Bibliophilia: Coloring Books & The Democratization of Art

Image from The Little Folks Painting Book
Image from The Little Folks Painting Book

Within our society art is something that anyone can create. There are some superficial boundaries set by academics and critics such as high art, low art, and outsider art; yet, despite its given category, any piece of art will still be considered Art. The idea that absolutely anyone can create art is still a fairly new one but one which gained popularity due to one of my favorite types of book, the coloring book.  When they were first introduced, coloring books were meant to engage children with classic stories that they could read and color simultaneously. To this day coloring books still serve the same general purpose but that’s not to say they aren’t something we should reflect upon.

Oddly enough, I first began thinking about coloring books while reading about the influence of artistic movements on miniature-golf courses (which is a great sentence).  The article I was reading included an argument for the artistic relevance of miniature-golf made by Lint Hatcher:

It’s seeing the Empire State Building the way the sun sees it, the way a hurricane sees it, the way God sees it: as an incredibly intricate man-made wonder that is to be treasured and appreciated not only for its grandeur but for its smallness, even its mortality.

While reading Hatchers wonderful critique of miniature-golf courses it occurred to me that coloring books manage do the same thing. Coloring books which feature line drawings of famous works of art, or coloring books which feature classic stories, allow their readers an opportunity to re-create each work as they see fit. Coloring books take the epitome of cultural achievement and then ask you to recolor them in crayon. Whether you stay inside the lines or not is, of course, your own choice.

The very first coloring book was published by the McLoughlin Brothers in 1879 and was titled The Little Folks Painting book. It featured bowdlerizations of classic stories accompanied by line drawings for its readers to paint. The Little Folks Painting Book was also a juggernaut of interactive and socially conscious media. I’ll let the book’s preface speak for itself:

It remains to mention that Special Prize Competitions for colouring this book have been instituted in connection with “LITTLE FOLKS” Magazine, in which Prizes in Money and Medals in Silver and Bronze are offered for competition. A noteworthy feature of the scheme consists in the fact that all coloured books sent to the Editor of the Magazine will, at the close of the Competition, be distributed among the little sick inmates of the Children’s Hospitals.

What The Little Folks Painting Book accomplished was spectacular. It essentially published itself as an unfinished work and inspired its readers to “finish” the book and become its illustrators. Considering how common “user-generated” media is today, I’d say we owe a good deal to The Little Folks.

The cultural significance of coloring books is often overlooked due to its associations with Transformers and Lisa Frank but since their introduction they have played a major role in our society. They introduce children to the abstract idea of art and bowdlerized versions of stories that they’re going to read for their entire life. So what do you think? When was the last time you picked up a coloring book? Do you have any children in your life that you color with? Isn’t coloring a line drawing of the Mona Lisa eerily similar to that time Marcel Duchamp drew a mustache on the Mona Lisa? Please leave some comments below so that we can continue our conversation on interactive media, the democratization of art, and our favorite period of miniature-golf course design (mine is Post-Romantic Classicism).

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