When it comes to art, is it possible to ‘cheat’? (From Shakespeare to Ashlee Simpson)

In sports, the line is pretty clearly drawn: you inject a banned substance into your body – expanding your biceps but shrinking your genitals – and bang, you’re cheating. There is little debate about this either way.

The media goes into fake-outrage mode, fans follow suit, and the culprit is branded a cheater for the rest of his career (or what’s left of it).

But can an author, singer, or artist of any kind actually cheat? What is their equivalent of an anabolic steroid?

You can’t blame this one on the rain, dudes…

Back in the 80’s there was a pop duo called Milli Vanilli. Google them and you’ll no doubt laugh out loud – if not at their music, at their multi-colored jackets with terrifyingly-large shoulder pads.

This was a very popular act for a while, and they had some big pop hits circa 1989 (even winning three American Music Awards) but one fateful day the cat got out of the bag: it was revealed that on their albums they weren’t really the ones singing. Fab and Rob were just puppets – lip-synching on stage, and pretending they were the ones with the talent in the studio.

Six months and 27 lawsuits later they faded into obscurity, and their legacy became nothing more than a punch-line for late-night television hosts.

A more recent example of a high profile lip-synching disaster is Ashlee Simpson. Jessica’s little sister was on the fast-track to fame: moving millions of albums, selling out concert venues, and appearing on every mainstream outlet you can imagine.

Until one fateful evening in October of 2004, when she was performing with her band on Saturday Night Live.

Jude Law introduced her, she came out, and lip synched…to the wrong song. She stood on stage like a deer caught in headlights as her voice came from the speakers.


She inexplicably Irish-jigged off stage, and ultimately off the public radar.

You are not an artist, you’re a fraud…I think!

These aren’t artists…they’re phonies! They’re filthy cheaters! Right?

They’re completely illegitimate and should be ostracized from society. In fact, they should be banished to an island and forced to fend for themselves with nothing more than a tent and a bag of rice (hey, that would make for an interesting reality show…)

But what happened to their art? What they produced? Surely at least some of the people who purchased their CDs enjoyed them at the time. So what changed?

The sound coming out the speakers didn’t change. The authenticity did.

The artists are so intertwined with the art that we have a hard time making a separation in our minds. And if we don’t believe in the artist – if we feel like they’ve taken a shortcut – we don’t believe in their art.

Milli Vanilli? Ashlee Simpson? But these people are jokes!

True. But let’s take this concept a little farther. What if someone of massive historical significance was not who he, or she, said they were?

There has long been a conspiracy theory that William Shakespeare was not responsible for his own work – or at the very least has some assistance with a number of his works. This will likely never be conclusively proven one way or another, but for the moment let’s assume it was.

Would you tear up your copy of Romeo & Juliet? Would 12th Night and The Tempest no longer be relevant works?

Should educational institutions stop teaching his work?

After all, someone wrote this stuff. It’s been loved, and studied, and has inspired people for centuries – would the revelation that it was someone other than Shakespeare himself behind the quill be all that damaging? And what would it actually change?

If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.

Let’s face it, art is an illusion.

A professionally-produced song can be the result of 200+ takes and a lot of digital editing.

Even the best novelists have ghost-writers, multiple editors and script doctors.

And I know of a very successful comic book artist who pays talented people to craft the layouts, character designs and rough pencils before he even picks up his Wacom pen (and then does the finishes and takes all the credit).

Yet we read books, listen to songs and watch movies, often unaware of the real artists behind the art we’re enjoying.

And let’s face it, millions of people are willing to look the other way if they feel connected enough to the artist, even though they know that they’re ‘cheating’ in some way. What would Ke$ha have sounded like in the pre-auto-tune era? What would Hollywood stars look like if it weren’t for Photoshop and cosmetic surgeons? What would an unedited book read like? (If you’re wondering you can pick up one of the Twilight novels)

Every form of art has an available shortcut of some kind, especially when you have the money to afford one – but what’s acceptable, what’s not, and what constitutes cheating?

