Children, art & the carnivalesque

This post discusses Bakhtin’s term of ‘the carnivalesque’ in relation to children’s art museum programming. Whilst radical moments of change offer the possibility of social transformation, I argue that these need to be supported by a system of sustainable relationships that facilitate children’s ongoing learning over time. The role of the learning curator is then discussed in relation to producing practices that support such processes.


Marina Abramovic ‘The Artist is Present’ (2010) at The Museum of Modern Art. Image credit:

The carnivalesque: a term conceptualised by Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin in his book Rabelais and his world (1941). In the text, Bakhtin describes a carnivalesque moment in relation to an occasion, such as a festival, event or performance, where social order is temporarily subverted through comedy, laughter or an unexpected creative process. Bakhtin connects these moments to the recombination of societal connections and the opening of new possibilities, structures and hierarchies.

The notion of the carnivalesque is often discussed in relation to art forms such as performance, dance and live art. Many children’s programmes in art museums would also fall under this classification. In these activities, children are able to be a part of something radically different that they would not usually be able to do in their everyday life. The inability to predict what will happen in these moments creates an atmosphere of excitement, fun and playfulness.

I, like many children, love these moments. They offer temporary instances of ridiculousness and chaos that can easily get forgotten in day-to-day life. At the same time, I am cautious of what they solely offer children if not embedded in a sustainable system of relationships in children’s lives.

So much of learning emerges from relationships. Relationships between children, their environment, things, educators, friends, families and broader communities. These relationships set the foundation for independent and co-constructed learning processes. If these moments of change are not embedded in relationships, then it is easy for whatever happens to fall away to nothing. Also, if the artist’s motivation to create the carnivalesque activity is driven by a reaction to a perceived societal deficiency, my concern is that the activity could encourage a dualistic way of thinking about the world as ‘us’ and ‘them.’ The danger in this is that it has the possibility of further encouraging divide instead of cultivating a system of dynamic and complex connections that form the  basis of enduring relationships. So how do we build a sustainable system that supports children’s learning in art museums over time?

John Dewey proposed that the primary driving force of meaningful education is a teacher’s commitment to children’s social, emotional and intellectual growth. Dewey stated that no acquired knowledge of education theory or specialist knowledge can compensate for a deficiency in this personal trait. He extended on this to specify that the time, financial and bureaucratic pressures in education settings can restrict the abilities of what an individual can do even with such a commitment.

If we take this notion and apply it to art museum education, the learning curator must carry the personal trait of an unquestionable commitment to children’s learning and development. Their social role is then to facilitate the relationships needed to support learning over time. To do this Malaguzzi (1993) proposes “we need to define the role of the adult, not as a transmitter but as a creator of relationships — relationships not only between people but also between things, between thoughts, with the environment.”

Constructing a pedagogy based on relationships takes time, financial investment plus continuous individual and institutional commitment to children’s learning. This is a much complex, difficult and demanding process. But it is also one that holds the possibility of establishing a sustained and enduring practices that support children’s growth over time. Placing children and their relationships with artists, learning curators, their families, the physical environment and wider communities as central to art museum programming begins to construct a network of interconnected systems that support and sustain learning and development.The focus then turns to how these relationships and programming are being produced. What processes can we develop that actively support such pedagogies?

It is possible that advancements in the rigour of children’s pedagogical practices in art museums may not be acknowledged by art critics, art historians and artists who lack the knowledge of education theory needed to distinguish between the nominal value of terms such as progressive education, experiential learning and constructivist learning environment and deeply considered practices. Children’s programmes are rarely featured in curatorial dialogue or art magazines despite some practitioners putting a huge amount of research, intellectual and creative rigour into their production. I do not believe this necessarily come from a place of meanness but more a lack of understanding of specialised knowledge. Perhaps over time shared understandings of early childhood learning practices in art museums will grow and generate wider dialogue around children as co-constructors of art and culture, developing an even deeper system of relationships.


Bakhtin, M 1941. Rabelais and his world. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Malaguzzi, L. 1993. ‘Your Image of the Child: Where Teaching Begins,’ seminar presentation held in Reggio Emilia June 1993. Complete transcript available at:


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