Or, Why “Hacking” Ruins the Arts and Creative Communities

Let’s be clear: I’m down with DIY, or “do(ing) it yourself.”

I prefer to do my own landscaping and gardening, change my car’s oil, wrench on my bicycle. I love getting my hands dirty. I even enjoy building Ikea furniture. (So many hex keys!)

I consider these activities to be and/or require skills (yes, even for Ikea construction). And I think anyone and everyone should learn skills and share them to increase self-reliance, fortify beneficial patterning in our brains, build our appreciation for tradespeople and laborers, and save money.

But skills are not arts. Yes, I am drawing that line in the sand.

There are skills that can, most certainly, improve the quality of an artistic creation. Pablo Picasso undoubtedly knew how to manipulate paint on canvas. But so can a child. It is and was the vision of the artist, be it Picasso, Kahlo or Magritte, that elevates any work to a realm beyond adeptness or, even, mastery of a mechanical skill or technique.

As a writer and musician, I suppose it would be generous of me to subscribe to a “more the merrier” philosophy. Or at least make me more likable?

But I don’t.

Rather, sometimes, I am downright angered by what I’m seeing and hearing. I’ve noticed a popularization of the attitude that everybody is creative and, what’s more, that there is some kind of dormant artistic genius within all of us that is just waiting for the snow to melt, the sun to come out, the bugle horn to announce that it is time to emerge and propagate its springy glory into the world.

As Debbie Downer incarnate and prideful killjoy, I say: this is just inaccurate. This hoi polloi dogma is inherently damaging to the arts community, an already fragile and under-funded population. And there are definitely no breaks for the starving artist, when entrepreneurs and business hounds exploit markets with laughably simplified cult-leader tactics to convince the everyday Joe that he can be the next Jasper Johns, or at least cut plenty of corners, consequentially, cutting artists out of the equation.

For example, the book, The Artist Within: A Guide to Becoming Creatively Fit, woos its “literary” buyers with the message, “If you can spill paint, this book will help you turn your creative potential into reality.” Last I tried, it was pretty darn easy to spill paint – just pour it from a bucket to a roller tray, and you’re going to have drips requiring your attention. The speed and efficiency I now have when writing a song has taken over 25 years to develop; not an accidental achievement. It’s actually insulting to denigrate creative process by comparing it to being sloppy on a renovation site.

Similarly, Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, affirms, “You don’t need to be a genius, you just need to be yourself… creativity is everywhere, creativity is for everyone.” This New York Times Best Seller goes so far as to say that being artistic is equivalent to stealing and that “nothing is original.” While I agree with the idea that there is a collective consciousness that transcends time and space (if this author is alluding to that, at all, though my initial impression is that it’s questionable), there is an important difference between being blatantly derivative, and paying homage to artistic ancestry and its enduring legacies. Studied artists understand this difference; hacks do not.

Go on and think “outside the box.” Try new things. Feel inspired. Be a witness, an audience, a patron, a reviewer, a client, an applauder of the arts. I thank you for that.

What these publications are saying, however, is that you can pay $10, read for a couple of hours, and somehow come out the other end being a realized artist, like a plain-bellied Dr. Seuss sneech going through the star machine. As if you just needed a little dusting, perhaps a new needle or headshell, like an old record player in the garage, and listen folks, we’ve got music!

Speaking of which, the ever-popular, American Idol, espouses the idea that talent is out there, that it “is everywhere” – we just need a stage to display it. The show only requires that contestants are between the ages of 15 and 28, legal residents of the U.S., and aren’t under recording or talent contracts. So, basically, if you can “spill paint,” you can audition to be a pop star. Never mind training, or whether you’re using your voice safely enough to buy you at least some time before needing vocal cord surgery, (a fate shared by Adele, Keith Urban, James Taylor, Lionel Richie, Steven Tyler and Cher, to name a few). And of course, shows like The Voice, The X Factor, Dance with the Stars, So You Think You Can Dance, and many more, have spread this viral philosophy.

So, I guess, who cares about whether you know how to read music? Or write it? Or even write it down? Or know the names of all the pieces of a drum kit, or in what key your band needs to play?

It’s all a bit romantic, engrossing, and, ultimately, disrespectful, especially to those of us who do know how to do all those things as a result of training, discipline and countless, calloused hours of hard work. The blue-collared, practiced musician is getting overshadowed by a herd of popcorning, excitable youth with feeble talent, at best, and a lust for the possibility of getting rich quick.