The end of this post isn’t going to be written by me – it’s up to you. Comment below and let the flame war begin. 😉

I love you guys…
Blake xox

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12 Responses to When it comes to art, is it possible to ‘cheat’? (From Shakespeare to Ashlee Simpson)

  1. Fair argument.

    Of course you can cheat with art. Chances are you’ll still be accepted, depending on who catches you for what.

    Ashlee Simpson was caught, and she’s still living the life.
    Milli and Vanilli were caught, then bam, the world hated them.
    Particular comic book artists, *Cough* http://uncannyderek.com/2010/12/19/my-land-or-your-land/ *Cough* may be caught doing what they’re doing, yet are still getting paid for whatever reason.

    Yes, artists can cheat.
    It’s sad. 😦

  2. Russ Rogers says:

    “Even the best novelists have ghost writers.” Name one. Seriously Franklin W. Dixon doesn’t count. Not a great novelist. I don’t think the Hardy Boys are very good characters even. So who?

    What is the most critically acclaimed ghost written novel?

  3. Old Ant says:

    Assuming your definition of illusion is the same as mine, art isn’t an illusion. Art brings out an emotional response in those who witness it. The response isn’t an illusion so neither is the art. No matter who created the art, the art can stand on its own.

    But since we like feeling again emotional responses we enjoyed before, we look to artists to create art that will draw that out again. And we feel slighted if it turns out the person we credited with the art didn’t actually produce it. It creates two injustices. One is that someone undeserving received credit, and the other is the person who actually deserved credit didn’t get it.

    I should hope your professional comics artist is at least micromanaging his staff, but I had no idea that comics work paid an artist enough to do that kind of outsourcing.

    And your statement that “even the best novelists” should probably read, ONLY the best-selling authors can afford ghost writers, multiple editors and script doctors.

    Just my thoughts.

  4. Brett DaSilva says:

    I think as far as music goes with the advent better technology makes it much easier to “cheat.” Tommy Shaw from the band Styx actually wrote a blog post about the Ashlee Simpson incident. He went on to say that true professionals are able to sing and play in less than ideal conditions. I am a live concert guy so I definitely can tell if an artist is cheating or not if they can’t pull the things they do on record off live. It definitely diminishes them in my eyes. I guess that is why it is so hard for me to get into new bands nowadays since everything now is so overproduced. You rarely every hear the real artist. Maybe I am just getting old.

  5. Great post. I also think a lot of fans don’t realize what’s really go on in comic art with certain artists. I can remember several years ago a fan at a convention panel chastising an American comic artist (who very rarely has a problem with lateness) about American comics being late while manga comes out with more pages in a book on a regular release schedule. The American artist informed the manga fan about the fact the 90% of the manga out there is done in an assembly line fashion but yet only why guy gets credit.

  6. dougie fresh says:

    In this age of Photoshop you’d be hard pressed to find any artist who doesn’t use some kind of digital “assistance” in their work. Putting aside the people who literally just trace or manipulate photographs , even the ones who do it “themselves” often get a ton of help from their computers. I do it all the time. I can create intricate detail by just turning certain designs into photoshop brushes and then stamping them all over the place. For certain angles I can get away with just drawing half an image and then creating the other half in the computer. And I can tweak and improve my work in countless ways so every panel is perfect. I don’t even technically draw pages anymore. I draw “elements” and just arrange them all together on a virtual page. And these elements can be (and often are) reused. Is it cheating? Sure. But cheating successfully takes skill too. Photoshop doesn’t make it so easy that any dummy can just magically transform himself into a world class artist or designer. There still has to be ability there.

