“Art schools and art departments try to help students develop a “style” ( or “voice” or “manner” or “set of concerns”). That seems natural enough , but it also puts constraints on what can be done. Many artists that we call “great” did not have distinctive styles until they were well past the age when most students get their degrees.Rembrandt was still struggling with basic matters of technique. Titian was a virtuoso, but his later styles had not begun to appear. Other arts have similar examples. Robert Frost’s first book of poetry appeared when he was thirty-nine, and
Wallace Stevens when he was forty-three. Could anything useful have been said to them when they were eighteen or twenty? In premodern China, the idea of developing a style of one’s own was scarcely promulgated at all, and some of the greatest Chinese painters spent their entire lives emulating one predecessor or another.
In part the difficulty that teachers have with students who have many styles is that it seems they can’t be taught. If a student is approaching the M.F.A. and is still showing abstract work alongside realist pieces, or doing aluminum sculpture along with prints and holograms, it begins to look as if they haven’t learned how to choose. And that is because teachers naturally look for what is called in poetry a “voice”: a single identifiable set of concerns or styles, a character or a manner. The ideal student is in between a monomaniac who keeps to one style, and a schizophrenic who can’t decide on a personality. A student’s work has to be fairly coherent- otherwise it won’t seem “right”