“Good artists copy. Great artists steal.”
This quote is popularly attributed to the clearly “great” artist Pablo Picasso, although Picasso’s statement may have been wholly invented by Steve Jobs, who, in that case, stole Picasso’s entire spirit just to market his computers.
Either way, it was stolen in the first place from poet TS Eliot, who provably published this in 1920: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.”
Eliot himself may have stolen the quote from composer Igor Stravinsky, who supposedly said a very similar thing even earlier about musicians.
Now, the point isn’t that this meta-game of stealing a quote about stealing actually matters. Who actually said it is not the point. The point is:
Creativity Lie #3: The Originality Lie
Creativity demands Originality.
In this case I don’t have to marshall much of an argument. “Great” artists beyond just the three mentioned above have made it very clear. As far as documented statements refuting Lie #3 go, if the above semi-apocrypha aren’t enough, how’s this thorough expose from David Bowie, from his interview with Cameron Crowe:
Crowe: Do you consider yourself an original thinker?
Bowie: More like a tasteful thief. The only art I’ll ever study is stuff that I can steal from. I do think that my plagiarism is effective… The more I get ripped off, the more flattered I get. But I’ve caused a lot of discontent, because I’ve expressed my admiration for other artists by saying, ‘Yes, I’ll use that,’ or, ‘Yes, I took this from him and this from her.’ Mick Jagger, for example, is scared to walk into the same room as me even thinking any new idea. He knows I’ll snatch it.
In fact the entire eon of post-modern thought of which Bowie was involved with the roots is an era in which the basic Paris-in-the-20s team concept that great art is theft has become, rather than a dirty secret, often the clear point of the work, its driving ethos. The most popular and publically accepted example perhaps being the now mainstream remix ripoffs of hip hop. What top hip hop artist today hasn’t openly, proudly stolen from her forbears or even contemporaries? And why is it we so grudgingly resist and resent, in all other fields of endeavor, what we so happily embrace these days in music?
The quotes really do go on and on.
Graphic novel writer Steven Grant: “Every idea is a juxtaposition. That’s it. A juxtaposition of existing concepts.”
Playwright and entrepreneur Wilson Mizner: “If you steal from one author, it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many, it’s research.”
Illustrator Gary Panter: “If you have one person you’re influenced by, everyone will say you’re the next whoever. But if you rip off a hundred people, everyone will say you’re so original!”
Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie (who I still am in awe of the opportunity I had in my younger years to see him play live, thank God, thank you God, and who cares who he stole from, really): “You can’t steal a gift. Bird [Charlie Parker] gave the world his music, and if you can hear it you can have it.”
Pre-beat collage novelist William S Burroughs: “All writing is in fact cut-ups. A collage of words read heard overheard. What else?”
I don’t even know why I’m bothering to list all these quotes when Austin Kleon already made himself famous with his best-selling book Steal Like an Artist which already made the case for what The Atlantic calls “combinatorial creativity and the role of remix in the idea economy.” In fact, I’ve taken most of these quotes straight from Kleon’s book (saving you time and money perhaps).
The post-modern drive to openly reference other works that began in earnest in the days of Warhol perhaps reached its peak in the absolutely meta and comical work of Bansky that heads this post. (Or was it even Banksy who created it?)
The battle still rages today in the form of accusations of cultural appropriation, which could be phrased as a statement that even if originality doesn’t exist, creative theft must not cross lines of race, gender, sexual identity, class or other personalized identity issues. And I will leave any further discussion of that volatile topic for another post – or maybe never. The point is …
Well, the point is so clear it hardly seems worth making. Whether you are an inventor, an entrepreneur or a fine artist, if you are sitting around kicking yourself for not coming up with anything new, you are completely missing the bus, and your concept of Creativity is as effective for your chances at innovative success as using a stone wheel or spending most of your time guarding your fire so it doesn’t get blown out.
The point is well summed up by filmmaker Jim Jarmusch and hammered home by further portions of the same quotes we’ve already touched on, from Bowie and Eliot.
Jarmusch: “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination… If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent.”
Eliot’s famous quote continues: “Bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion.”
And Bowie has this to add: “Why does an artist create, anyway? The way I see it, if you’re an inventor, you invent something that you hope people can use. I want art to be just as practical. Art can be a political reference, a sexual force, any force that you want, but it should be usable. What the hell do artists want? Museum pieces?”
Adding that all up, we’re left with this lesson. Stop bleeding from the brain trying to be original, it’s a hopeless task. Nobody is going to applaud you for it, because you will never do it.
Instead, draw from everything you’ve ever experienced, including other people’s creations, to produce results that are authentic, unique, coherent, and useful. Interestingly, this is very close to Wikipedia’s basic definition of “Creativity” in the first place. And we all know that Wikipedia is the closest thing to the truth.
And if you think that’s a Lie, let’s check in with bloody MONTAIGNE, who preceded ALL these people by four or five hundred years! He was around during the Renaissance, at the BIRTH of the lie of creative originality. His own statement shows us that the lie had quickly taken root. Here’s what he had to contribute way back then, refuting his own desire to be original:
“I have here only made a nosegay of foreign flowers, having furnished nothing of my own but the thread to tie them. Certainly I have so far yielded to public opinion, that those borrowed ornaments accompany me; but I do not mean that they shall cover me and hide me; that is quite contrary to my design, who desire to make a show of nothing but what is my own, and what is my own by nature; and had I taken my own advice, I had at all hazards spoken purely alone, I more and more load myself every day, beyond my purpose and first method, upon the account of idleness and the humour of the age. If it misbecome me, as I believe it does, ‘tis no matter; it may be of use to some others.”
Hands down, I side with Montaigne, and Wikipedia. What thinkest you?