The idea of voice in art… well, it sort of bothers me. When it gets mentioned it often gets mentioned as something to pursue as a goal rather than a side effect of other important things we are doing. And taking it this way only magnifies the idea that our creative focus should not be on what we are saying, or the different possible ways of saying it, but instead on this singular way in which it gets expressed. As though our voice were also somehow inescapable (despite routinely being told of the need to ‘search’ for it). As if having a singular voice were somehow inevitable and necessary for doing the creative stuff we do. It takes a tool of our expression and installs that as the message itself, almost. It confuses means and ends, puts the cart before the horse……
When art gets expressed well, voice is surely part of that. As Richard Notkin says, “The art must be strong enough to carry the message-the message alone will never carry the art.” My worry is simply that we too often praise the voice rather than the art, as if who said it were more important than what was said. If the art is more important, then it should not ultimately matter whose voice sang the song. Or if one voice sings it particularly well that its the same voice that is necessary for singing every other song….. That’s just something to consider.
Of course we admire certain voices. I’m not saying there is no value in how we express ourselves. On the contrary, having a recognizable voice is good for business. Rather, I’m suggesting that the voice should at least sometimes serve the message, not simply the other way round. The question is, is having a singular voice always good for the art? The sense I often get is that we should embrace as many voices as necessary to sing all our songs as best as we can. If the voice is a servant of what we are doing, then it should be no problem. One or another will fit the task. If it is instead the master, well, it becomes a question of whether we have a master who has our best interests at heart.
Doing it only one way is tyrannical and miserly. Its not natural. If we look at how voice plays out in our daily lives its easy to see that we use particular voices given the circumstances and our desires. It can be a pretty fluid tool for expressing ourselves. Its not as if we are stuck with only one voice to use. We can sing in the shower and whisper sweet nothings to our loved one. We can belt out some opera and hum nursery rhymes to our kids. We can yell at the dog and cry at sad movies. We can laugh and we can chuckle. Its not the same voice. It never was.
So why on earth are so many artists obsessed with promoting the vision that we have to get it right? That there is only one good way we can express ourselves authentically as artists? It seems like a reasonable question….. Should we just meekly do what we are told in the time honored tradition or should we actually try understanding for ourselves? Are we believers in superstition or are we independent and critical thinkers? Can we go deeper into thoughts that contradict the lore that has been passed down? Can we question what we’ve been told and not simply repeat the mantras?
I found these two quotes by sheer coincidence a day or so after I was thinking these thoughts, and decided to conclude my essay with what they had to say. The first is from an interview with the writer/actors of the film My Dinner With Andre. The second is from a conversation with Marvin Minsky, a leader in the related fields of artificial intelligence. Read the following and compare what they have to say with the typical mythology we get for the idea of ‘voice’ in the arts:
Both of you have said that the characters in My Dinner With Andre are not, in fact, you. But how much of you is in those characters?
Andre Gregory: I believe that there are many different sides to all of us. I’ve been thrown out of five different gyms for what you would call cutting up — making fun of working out, all kinds of different things. Somebody else has never seen that Andre. No one has ever seen the Andre who is at home with his wife. These are all different characters, or sides of one. When I was creating the role, I had a terrible time. It drove me nuts because who the hell is Andre Gregory? How do I play myself? Then, after months of rehearsal, I came up with four different voices. One was Andre Gregory the Peter Brook guru. One was Andre the off-the-wall rich kid — spoiled, narcissistic. The other was the Andre who is sometimes sincere. All of these voices were mine, but they only arise when I become those different characters. If a young student comes to me and wants me to pass on some kind of experience or wisdom to them, I might get into the Peter Brook guru voice. I literally created four different Andres, all of whom were aspects of my personality.” From this interview.
