No Cheating

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Is there any such thing as cheating when it comes to making art? I don’t mean copying someone else’s style or ideas, that’s a topic for another time. What I’m talking about is methodology. Is there any process, any use of materials or tools that shouldn’t be allowed? For example, is projecting onto a canvas to trace the image you are about to paint or draw considered cheating? How about using Auto-Tune to correct a singer’s voice to make it pitch perfect? What about using a computer to make a photo look like an oil painting? Or hiring a group of people to make your art for you? (I’m looking at you, Damien Hirst) Now, maybe some of these don’t seem so bad, but I’ve heard many negative opinions about all of these “shortcuts.”

Years ago, I believed that specific methods should be taken off the table because they weren’t “pure.” For instance, I was taught that since watercolor is a transparent medium, using opaque white was a total no-no! It was considered to be cheating — bad form — gauche. No, not gouache, I said gauche — oh right, yeah, I guess it is gouache too. #artjoke

I also heard that if you are using a computer to program a sequence of notes and/or sounds, you weren’t really being a musician. A friend once said this about me: Ron isn’t a musician, he’s an artist who experiments with music and recording as his art. I have to admit, I actually liked that description because it let me off the hook. It freed me up to play outside of what was traditionally accepted. It was much more fun to work like that, but for quite awhile I didn’t think I was making “real music”.

Well, that was a long time ago, and I don’t feel that way anymore. If you ask me now, anything goes (except for stealing). In fact, I think it is precisely this no-rules-at-all freedom that is art’s best superpower — free expression and pure democracy!

As an artist, you make your statement and then it’s up to the world to vote — yea or nay. It’s a perfect democratic feedback loop. Did you get fewer “likes” on your recent post? Welp, I guess the people have spoken!

Duke Ellington once said: If it sounds good, it is good. As an art viewer, that’s pretty much all you need to know. I love this point of view. It’s clear, and it gives the art-experiencer all the power to decide what is true.

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And of course, it’s completely subjective. If I adore that big blue blobby sculpture, and you absolutely hate it, then it both is art and is crap at the same time. We are both 100% right. This is very exciting. It’s the opposite of the way many things work in this world. For example, in science, if something is true, it’s true whether you believe it or not. The fact doesn’t become less so, just because some people choose to deny it.

If we create rules about what is and isn’t allowed in the making of artwork, then it stands to reason that a person unaware of these rules could be mistaken about whether something should be considered “good art.” Ridiculous! Without rules, there is no way for the artist to cheat, and thus the viewer has everything they need to come to a decision about whether or not the art is good. They have the way they feel about it.

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So if there are no rules, where do these fake art-making restrictions come from? Well, surprisingly, they mostly come from artists! For one, there is a particular fear that can rise up among the accomplished practitioners when a new tool or medium threatens to replace an old skill. In an effort to protect the value of their specialty, they may feel the need to find fault with the new technology. Wait, I spent my entire life learning how to paint landscapes and scenery, and now there is this brand new thing called a “camera?!” Well, uh, photography certainly will never be a valid art form.

Rules will also emerge when we try to quantify the value of a piece of art. We make comparisons. We look for inconsistencies, executional skill, compositional balance, etc. to help us judge what we are seeing. Don’t get me wrong, being critical might be the second most crucial part of the art-making process. Create, then critique, then create, then critique — it’s the best way to grow and improve. However, if you love The Shaggs, The Room or Vogon poetry, etc. don’t let anyone else tell you any different. For you, the final say is yours.

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After some time, aesthetic norms become ingrained in our culture. This is partially due to the limitations of our tools and our collective imagination, and partly to the fact that If you do something a certain way for a while, deviations seem like errors. When I first heard classical Indian music, it sounded so wrong to me. It seemed out of tune and weirdly structured, and the vocals felt a bit over-modulated. Surely this meant that the people of India didn’t know how to make good music, right?

Wrong, of course. You see, I was used to listening to other kinds of music — mostly 80’s pop/new wave. I didn’t yet know how to hear what I was hearing, but I was intrigued, I stuck with it, and now I love that music deeply. I changed my mind about whether or not it was “good.”

The opposite is true for me and the paintings of Mark Rothko. Boy did I dig his work back in the day! That was true art! But today, not so much. In fact, I find it to be almost repulsive — I’m not sure why. What I do know is you get to decide for yourself if it’s good art or not, and you can change your mind back and forth as you see fit.

And one more thing, your reasoning doesn’t even have to be logical! I like this dance because it reminds me of my Aunt’s dog — the one with the limp, or I hate this music because I can’t stand a mushy snare, or This movie must be great because my hip friends say it is. It doesn’t matter why we like or dislike the art, our feelings are our own, and the only way we can have this freedom is if we allow the artist the same carte blanche.

OK, maybe all this isn’t that surprising to you, but there is something profound right under the surface. We place such value in self-expression that there are millions of people, and massive industries and systems dedicated solely to the creation and celebration of this seemingly frivolous stuff! Stuff that has no function other than to trigger an emotional response in the viewer, and maybe just as importantly, to stand as a symbol of this freedom itself.

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Our plan is to drop a lot of odd objects onto your country from the air. And some of these objects will be useful. And some of them will just be odd. Proving that these oddities were produced by a people free enough to think of making them in the first place. — Laurie Anderson


/ / / / NEXT MONTH:
Now that I’ve gone on and on about how there is no such thing as cheating in art, and how it should be a complete and total free-for-all, I’m going to give you some reasons why you still might want to avoid taking those shortcuts. See you then!

Ron Lent1 Comment