On a more practical note, musicians, for years, have struggled to earn a living. Mozart wrote letters to his friends asking for loans, and wrote the equivalent of club music for dances at the court for extra income to support his epic masterpiece-making. Mediocre vaudeville performers not only survived racism hyperbolized for the sake of entertainment and an institutional legacy of misogyny, but earned barely enough to reach the poverty line. We can all name a musician from the 20th century who had their 15 minutes, and may or may not have crashed and burned, but the average guitarist or singer or French horn player can’t rely on musical income alone.

How can we justify propping up institutions that award ridiculous amounts of money to people with no actual prodigy, over those with technical skill and soul? Is that just the way of our world, now, and those opposed need to zip their lips and step aside?

Why don’t we just hold auditions for the next CFO of Apple?

Music isn’t the only arena that’s experiencing pandemonic devaluation. For a truly social, carnival cutout kind of experience, every town in America seems to have a “paint your own pottery” or “wine and paint” studio. One such Denver business’s (archaically designed) website poses the question, “Looking for a way to explore your artistic side but don’t know where to start?” (Perhaps they can start by learning about comma usage and the benefits of hiring a web designer…)

I know artists who wrestle with finishing a project, but none who are unable to start one. “The creative” wake up, live, breathe, and go to sleep creating. Sure, there are “blocks” that emerge, here and there, throughout the course of a full, artistic life. That is normal. But, if you consistently don’t know where to start with a creative project, then you probably should just pick up something else. There’s badminton. Or fishing. Or quilting and sewing – heck, you can even get patterns to follow the entire time, so you’ll know where to start and finish!

I just don’t get it. If you’re interested in pottery, take a real class from an artist, at a school or studio. If your town has one of these sip ‘n paint businesses, it has to have an institution that teaches pottery. Learn about the art’s history, how to use and work with sculpting materials, working with a wheel, the joys of getting your hands dirty, what a kiln is and how to use it. Pay some respect.

When did the chance to play “artist” become a tourist attraction? (Damn you, karaoke?)

And then there are sites like Canva. While I greatly admire the charisma and character of the company’s founder, Guy Kawasaki, this kind of software is like putting a water gun in the hands of an eight-year-old; we’re all going to get shot in the eye. This free design application is just the beginning of a long and ugly era of horrendous logos, websites, invitations, posters, you name it.

Welcome to the Age of the Amateur, i.e. the Hack Generation.

*Though it’s improper to inject a disclaimer into the middle of an article, I must do so here, as it relates to Canva. I do use Canva to assemble images for my blog articles and social media posts. These images are not used anywhere else, and I am not generating raw, creative assets with the program; I leave that work for qualified designers, which I am not.

The point is: a tool is just a tool. It requires a skilled user to access its full potential. I could buy a scalpel, but I promise you, you would not want me to remove a mole from your arm. I wouldn’t know how to hold it, twist it, how much pressure to apply. I’d be lost on understanding the science and cellular structure of the epidermis, or how to respond if I erred. Tools like Canva are no different. Do you understand composition? Color theory? Balance? Lines and perspective? Typography?

So, where exactly is the line? What, when, and how is someone an artist versus a non-artist? And what happens when we’re all accurately organized in our respective categories?

As a devout radical with personal politics, I suggest the following: just be honest. Have integrity. Just because you kissed a girl at a party in college does not make you bisexual. Having one Asian friend does not make you inherently non-racist. Sticking feathers up your behind does not make you a chicken. How are you living your identities?

Consult trained, committed artists for their opinions, perspectives and ideas. You know who we are, and if you don’t, look us up. Pay us for our work. Go to our shows. Refer us to your friends. Be an ally to the arts community. Admit that you need us. We’ll definitely need all you non-artists for plenty of things, from doing our taxes to unclogging the kitchen sink. Let’s each do what we’re passionate about, what we’re best at, and let others do the same.

Not everything needs to be “hacked.”

And, if you really can’t get on board with all that – if you just want to denigrate and dash – the staggeringly talented Gillian Welch alludes to another option:


Every day I wake up

Humming a song

But I don’t need to run around

I just stay at home


And sing a little love song

My love, to myself

If there’s something that you want to hear

You can sing it yourself.


The only thing I would add is: …it just won’t sound anywhere near as good.