An Artist's Idiolect
What It Means To Have An Artist Voice


When we take in our favorite artists' works, somehow, we always know it is them. Whether we are familiar with the piece of artwork that well or not, there is an immediate recognition. We hear the traits of our favorite musician, the breaks of our favorite poets, the strokes of our favorite painters or visual artists, the beats of our favorite filmmakers or comics, the ambiance of our favorite architects, the taste of our favorite chefs. Something entirely unique to them almost breathes through the artwork.

What is going on actually can be put simply (though beneath the surface, the dynamic is more complex)—these artists have developed a voice. With certain of the performance arts, such as theatre, music (especially vocal music), comedy, live poetry, or with those media in a recorded form that still preserves the perfomance aspect, there is an actual physical voice that the artist or artists cultivate and hone. Saul Williams always sounds, literally, like Saul. Kate Blanchett always sounds like Kate. Robin Williams always sounds like Robin. Cesaria Evora always sounds like Cesaria. Even when people done different characters, or evoke disparate emotions, we are able to identify them through the contoured qualities of their voices, as we hear them.

With the plastic arts, where the artist/creator produces a distinct object of some kind—a sculpture, building, entree, composition, poem, painting, choreographed dance, and so on—there is still a voice evoked through this art. Perhaps in their heightened state of intuition, insight, and inspiration, they were able to so imprint the plastic form with a force and translucence that the characteristics of 'them' are impossible to miss. Perhaps they have mastered conventional form in their mediums so well that they have learned how to manipulate symbols, metaphors, and intuitive semiotics, in an original way. In any event, the 'artist voice' here is more conceptual than physical (compared to performance artists) but no less impactful.

What we have, then, is something that is at least peripherally related to the operations of language—what goes into making the artist voice is similar enough to what goes into making an actual human voice. Just as we are able to recognize the voice of an old friend over the phone, even after a number of years, we are able to say, "Yes, that is Hildegard von Bingen!" or "Yes, that is Scorcese!" or "Yes, that is Klimt!" There is a rhythm, a pattern of discreet choices, markings, embellishments, subject matter, phrasing, and more. It is almost—almost—as if each artist speaks her or his own language, a set of artistic recognitions all their own, like no other.

I say almost because it is in fact not a language that every great artists speaks, evokes, or implies. We might be tempting to think that is the case, but I argue that it is both more accurate and more helpful to artists to resist that temptation. Allow me to make my case through firstly, a brief explanation of I mean by 'language', as well as through correlating concepts—that of 'dialect' and the less commonly known 'idiolect'. My conclusion is simple: great artists are able to fashion a distinct idiolect through their artwork; so distinct, in fact, that these voices carry the weight of so much more. To make such a voice for your own artwork, it takes hard work, patience, courage, and willingness to accept feedback to develop an artist idiolect—but it is also entirely doable by those who are commited to the task. An artist voice is within reach of anyone, if they want it. I believe this firmly.


Let me start with the most general sense and work my way to the particular. In the general sense, a culture of people speak a language. I use the broad definition: all the vocal sounds, words, and the ways of combining them common to a particular nation, tribe, or other speech community. A language is a collective creation, by definition conventional in the largest sense, and quite abstract. This means people don't invent language "all their own"; it is by defintion impossible to do so. Langauges are the product of epochs. Nobody "invented" the langauge of music, the language of film, the language of sculpture, the langauge of drama, the language or architecture, and so on. Langauges in art are ever-evolving, to be sure, precisely because every new work of art enters into the existing culture of preceding artworks, this culture in large part determining the language of that discipline.

Now, witihin languages and within cultures, people speak various kinds of dialect. Compared with a language, dialects are more localized, but still have the general patterns and characteristics of the overall language. People who speak different dialects, such as the various Italian dialects, can still foster mutual communication to some degree (though sometimes not). Importantly, people who speak different languages cannot ever (without quite a bit of canyon crossing). A dialect is common to regions, social groups, occupational groups, and so forth and so on. A single language might have a hundred or more dialects. In the world of art, dialects manifest as collectives of artists follow common practices. Composers in Renaissance Europe used various choral dialects; for exampe, Palestrina, Victoria, Gesualdo composed distinctly but similarly, and the similiarity is the common dialect of their voices. Golden Age Hollywood directors seem far more similiar than different when compared to French New Wave film directors; in each case, the artistic cultures fostered dialects.

All that is readily seen, but there is yet another more particular level of communication, and that is of course that of a single human being, and what he or she says. And here we reach the intersection of regular human communication and that of an 'artist voice.' For what a single person speaks is an idiolect. Every man, woman, and child speaks their language in their own way. We bring our personal characteristics, our own style, to our usage of our dialect. People within a dialect don't all sound the same, and this is because we each create (consciously or not) our own idiolect. Our idiolect unfolds as our grasp of dialect unfolds. Idiolect is the 'dialect of the individual', thus defined as part of something you share with others. The condition of partness is a crucially important aspect of an idiolect.

You might say, "I want my soy milk." Another might say, "I gotsa to have my soy." Yet another, "Soy milk is my thing, sista." And another, "Soy's the bomb-ditty!", or "I prefer Soy", etc., as infinite as there are potential people in a culture. Like langauges and dialects, idiolects as well are ever-changing, because none of us speak now as we did 10 years ago. An idiolect is our bag of vocabulary. It is our voice, a living tradition expressed microgenetically through every person who speaks. Our idiolects are by turns preconventional, conventional, and postconventional. That is to say, sometimes (and sometimes not) idiolects follow the established rules/tendancies of the language and dialect. Idiolects in their finest form are postconventional, and are pure poetry. It is here where we feel differences between Palestrina and Gesualdo, between Altman and Spielberg, between Warhol and Lichtenstein, and inumerable other instances where common practices between artists still yield different artist voices.

