trusting eyes blinking in expectation. With the weight of a generation of overly-zealous parents on my shoulders, my mind scanned a million possibilities; but in the end it was all I could do to hold my head down and mumble, "It's a dead cow in a box." Nothing brings one's own cultural ineptitudes into fine focus quite like the combination of Damien Hirst and an inquisitive toddler.

But, according to sisters Jacky and Suzy Klein – one an art historian, the other a writer and broadcaster – introducing kids to art from an early age is important: "Like all forms of culture – reading and music and film – art enriches our lives. In a world where we are all bombarded by ever-more visual stuff, it is important that we give our kids the critical tools to analyse and understand what is being put in front of them," Jacky Klein explains. More importantly, she adds, there is a lot of fun to be had: "When you're young everything in this world is as unexpected as the next; children are open to the weirdest and most wonderful things contemporary artists can throw at them."

In their new book, What Is Contemporary Art? A Children's Guide, Jacky and Suzy Klein illuminate this sometimes mystifying world in a shiny compendium of facts, artist quotes, questions and endlessly-varied images from a spectrum of artists working in paint, pencils, stone, film, light, and occasionally egg-shells, from the 1960s to the present day. The book is divided into chapters with titles such as "A Splash of Colour", where the work of Yves Klein (no relation) – who we learn was so obsessed with a single colour that he spent much of his career developing his own special shade, the "International Klein Blue" and used a range of tools to apply the paint, including rollers and naked female bodies – is juxtaposed against "The Colour Spectrum Series, 2005" by Olafur Eliasson. An accompanying box reads: "Throughout history, colours have always had particular associations. Red can mean love or danger; blue often symbolises loyalty, wisdom or truth… Imagine your favourite colour: what does it make you think of, and how does it make you feel?"

To see how the book works in practice, I bypass my two-year-old and instead speak to 11-year-old Emily Mackay, whose favourite subject at school is art, and her friend 12-year-old Lizzie Mason. Emily's response is thoughtful: "My favourite colour is purple, it reminds me of birds flying in the air and it makes me feel peaceful." Having modern art brought to life in this way, Lizzie agrees, is engaging: "At school all we really learn about is like old paintings and stuff, and that can be really boring."

"For me," Emily adds, "art is like if something looks nice or if it is saying something interesting about the world". That, Jacky Klein concedes, is OK, because in art there is no such thing as the wrong answer. "This is not about saying here is a work by Damien Hirst, this is what it's all about. It is about encouraging kids to ask and work through the questions they ask voraciously in their lives anyway," she concludes.

If as an adult you too have ever found yourself gazing curiously at an installation, mulling over the possible subversive intentions only to realise you're staring at the radiator, take heart: "Often with modern art, parents feel at sea, too. We want to help adults to open the door a little bit."

'What is Contemporary Art? A Children's Guide' by Jacky Klein and Suzy Klein (£12.95, thamesandhudson.com)