This a term that comes up from time to time in assessment criteria at OCA and most other art schools and has been the subject of a thread in the Student forums.
The difficulty is that it is one of those phrases that is extremely difficult to explain even when one has quite a deep understanding of what it means.
Perhaps I should start off with some of the things it is not. It is not to do with ‘style’ (whatever that might mean); it is not to do with technique, at least not to do with a particular technique; it is not even to do with originality in the sense of doing something that no one else has ever done.
In the end though it may be that it is to do with making work that is recognisably yours.
What does this mean? It is about finding what it is that concerns you, what are you trying to understand/explore in making work? As an artist you will be making work that asks questions not giving out answers; you will not be making direct communication with the viewer in terms of meaning; rather you will be offering your visual questions and investigations to the viewer in the hope that the work itself will give them something to think on and create some meaning with.
“But,” I hear many say, “surely it is the techniques that are the recognisable thing? Look at Picasso.” To which I reply, “Which Picasso? The one of the Blue Period? The Analytical Cubist? The Synthetic Cubist? The printmaker?” My point is that it is the content, the interests that distinguish Picasso’s work overall; he chose the appropriate technique to make the work that was relevant to him at the time.
Once you have sorted out the sort of things that you want to say then you will begin to search around for an appropriate way of saying it…not the other way round.
I would suggest that what the OCA expects from its students (in common with every other college that I have had anything to do with over the years), is a search for something to say, for areas of interest and concern during the first level and then during the second level an increasing development of some sort of individuality in the work made, some solidifying of the ‘Ah yes, this must Jo Skroggins’ work’ moments. Then in the final level a growing confidence in the work being made, a consolidation both in the practical and theoretical investigations leading to a body of work that is truly that student’s and no other’s.
It is important not to go out to specifically search for a personal voice; rather you should search for you concerns, your interests, your research topics (call them what you will). You do this through reading and looking as well as thinking; from poetry and novels as well as music and the theatre; from visiting contemporary galleries and reading theory. In other words from immersing yourself in the world of contemporary arts and thought. It is, I would suggest, near fatal to restrict yourself to the medium that you work in most and absolutely fatal to restrict yourself to work that you ‘like’.
Along with many if not most tutors I rarely talk directly about a student’s personal voice in my reports simply because I know how badly understood the phrase is by most students. It s one of those phrases that we assessors understand and find a useful shorthand for so many things so it is a useful phrase to have in assessment criteria, criteria meant for assessors rather than for students.
As Clive points out in the forum discussion (I cannot recommend reading the thread highly enough…indeed that goes for all forum threads; read them and join in!), our aim as tutors is to encourage “ the development of ‘personal voice’, i.e. making work that’s conceptually sophisticated, personally motivated and contemporarily convincing.”
Image Credits: OCA student Katherine Jasven and Anthony Carey