2. Is emphasis on content and finding personal voice important?

Home Forums Dialogue Portal Dialogue Portal: Part I 2. Is emphasis on content and finding personal voice important?

Viewing 15 posts - 1 through 15 (of 22 total)
  • Author
  • #3856

    In most studio art programs, there seems to be a lack of emphasis on content and little effort to help students find their personal voices. As a result, many students – especially women who tend to gravitate toward personal subject matter – are left stranded. In contrast, my pedagogy, as outlined in “Institutional Time”, stresses the importance of every voice and explains how to aid students in discovering and expressing their own content. Do you think that this is important and if so, how can this approach be widely integrated into studio art curriculum? #JCvoices


    At the moment, too many young people are having the types of experiences outlined by a film student in an essay that she shared with me in 2013.

    Last year, I was one of five females in a university film class. The class was a script writing course. We were sharing our scripts and our stories and one of the students had read his 12-page script aloud to the class. His script failed to pass the Bechdel Test. For a movie to pass The Bechdel Test, it must contain a scene in which two or more named female characters have a conversation about something other than men. It also contained character descriptions of sexual objectification and lacked to showcase women as anything more than the Other in relation to Simone De Beauvoir’s definition of how women are othered. We were taking turns providing feedback to his work and I raised the question of writing as a means of exposing a sexist culture and how this differs from writing that perpetuates blame the victim rhetoric. When I used the word sexist to describe some of the scene choices made within the plot of the film, the students in the class became hostile toward me. Many students defended his choices, saying that they were comedic and clever. They were unable to entertain any criticism revolving around female characters and their depiction in film and the environment became so uncomfortable that I ended up leaving class early. Later I reached out to the professor and he apologized for the class’s behavior and his inability to conjure an academic discussion of female roles within film. He said what he found most disturbing was the amount of female students who defended his choices of female depictions within the script. From my perspective this was upsetting because he did not understand the culture that we live in which would teach men and women to write such characters. What was even more distressing was the fact that he did not recognize his role and ability to shape and change sexist attitudes and practices of students and future filmmakers.

    Although this example is related to an incident in a film class, in “Institutional Time: A Critique of University Studio Art Education” Judy Chicago gives many examples of such treatment in the visual arts as part of her larger critique of current art education, particularly as it relates to studio art. In her book, she has called for a dialogue aimed at transforming art curriculum so that it becomes more content-based and reflective of the changes in consciousness, concerning gender and diversity, that have taken place over the course of the last thirty years.


    Personal voice is highly important especially in Art today. Those who came before us are special because of this personal voice which brings the invention of new things within pieces. Nowadays we reinvent the wheel; it’s hard to invent something new but putting an emphasis on personal voice can help an artist move toward their own personal inventions. An emphasis on content and finding personal voice is important because content and personal voice is the umbrella of what is unique to that specific artist. It is the start of what is to come and the rest falls underneath. Emphasis on these two things, a person’s personal voice and content of choice, are important because without nurturing and helping the emerging artist grow from their own ideas the professor may be unknowingly forcing the emerging artist to fall into a line and become a carbon copy “artist.”


    In my personal experience, I feel that the studio classes I took in my undergraduate program helped me with finding my voice as far as content was concerned, but not before I learned the importance of the formal aspects of art making. I feel very strongly about eventually letting the student’s voice be the main concern of the student/teacher conversation, but there are also things that need to be taught before-hand in order for the student to properly portray their voice. Color theory and 2D design are two major concepts that I learned that didn’t necessarily help to give me a voice in the design projects I was working on at the time, but the concepts that I learned helped me to express what I wanted to in my art making later on in a sophisticated way.

    While, in theory, I feel that a gender-neutral, content-based curriculum would be great for studio art classes, it would be hard to implement such a curriculum so abruptly. Such a change in the curriculum would take time, especially where faculty and text/learning material is concerned. I feel that students first coming into a studio art program are ready to be open-minded, empty vessels that are just waiting to be filled with knowledge and experience. The teachers, however, are using a curriculum that is male-oriented (whether they realize it or not), and currently it is up to them to change the subject matter of their teaching to one that equally incorporates artists of all genders, races, nationalities, and so forth.

    As far as helping a student “find their voice” is concerned, what is the point of teaching a studio class if not to help people express themselves through artistic means? It blows my mind that students may not be given a choice as to what subject matter they choose to have in their work, after they have basically grasped the concepts of color and design. Although I agree that formal aspects of art making are very important, the content of a work is equally important, and students need to know that. As educators of (hopefully) future artists, you have to take the student’s idea(s) and help the student to formulate them into a cohesive, sophisticated body of work that has meaning and purpose.

    Judy Chicago

    That’s all very well about teaching skills. But in my recent book “Institutional Time”, I talk about visiting Moore College of Art and Design and discovering that the students were completely baffled by how they were supposed to make the transition from ‘assignments’ to personal expression. How do you propose helping students do that?


    Well, that transition is very difficult to make, especially for a student that has been a student since they were five years old, or even younger than that. I know when my senior year of undergraduate work came around, I was given more freedom, not only to choose my content, but to choose how much work I would produce, the medium in which I worked in, and so forth. I was still given a time frame, however. I chose to look at this as my transition point, almost like a practice round for hanging my own show before I was put out into the real world to try to “make it on my own”. I feel like this experience helped me not only discover my own voice, but it helped me to stand up for and believe in my work, and state my independence as not only an artist, but an adult.

