I’m not going to tell you there’s a right way of doing it, but there are different ways. We each have to answer these questions ourselves. Only, there are values we can hold that lead us in one direction and values that lead us in others. And those are good things to think about. What kind of parent are you or will you be? And of course this is much bigger than merely the role of parent. What kind of teacher are you? What kind of friend are you? What kind of customer are you? What kind of audience are you? Even, how do you treat yourself?
The other day I heard a proud mentor express this satisfaction with one of his apprentices:
“like being caught in a really good book, that you can’t put down. I can see the seeds of their voice in clay take root.”
And then this morning a friend suggested
“It is said that you are to make the things that only you can make.”
The two messages are linked in an image of solidity, of purpose: Grow your own tree and grow it unlike anyone else’s. Yours.
Its an attractive vision: “Be true to thine own self.” It recalls ideals of authenticity and fidelity. Integrity. What’s not to admire about that?
To some the idea of voice in artists’ lives has a seeming necessity, an almost natural imperative. Just like some parents believe their kids need to have a solid career and raise a family, it is expected. We expect them to get a job, spend the next 40 plus years toiling up the ladder, find a partner, have kids, and then sail off into the twilight surrounded by grandkids and the comforts they have amassed in pursuit of their fate. We have this obligation to our parents, to society, and to ourselves. That’s the way the story goes, at least.
Those are the expectations made of most of us. There is a right way of doing it, and it looks like this: mom, dad, 2.5 kids, and a dog all living in a house with a white picket fence. Be productive this way. If you are an artist you’d better find your voice. Its almost a rite of passage, a marker for our maturity, our fitness, and success. ‘Voice’ simply expresses this ideal version of ourselves. An aspiration. Others can be proud of you when they see that voice flourish. You can feel good about yourself when you find your voice. Its an achievement. Your voice is the important thing. It is your purpose. The seed growing into a unique tree is your destiny.
Okay, maybe no one says those exact words, but they are implied in so much of what counts for ‘mentoring’ in the arts. The mythology of ‘finding your voice’ is as pervasive (and often pernicious) among artists as finding a career and raising a family seem to be for folks in general. If you are not doing these things you are doing it wrong. THAT seems to be the implication. THAT seems to be the underlying pressure we are often forced to deal with. But is it fair?
We fit into society and its expectations when we have a career, a family, and a home with a white picket fence. Artists ‘fit’ when they have this voice thing. We are considered predictable, safe, even. Mostly it never gets questioned. Careers and families abound. The suburbs exist for it. Artists with unique, iconic, voices are the standard. Galleries and collectors demand it. So it is written. End of story.
But what if this is all invented? A fabrication not a necessity? What if its a choice for us, and not a demand placed on our shoulders? What if some artists don’t need to live their lives as seedlings? What if we were not given only this one destiny to aspire to? What if the expectation says more about the people expecting than the person of whom it is expected?
What if we were instead more like the garden in which some seeds are helped to flourish and others to get weeded out? What if our creativity is more an ecosystem where crops are nurtured and harvested, each in their own time, and are rotated according to their own design? Or whim? Or desire? Just because? What if the works of an artist were more an arbitrary and contingent collection from particular fields rather than branches of a single plant? What if our purpose was not to grow this one plant but to provide a space and life for many plants to thrive?
And what if our reason for doing it was not the expectation of fitting, pleasing our parents and society, but something else? What if we sometimes cultivate our garden just to watch the plants grow? What if some things will be attended to because we can harvest them for food? Others that we can harvest for their beauty? And still others are there for what they provide to the fellow creatures we share it with?
What if making art is less about leaving my mark than simply doing what I love?
We like to think that finding a voice matters for artists, and it does. Anyone who expects something from you expects it from your ‘voice’. They think they know you, and maybe they do. Occasionally we are that simple. What they want from you isn’t an unknown or mystery, but the stuff they already identify you with. You are not an enigma to them. They know what they want. So, deliver the goods.
Coincidentally, this same week a friend received an email that said this:
“Have you really stopped making the earthenware??? I am so sad! Your earthenware was so distinctly “you”.”
As soon as what we do becomes about having a voice, we set ourselves up. Making can be less about ourselves, paradoxically, and more to do with what customers want from us. Their perception. Our voice has become our stereotype. A trap. We are linked with that form of expression, and now that others expect it we somehow owe it to them. The obligation to have a voice is not always an obligation to ourselves, strangely.
Consider: Voice only matters to the extent that it is important to be known by that voice. If it doesn’t matter… it doesn’t matter.
Unfortunately, perhaps, reputation sometimes outweighs even the good deeds we do. Our reputation precedes us, and its sometime hard to shake. Even when we want to change, the pressure is there to conform to a past version of ourselves that others identify as “you”. Is it our choice or theirs?
And maybe we can’t always help ourselves. Maybe this is just who we are. Not everyone is all that complicated. Not everyone wants to change. Not everyone feels that need. Some artists we admire precisely because they are transparent and unsurprising. They never stray off-course but unfailingly give us what we want. They are not inspired in unpredictable ways.
Artists can be creatures of habit, like anyone else. Maybe sometimes we are set on a track and we just keep on going, like a train on its rails. We keep to the path regardless of the distraction, the obstacles, and ignore the collapsed bridge ahead. Maybe sometimes the carrot dangling in front of us is the sum total of our motivation. Or the lash at our backs. The momentum to stay the course.
We can be that simple. We use the same voice because we have only these few things to say. We don’t know any different. There’s nothing else we want to say. There’s nothing else to say.
If its somehow what “only you can say”, if we’re worried about that, we can come up short. We can fail to be unique. And heaven help me if I repeat what someone else has already said. I’ll keep to my path and you keep to yours, for Pete’s sake! Even if that means I can’t go wandering and might get bored. Do it for Pete.
But what about the folks who don’t care if its been done before? What about the folks who have other things to say? More than one thing? What about the folks who are not set on safe seeming career paths and raising 2.5 kids but have other agendas? Multiple agendas? Diverse agendas? Their own agendas? No specific agenda, even? Just figuring different things out? What about the folks that are distractable because they are simply interested in more things than can be contained in any one path, any one voice? What if its a choice each of us faces? Is that how we usually talk about ‘voice’? Are we being sufficiently honest?
If it is a choice, we must each answer for ourselves. It depends on what things matter to us.
What if the way you express things is less important than seeing what comes out? What gets said rather than how its said? And this could be anything? A surprise to us, even? What if we were more interested in expressing this one thing here, but something entirely different somewhere else? Contradictory if we so choose? Would voice be that important to us? Would our own uniqueness even matter? Is that what our lives are really supposed to be about?
What if what we mean by ‘voice’ is actually vice? An addiction. “Get hooked on voice.” What if the mantra were instead “Find your own vice”? Are the signature habits of artists like a monkey on their backs?
Consider: Sometimes it seems we treat artistic voice as an end in itself rather than as a means to an end (diverse means to diverse ends).
Some parents want their kids to grow up as doctors, other parents want their kids to be happy. Some want them to follow in our footsteps, others to make up their own minds.
What kind of parent, mentor, teacher, friend, artist (etc.) are you?
Stuff to think about.
Make beauty real!