Philip Hensher: Works of art are not child's play

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There's no such thing as a slump in art sales, it seems, for some artists. One young artist, at his debut show last week, could have sold his work many times over. Even though his paintings were priced at up to £7,995, admirers from as far away as Arizona snapped them up as soon as the exhibition, in Holt, Norfolk, opened. The artist, Kieron Williamson, had no previous reputation, and indeed only started painting two years ago. There is a particular reason, however, why his conventional landscapes and townscapes sold so rapidly and at such high prices: Kieron is only seven years old.

For a seven year-old's art, they are genuinely impressive. They show an excellent sense of proportion and scale; the handling of paint and colour is sensitive and quite appealing; the compositions are well put-together. What they are not, and what no one would expect them to be, are original or impressive works of art without the knowledge of the artist's age. There are probably hundreds of artists working within 20 miles of Kieron's family producing art as good as or better than his; as they may be 50 years old, nobody much thinks their art worth paying eight thousand quid for. I guess Kieron's patrons are investing in futures. A boy who can paint like that at seven; what will his art be like at 20?

The trouble is that art as a whole doesn't necessarily work like that any more. There are famous cases in the past of prodigies in the visual arts who grew up into masters of their craft: Millais was admitted to the Royal Academy at the age of 11; there are dashingly accomplished paintings by Picasso before he was a teenager; Klee's earliest preserved sketches unnervingly predict his adult mastery. There are plenty of tales, too, of great masters in childhood astonishing their elders, from Raphael onwards; they must have some kind of truth behind them.

But all of these happened at a time when the best artists were considered to be the ones who mastered their craft. Nowadays, an artist can have perfect technical skill and still not be considered a particularly interesting or valuable artist. The graphic artists of London contain hundreds of people who could knock off an inch-perfect pastiche of Turner, Titian or Manet. Every year, the Small Weston Room at the Royal Academy summer show is filled to the roof with painters who are perfectly technically accomplished, who will never have any kind of reputation.

We know what the 11-year-old Millais was growing towards: the perfection of the kind of art he was already pretty good at. And his society valued that. What is the seven-year-old Kieron Williamson growing towards? If he perfects the sort of art that he is now pretty good at, he will not starve; there are plenty of artists who make a good professional living out of highly competent images of Norfolk towns. Almost all of them are represented by art galleries in those small Norfolk towns, and none of them is at all likely to be written about in national newspapers, even the most brilliantly competent. Kieron Williamson's art, sad to say, is an art that we only find of absorbing interest when it is practised by a seven-year-old.

We wouldn't expect anything else, and, on its own terms, it is remarkable. But the art that we as a culture seem to value most is one in which competence, in the old-fashioned sense, comes low down the list of priorities. Thought comes higher; the investigation of the material fact comes higher than the mastery of conventional media; the struggle with the image is something we rate higher than an easy rendering of it.

If we think of a 19th-century landscape painting, it is obvious what a child's attempt at such a thing would look like, even a very accomplished child's attempt. If we think of some of the most iconic works of art from the last 40 years, it is impossible to imagine what a child prodigy's attempt at them would look like. We say "a child of six could do that", but of course a child of six never would. A work of conceptual art by a child is not imaginable. The possibility of a child prodigy in the serious world of art has by now disappeared; try thinking of the art of a seven-year-old that might prefigure a Jeff Koons in the way Picasso's adolescent work prefigures his adult work, and you see the problem.

Kieron Williamson is, obviously, immensely gifted. If he proceeds along the route suggested by his first paintings, this might be the point of his highest fame and earnings. We just don't rate paintings of Norfolk villages any more, unless the painter's voice hasn't broken.

A Bard-obsessed bibliophile is brought to book

Happily, I've never stolen a book from a library, but I won't pretend that I've never been tempted. In my case, it was a totally beautiful Jugendstil set of that overheated German poet, Stefan George. My college library had somehow acquired or been left this sumptuous production, and at 18, I was fascinated in a horrid way with Stefan George. Come on; the security's non-existent; no one else is ever going to look at it; it would actually be happier on your shelves, being picked up and handled and loved. The whispering voices of the bibliophile sometimes need strenuous resistance, and they know no morality or laws of property.

All the same, the astounding case of Raymond Scott and the stolen First Folio goes beyond any kleptomaniac sympathy one might have. The crook, who was sentenced this week to eight years in jail for handling stolen goods, walked into the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC, and took out a large volume, which he asked staff to identify. If he was hoping for them to make him an offer on the spot for what turned out to be a copy of the 1623 First Folio, he was disappointed. They immediately called the police. There are fewer than 250 surviving copies of the First Folio in the world, and this one was demonstrated to be one pinched from Durham University in 1998. Just one question – how, exactly, do you nick a copy of the First Folio from a library? I don't suppose the old-fashioned method of lining your bag with silver foil could have been all it took.

Try singing in plain English

Scientists in New Zealand have "discovered" that an American accent is the "natural" one for singing pop music in. Apparently, whatever your national origin, your tendency, once you start to sing, is to move into generalised American vowels. Mick Jagger is not very Dartford when he starts to sing; Amy Winehouse loses all hint of north London; you would never guess that Robert Plant came from the Black Country.

Well, there may be some truth in that, though it is not hard to think of singers who have maintained their regional accents even in song – just think of Jarvis Cocker. It also seems bizarre to say that regional accents disappear in song in favour of an American accent, when you think of the rich variety of American accents, from the Beach Boys to Bobbie Gentry, preserved in pop classics.

Fifty years ago, people used to express amusement about the idea of opera in English, and the very mention of Benjamin Britten was apt to get people singing "Would-you-like-a-cup-of-tea? Yes-with-two-sugars" in mock-recitative. I guess we're used to that idea by now. But it seems curious that, 50 years after the Beatles conquered America, we still find it more natural to sing in a mid-Atlantic drawl. The struggle to wrest English-accented song away from Chas and Dave starts here.

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