And here’s Marvin Minsky:
“It really is a simple idea — that our minds have collections of different ways to do each of the things they do. Yet this challenges our more common and more ancient ideas about what we are and how we work. In particular, we all share the notion that inside each person there lurks another person, which we call “the self” and which does our thinking and feeling for us: it makes our decisions and plans for us, and later approves, or has regrets. This is much the same idea that Daniel Dennett, who is arguably the best living philosopher of mind, calls the Cartesian Theater — the universal fancy that somewhere deep inside the mind is a certain special central place where all mental events finally come together to be experienced. In that view, all the rest of your brain — all the known mechanisms for perception, memory, language processing, motor control — are mere accessories, which your “self” finds convenient to use for its own inner purposes.
Of course, this is an absurd idea, because it doesn’t explain anything. Then why is it so popular? Answer: Precisely because it doesn’t explain anything! This is what makes it so useful for everyday life. It helps you stop wondering why you do what you do, and why you feel how you feel. It magically relieves you of both the desire and the responsibility for understanding how you make your decisions. You simply say, “I decided to,” and thereby transfer all responsibility to your imaginary inner self. Presumably, each person gets this idea in infancy, from the wonderful insight that you yourself are just another person, very much like the other people you see around you. On the positive side, that insight is profoundly useful in helping you to predict what you, yourself, are likely to do, based on your experience with those others.
The trouble with the single-self concept is that it’s an obstacle to developing deeper ideas when we really do need better explanations.”
The conclusion I would like to draw is that your particular voice is always a choice, or at least one of many possibilities. Singularity is an artificial constraint. Its not so much us, in any comprehensive sense, as its what we are being told to do. An external pressure. What we often get told to do as artists, finding our singular voice as a sort of Holy Grail Quest, is merely advice. It turns out this has some weight in the marketplace, but it is neither inescapable nor necessary for doing all the possible things we want to do.
And if it makes sense to have but one recognizable voice for the marketplace, don’t try to justify it as necessary for the art. The art could be anything. That is the freedom and power of art. Rather, it is simply a choice to be typecast, in the same sense that some actors only get to play the same roles again and again and again. We can train ourselves to comfort and familiarity, like a beast who only knows the four walls of its cage….. We can be indoctrinated and domesticated.
There may be some satisfaction in that, and we may do a really good job portraying this one character type (the ditzy goof, the inept clown, the bad guy, the noble hero, the tortured sensitive type, etc) but the truth is more that we have limited ourselves to one means of creative expression than that we have embraced anything approximating our own creative potential or fully authentic self. Its as if we had chosen to lobotomize the other voices we could have played. We have amputated the other possible characters from our repertoire.
It may be prudent from a marketplace point of view, but is it really a ‘good’ choice? Is it really an artistic choice? Are lobotomies and amputations and all other shackles really good artistic options? If you are going to play Vincent van Gogh you may have to cut off your ear. The problem is that you can’t always grow it back….. What are the options when you are now stuck with only one ear?
Some decisions we can back out of. Some choices we make we are burdened with for the rest of our lives. The key is knowing what the difference is. We have some control. We should never mistake a marketing decision with an artistic choice. If the marketing is more important than the art, so be it. But if the art takes precedence, why would it need permanent cages? Why would it offer only cul-de-sacs? Why would it demand only unswerving and eternal obedience? You make something and you move on. Its not a rut you can never escape. You don’t have to go over the same ground ever more. You are not some dog chained to a tree with only the run of a small yard. If the wheels are still spinning you can set them back on the ground and head off in new directions. Right?
Do as much as you want as long as you want. Do it all. Do everything. Sing in the shower and knit by the fireside. Make goofy sculpture and serious pots. Make serious sculpture and goofy pots. Do them both at once. Fire in a woodkiln to cone 14 for 7 days and pull pots out of raku kilns after a mere few hours. Paint. Draw. Carve. Paddle. Sprig. Roll slabs. Stick handles on. Voice be damned! Do the things you want to. Let the voice be an effect of what you are doing rather than its cause. Put the damned cart behind the horse.
Hope that made some sense 🙂
Make beauty real!