    That being said, I am NOT a fan of the (now acceptable) practice of tracing photographs you didn’t take. Photography is an art too, and when you nip another artist’s posing, composition, and lighting and pass if off as your own work, you’re stealing, plain and simple. Poor Rob Granito. If only he had traced Annie Leibovitz photos instead of Jim Lee drawings, not only would he not be a despised outcast, he’d probably be Marvel exclusive. Shame on comic artists for that hypocrisy. Our art is sacrosanct but photographers’ work is ours to wipe our butts with?

  7. Never confuse art with money. Art is that lonely thing done by the obsessed in the white heat of creation, never knowing and often not caring if anyone will ever see it. Art isn’t about money or fame. It’s about telling the story or pulling the image, or the sound from the inside of your head. Artists suffer for their work. They pay a price for it. Alway know that.

  8. Javier Patag says:

    The very fact that Milli Vanilli, Ashlee Simpson, Rob Granito or even the authenticity of Shakespeare’s works are in question means that honesty in artistic work is still valued. The fact that this blog post questions how we can be so willfully ignorant and tolerant of cheating in creative work also shows that, to the point of questioning the hypocrisy of it all.

    I neither think that art is illusion (though it is artifice) nor do I approve of the idea that to do art you have to cheat. While using electronic, mechanical or hired working aids leads us to question if an artist is cheating, I think the right way to answer this is to ask how much of the original artist and his work remains in the art piece through the use of such aids. It’s one thing to use Auto-Tune to put in a vocal effect that the original artist is incapable of doing and it’s another to remove some sort of accident that occurred during a recording that has to be addressed with expedience. Similarly, it’s one thing to have another artist draw a building for you with you signing it as your own, and it’s another thing to ask an assistant to get a good reference photo of a building with you drawing it yourself from scratch.

    We must keep in mind that most aids are made to help the artist rather than to cheat the audience. Making a process easier is by no means cheating- if so, it would be like saying the only authentic paper artworks are those made from charcoal that the artist himself had to burn- rather than simply using pencils. For that matter, most aids allow artists to do things that were previously impossible (whether practically or literally) to do, giving us new avenues and visions of art.

    Going back to ML, AS and RG, we must not that they were directly caught and shown to have not done the work that they claimed to do. The performers of ML could not actually sing their songs. AS was caught lip syncing to the wrong song. RG copied and traced works, or even replaced signatures with his own. There’s hardly anything authentic left after these exposures. It was revealed that they couldn’t even do the works they claimed.

    When it comes to Shakespeare, it has to be proven that some works are indeed not his. Being fair to him, there has to be a presumption of innocence until he is proven guilty. If he is, then by no means should any scholar or student tolerate it. Artistically, we still have to recognize the power and beauty of his works but, morally, we have the duty to move the credit for those works to whoever it is actually due. As for Shakespeare’s works that are truly his, we have to let him have his due credit.

    Lastly: in regards to the recording artist who does 200 takes and uses digital editing, I must point out, alongside the questions I raised previously, that self-correction and revision are by no means cheating per se and are even also part of the creative process. Mistakes and unnecessary components are almost given in any first draft, whether it’s a painting, a song, or a novel. Improving, streamlining- editing- a work also entails creative planning and effort. While it’s one thing to pay someone else to improve the plot of your novel, having someone merely correct the misspellings and referential errors of your book is hardly dishonest- rather, it’s humble, practical and observant of standards of quality. A musician who completely remixes his own song carefully according to his artistic sensibilities in order to make it sound better is hardly deserving of criticism. To cite Twilight, note that the series is critically derided for poor writing despite its honesty and massive popularity- a first draft is a rarely the best draft.

    Please forgive me if this reply is rambling and doesn’t make much sense. I’m writing as honestly as I can from the top of my head. This issue is clearly not something painted in black and white but shows a variety of grays that must be very, very carefully sorted through in order to understand and judge properly, without anyone getting hit (or not hit) unfairly. For example, it’s not “all people who employ editors or digital editing is a cheat”- we have to look at how exactly they did it, by how much, and why.