The important point of this parallelism between spoken voices and artist voices is that our artist voices come from an exchange with other people, no exceptions. Just as spoken voice is impossible in isolation, so is the case with our artistry. We do not, and cannot, develop our artist voices in a vacuum, at least if we hope to be comprehensible to others. A voice, an idiolect, is necessarily a part of a dialect (necessarily part of a language). Dialect comes from "dia + legein"—literally, 'between-talk'. It is soul to soul. The smallest human unit is two. It takes two to tango, and two to have any kind of communication. In order for you to have a voice, you must be around others, to play and bounce off of.


So how does this shed light on where we get out artist voices? Where does the sound of our artwork to the larger world come from, that which naturally cues people to say, "yes, that is so much like so'n'so's artwork." Where does this voice come from?

We get our artist voices by being part of a culture. All great artist voices originate in a community—they arise within gatherings, tribes, and social environments, every time. Sherman Alexie said that all great art is tribal. There is no other way. Artwork's larger resonance in culture begins in groups. The resonance of our work grows in relation to others' artwork, in the nitty gritty sexy juicy of an artist community. Our artist voice comes from this mix. Our artist voice is our own idiolect, extended from experience-fed consciousness into the ordered form of the artwork, and a part of a larger dialect that is made of the overall syntax of our discipline.

This means that in addition to whatever parts of our path towards gaining experience are solitary (and some parts are, necessarily), we have to dig into our local artist communities; this is education in dialect. We have to really invest in the knowledge of our wider dialect that makes up each artist's discipline; this is education in dialect as well as language. It is no large assertion to say that artists no matter the discipline, love their discipline, and love participating in it. This underscores the importance of deep acquaintance with the general language that music speaks, that sculpture speaks, that cuisine speaks, that adornment speaks. You tell me what the language of your medium sounds like. To me, music speaks the language of life itself, birth to death in the duration of the composition.

However you describe the language of your discipline, and however well you know the dialects 'spoken' within it, the more you can enunciate other perspectives beyond strictly your own, the better crafted your art objects will be. Friendship with the idiolects of the masters in your medium means you have invested quite a bit into the creation of your own. The more you know about others' perspectives and idiolects, the more you turn on your intuition with the confidence that it speaks from something truly genuine. To know about the "ins and outs" of others' artwork is to be fluent in the overall language of your artform. This is the reason to imitate (to whatever extent is appropriate) before or even while you create originally: there is no other way to bring awareness of your discipline's dialect all the way into your body. We learn spoken idiolects the same way. Mental acquisition requires bodily support, else concepts fritter away as replaced by other concepts.

In this way, to create our artist voice/idiolect is a process of voice by negation. You learn others' idiolects, then burn them to make your own (thus informed in the process). You can imitate small and medium-sized bits of others' patterns, towards an eventual feeling-into of your own style. If there are ten major artists in your medium, learn how each of those ten artists fashioned their idiolects. What are the details particular to each artist? Where did they choose, so to speak, to fill in the space on the canvas? Can you, even, memorize parts of their idiolect, to the point of being able to copy their work naturally and without much thought?

Going through this imitation process with several artists brings a relationship with your discipline unlike any other. And here's the open secret: the makings of your own voice is what is left in the negative space, how none of the other ten communicated, or perhaps only where they pointed towards but never followed thoroughly. "Not this, not this, not this, etc." When there is nothing left to 'not', then there you are with a voice. It takes patience. It requires commitment. It is a practice of study, and of course plenty of experimentation. But when you get there, you earn the right to just speak through your artwork. And you are not just in the same cultural relation as the masters, but you are seeking what they also sought.

Realize that your voice is going to be particular to you, and allow the particularities of it to arise, naturally and according to what feels right. Indeed, you must patiently and dutifully support their emergence, like sprouts from delicate germinations. Be confident in how it emerges. It might surprise you.

No, it will surprise you. You might think 'oh, that's nothing interesting.' But anything earned through negation is notable. Your river's waters may seem mundane, but if filtered through your experiences and effort towards originality, they aren't mundane whatsoever, at least when perceived by audiences. In music, for example, you can create little ideas, or motifs (as if little words and phrases), and use these in your compositions like you would in paragraphs and chapters of a book or story. Your voice, your idiolect, comes from this kind of motific development, over time. You kneed these motifs, alter, tweak, bend, stretch, and expand these into a composition. Do this often enough with recognizable motifs, and you are well on your way to a composer's voice.

Ask others to take a look at your artwork, and what they get from it. Believe them if you trust them. If they treat artwork with intimacy, as if a friend, and realize that each and every detail, large and small, is present in the best works of art for a reason, then you know you can trust them. For this is the proper aesthetic development that particularly resonates with artists looking to fashion their own artist voice. Feel your way through, and latch onto the ideas that excite you and them, bodily, mentally, or spiritually. A spark is all you need to feel. Any charge hooks you into your electrical river of creativity. The voice of art is primarily intuitive. The audience reaction of "whoa!" is shorthand for a slew of responses he or she doesn't have the words for.

And all in all, consider that your artwork production, metaphorically, as a construction of not a brand new language, or a dialect, but an idiolect. Perhaps installing that limitation will liberated, and remove pressure to Create An Entirely New Language. In truth, languages and dialects are necessarily impossible for any one person to create. Both are the result of people making their idiolects immediate and resonant! So breathe. Enjoy knowing what the outer limits of what is possible are. This is a more playful and inspiring place to be. And it is much less stressful. You don't have to reinvent the wheel in order to have as resonant an artist voice as anyone has ever had. Just continue to roll with your own ideas. And—boom!—a voice like Chuck D.


MD
Chicago, Illinois
November 2005


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