Yep, I’m a Cheater.

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Dear Readers,

I love technology, generally, and the things it has done for us. But technology has created an interesting problem as it relates to cheating. Some of us are old enough to remember when calculators were forbidden from math class because you needed to know the steps instead of just getting to the answer, right? Now, computers are so ubiquitous in our lives that *not* using a calculator seems like the poor choice. Are we cheating somehow when we use the calculator?

If the calculator example doesn’t hit home for you, how about the last time you went to a music concert? (You know, back when we could still do that.) Or, honestly, to any event. Were you one of the people recording it on your phone to never watch it again? Were you one of the people silently hating the people with their phones out recording this once-in-a-lifetime event?

That is technology enabling people to experience an event in two different ways and we are left wondering if one of those people is cheating themselves. Either they didn’t record the event and can’t relive the moment later or they didn’t pay enough attention to the current moment and missed out on some emotion. I certainly can’t say which approach is right. Having grown up in a different time, I don’t record these events because I just want to be in the moment and know that I’ll never watch the recording anyways.

So what does this have to do with art? Well, technology has enabled artists in the same way and I’m left wondering – what is cheating anyways?

For a very long time, I subscribed to a purist attitude on this. Consider photobashing – or the concept of taking a photograph and blending it into your digital artwork in order to add textures or specific elements to your final art. I hated this concept. I felt like, “Are you an artist if you didn’t really draw the thing yourself?” It felt like cheating because it seemed like it removed the necessity of traditional art skills.

Fast forward many years and here’s a layout in one of my Logic Pro projects:

Logic Pro Screenshot

What you are seeing here is three different piano instruments overlaid in order to produce the song that I was going for. You can see my sections that I’ve labeled with specific chord progressions (3->5->6 or 1->1->5->1->1->6) that I reused. You can see where I loop parts and so on. This is very much a work-in-progress so it’s rough, but as shown above it sounds like this:

This is my cheating.

This is me taking shortcuts to achieve the desired end-goal because I finally came around to a different view which you can look at in one of a couple ways:

  1. Technology enables me to compensate for my otherwise mediocre skills; or
  2. Technology enables me to take shortcuts to get to my end goal and thereby saves time.

If I had to follow a more traditional route, I would have to pound out each of these parts on a proper piano and when I landed on something I liked – write it out in note form. Then I’d have to add in each part I wanted to play to those sheets of music. Eventually, I’d land on the same composition and then I’d have to play it and practice until I was adept enough at playing it error free – I could record it. (To be fair, the recording process could have multiple takes with a sound engineer taking the best parts of each take in order to produce the final recording. So, still kind of cheating!)

Past me, from so many years ago, would have considered this cheating and said: “How dare you call yourself a musician or artist!” Today?

Well, today, I see it as a more efficient workflow that helps compensate for areas where I’m not so great but most importantly, allows me to land on a final composition faster. I hit the record button multiple times and capture my notes in MIDI form. I listen through it, pick out the parts I like the most for the feel I’m going for, and I create a composition. I’m still doing the work to create a finished product.

I also get to take advantage of the process. Accidentally hit an E note when I meant E flat? Fix in post processing. Accidentally get off beat when you didn’t mean to? Quantize it in post processing. Having troubles playing left and right hand pieces at the same time? Play them separate and combine them in post processing.

Quite honestly, I’m not sure it’s much different than using samples and loops in music which happens plenty. But taking these shortcuts, cheating, leaves me with an important question. If you can cheat your way to a finished product, what makes you an artist?

Really, we have to answer that for ourselves.

I think it’s different for everyone. For me, I consider myself an artist because I practice hard and work at it every day. When I’m not producing something of my own, I am reading about other works or researching information that might make me better. One of the most telling things is that when you look at my desk, you won’t see a single book related to my day job but you will see lots of instruction books and printouts related to drawing, painting, and music.

Feel free to tell me what makes you an artist via email or at Twitter!

Sincerely,

Achira

P.S. Another way to think about whether or not you are an artist is simply this: are you creating art? My partner once relayed a quote to me that went something like, “You are a writer as long as you are writing every day.” If you are doing the art you enjoy, actively pursuing it in your life, then you get to call yourself an artist regardless of your commercial success status.