  9. Jonathan says:

    I would have to say yes and no.
    Milli Vanilli. Ugh. Someone standing up lip-synching someone else’s voice, and passing it off as theirs, is just plain cheating. It’s basically lying to their audience’s face. However you package it, it’s dishonesty. If there were actual rules to performing, the way there are in sport, they would have been banned for the equivalent of having someone else pee in the cup for them.
    Lip-synching your own stuff is a different matter. Sure, some people will feel cheated if they are specifically looking for a live performance (let’s face it, you don’t pay £40 or whatever to listen to a cd you already have), but there are going to be times when either their voice isn’t up to the task on a given day, or setting up a genuinely live gig is a logistical problem. I would put this in the category of ‘grey area’.
    Then you have the other end of the spectrum.
    Well known that he drew inspiration for some of his historical tragedies such as Anthony and Cleopatra, and Julius Caesar from ancient authors. Fine. I have no problem with that, and here’s why:
    Hands up anyone who genuinely knew off the top of their heads that he was most likely referencing Plutarch’s ‘Lives’? And how many people have actually READ those works?
    One or two maybe. But I bet many, many more have read, or studied the Bard’s versions. And they are not direct rip-offs. And even THEN, Plutarch is being used as historical reference material, as opposed to pinching a story that Plutarch solely made up.
    Every artist, be it writer, painter, whatever, had to learn their craft from someone to one extent or another. Blake here will have read countless comics, whether good, bad or indifferent. Some of that is bound to have left an impression, or some subtle influences.
    Most, if not all, authors are avid readers and have great collections by other people. They too are doubtless influenced, but it’s not plagiarism.
    I could go on.
    But I won’t…sufficed to say (okay, I am going on a bit more)…that unless you are passing someone else’s work off as your own, then I would say you are not cheating. You might get accused of originality issues if it too closely resembles the work of others before you, but it’s still not ‘cheating’.

  10. Behind a good movie there is a whole crew (huge by the way), not just a director.
    But in the end of the day, people always remember the director.

    Behind a good song, there is also a crew, not just a singer.
    But in the end of the day, people always remember the singer.

    With books, the logic is still the same. With the difference that if you are a self published author you’ll have one editor, if so.

    I don’t think collaboration diminishes the value of the “art”, but not recognizing the hard work of all the people involved on the process is unfair and that’s why we have a “Acknowledgments” section on a book. Don’t say nobody reads it, I do.

    p.s: “What would an unedited book read like? (If you’re wondering you can pick up one of the Twilight novels)” lolll

  11. Mike Henry says:

    There is no cheating in art. Art is an expression where its value is produced by the person experiencing it. Those who perceive an element of cheating are insecure about their own art or just don’t understand the entirety of the situation.

    • Javier Patag says:

      The thing is that this blog entry is related to the Rob Granito scandal. It’s not explicitly stated here, but this blog update coincided with the break of the news and controversy. Granito is an art thief and con man who attended conventions to sell his “artworks”. His works were found to have been copied from other artists in one way or another with Granito claiming credit for the work.

      1. Traced works- he traced other artist’s artworks to create a piece with little difference between his copy and the original.
      2. Photocopies- he photocopied works and applied paint on them to make it look like he made it himself.
      3. Erased signatures- in addition to the previous two methods, he would also (or sometimes just) erase the original artist’s signature and put on his own.
      4. Bogus work history- Granito has claimed to have worked on Calvin & Hobbes and in the comic industry, dropping names to make his credentials appear, well, credible. However, many of the names he has dropped were either erroneous or easily proven to be false.

      The thing here is that Rob Granito isn’t so much creating or expressing art as he is copying and stealing credit for it. It’s very different for an artist to use a photograph as reference and then proceed to compose, structure, build and fill in the work based on the photo as it is to just photocopy a work and then apply details to make it seem like he did it.

      And you don’t have to take my word for it: http://www.legit-o-mite.com/

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