    Many students, in my personal experience, go through this “what now” moment when they are either coming to the end of their degree or have just graduated. I feel that, especially in the last year of study, students need to be given practical guidance and PRACTICE (or some type of simulation) in a structured, caring environment full of people who will help and support them, so they can get a feel for how the real world artist experience is going to be without being afraid to make mistakes. It seems to be hard to find your voice on your own and make that voice into art, which is why I feel that teachers should stress personal expression in content right off the bat. But after school is over, and you can technically express yourself any way you want to, I feel that there still needs to be structure in art making, at least as far as time is involved.

    I like to think that ideally, one could just replace the word “assignment” with “personal goal” and that changes the mindset of the artist from “student” to “artist”. If an artist plans on ever exhibiting work, they have a deadline to make to be able to put their work in a show. This seems to be similar to having a final portfolio deadline, in my opinion. If an artist were to set their own time frame to get a certain amount of work completed to show in an exhibition, it seems like it would be similar to a student setting up their own time frame to get a certain amount of work done to show in their portfolio review. It may not be as simple as changing out words, but if students are given the right mindset in the first place, the transition may not seem so bad.

    Judy Chicago

    Do you think that this is what happens in most university studio art programs? In my experience, they are not.


    In my experiences in the studio arts, I have found that after coming up against many walls of resistance in my process of trying to locate myself, what ‘broke open’ for me was SEEKING women and feminist perspectives. By this I mean that when I hit a very hard time in my personal life and identity, I thankfully ‘fell into’ the office of a feminist studio art educator who gave me perspective and support by validating my feelings and experiences up until that moment of how I got to where I was. It was in this instance, that I was able to find my own gumption to return to the studio space and resist everything that I felt I had been and was perceived as. It was from this space in particular that I believe marked something huge in my identity as artist. I started to develop my voice and expression. I did this by working hard, but also knocking on every door of a female art professor and soliciting support and guidance. I felt that this experience (s) taught me that I have to advocate for myself, that I have to seek out the company of who I want to help me and mentor me into becoming who I want to be. I say all of this to say that I have tremendous respect for the creative process. I have learned to trust the creative process, and I have learned this by the women that I have been fueled by. They validated me in a way that had never occurred in my life. Personal voice and content, although a touchy subject by some artist, I have come to understand that there is an art and process of how our psyche, heart and creative process interact and are exposed. I believe it is of utmost importance.


    I think “finding personal voice” is what art is. It is the discovery of yourself through visual expression. Art classes simply teach you a way to do that. Art classes should teach you a variety of ways to express yourself, providing you with opportunities to find out who you are, how you want to be portrayed, and why.


    Personal voice and the emphasis of content are very important in the creation and teaching of art. Without content, art is meaningless. Personal voice is what makes an artist unique and stand out from the rest. While it is useful to have a broad range of style and techniques, the artists who are most successful are generally the ones who have developed a distinct voice and a unique style. The most influential works of art are the ones that send a message or evoke emotions in the viewer.


    It is important to emphasize personal voice because as an artist, you constantly are trying to find your voice and a way to express yourself that is unique to you. Your personal voice helps set you apart from other artists and find your particular style/technique so I do think it is important for there to be an emphasis on this.

    Beth Clayton

    I do believe that content is important. There is something to be said for making dada style art because it gets creative juices flowing but I think the most educational part about making art is having a concept, following through, allowing it to grow and change, and bringing it to a realization.


    Hello all, this is Bill Catling, I teach studio art in Southern California, in my 35th year in the classroom and I am still finding new ways to engage students in the process of “finding their voice.” I believe that all assignments from entry level skill building courses to upper division cap stone experiences can include content and personal voice. I have developed a very simple plan that has great flexibility in both viewing work and making art.

    The idea is simply a five level organizer:
    1. Idea, content, concept or set of possibilities
    2. Material(s) selected to work with
    3. Transformation of the materials
    4. Presentation
    5. Intended audience

    Critique then becomes a conversation about how the idea interacted with the selected material and what decisions were made in regards to how the material was handled. Presentation is explored as to how it impacted the way the work was received and then the artist gets to explore who their audience is through discussion and peer interaction. The student gets to isolate how the critique can be applied by giving the comments specific application in each area and the “success” of the work can be examined in light of the different aspects of the organizing tool.

    Another important element is to have someone else in the class take notes during the critique so that the artist can focus on listening and go back over the comments later and make decisions on which critique voices to respond to in either altering the work or in light of approaching the next work of art.

    Lastly to assist students to develop their own voice it is essential that they ask for specific critique lenses to be applied in order to direct the comments to things they are concerned with. It is not enough to just say it is artist centered but the artist needs to be intentional about how they want the work to be evaluated, ie formal, psycho-analytic, structural, post-structural, post-colonial, feminist, content based, series or body of work, etc

    Each critique lens will elicit different responses and provide the work with alternate ways of engagement. I have been practicing this approach since I had the privilege of working with Judy on the 2003 Envisioning the Future project and benefitted from the pedagogy she shared with us as small group leaders in the larger project.

    Thank you Judy!

    susan duby

    I teach at a community college and we are just now getting together an art program. I hope to elevate the level of conversation between artist and student in my studio practice. This is a great help to see others who are trying to accomplish the same types of things.

    Judy Chicago

    I am very glad that the dialogue portal is valuable to you. That is one of our goals.
    Judy Chicago

Viewing 15 posts - 1 through 15 (of 22 total)
  • You must be logged in to reply to this topic.