The Trouble With the Colorado Face Mask Design Challenge

Jared Polis wants kids to cheer up Colorado during a pandemic through a statewide mask contest.EXPAND
Jared Polis wants kids to cheer up Colorado during a pandemic through a statewide mask contest.
Nadja Varga / Flickr
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More than 300 people in Colorado have died from COVID-19. Workers are out of jobs. Businesses large and small are ravaged. And Governor Jared Polis is holding a Colorado Face Mask Design Challenge for kids through Colorado Creative Industries so that we have artful masks to wear.

It's one of many "fun and optimistic" things Coloradans can do in the face of a global pandemic, he explains.

Yes, kids, pandemics, and your worries — about dying family members, out-of-work parents and all of those scary people wearing masks because if they don't they might die (or kill someone else) — can be processed in a fun and optimistic way, thanks to art.

Children, who are rightfully freaking out after they've been sent home from school and are now being taught by screens and overtaxed parents with zero skills as educators, are being tasked by the governor with cheering everybody up about having to wear masks.


Because kids have to shoulder the emotional burden of keeping our society joyful. Because kids can turn fear into something fun. Because kids — who are sorely powerless and already have a grim future to look forward to, thanks to the failures of government to protect the environment and ensure economic security for families and workers — must communicate, by request of that very same government, that even scary things can feel happy and joyful.

Kids are being recruited to make things that stink smell better by covering them up with perfume. That is the foulest function of art.

Trying to dupe my seven-year-old into sugarcoating a global pandemic would be beyond cruel — she'd think it was ridiculous. Some days she's happy, other days she's sad, and all days she hates being told to make art about upbeat things. She creates art in her own way. I respect that — and if the powers-that-be are going to decide that now is the time to start caring about children making art, I hope they respect a diversity of approaches.

There is nothing more toxic in art education than rewarding people for making pretty, fun, nice art when they aren't experiencing those emotions. Kids who are panicked, worried or sad shouldn't be lured by government contests into feeling optimistic. It is an insult to the unimaginable experience that young people are going through right now, and it's a fundamental misunderstanding of the value of art as anything beyond state propaganda. 

Art education for kids — which is so critical to children's mental well being and so underfunded by the State of Colorado — has functions other than "fun."

One of those is criticizing people in power. Kids who refuse to be creatively limited by government's influence over the arts will hopefully employ that function as they make their homemade masks. And the judges of the mask competition should reward them for doing so.

Another good use of art is exploring painful feelings without being pressured into having a good time along the way. Children shouldn't be instructed to use only bright colors — which the state is asking them to do. They should be able to make art as dark and as devoid of bright, shiny joy as they want to. Expressions of emotions like fear, anger and sadness should be encouraged, alongside optimism.

We need this stay-at-home order to work. People need to wear masks. A competition isn't a bad idea, but nobody should be strong-armed into feigning happiness in the name of art, in the service of the state — especially children. And nobody should be asked to make this moment feel normal.

If a kid wants to make a "fun and optimistic" mask, great. But the vast range of children's emotions — including the depressed, morbid and nihilistic ones — should also be honored in this competition. 

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