Steal Like an Artist
Austin Kleon calls himself a “creative kleptomaniac.” His bestselling book, Newspaper Blackout, is an artistic compilation of redacted newspapers. Kleon’s art involves blacking out certain words in newspaper clippings until only the words he chooses remain. It’s weird. It’s cool. It’s wildly popular. And as Kleon discovered, it’s actually totally unoriginal.
After his success, Kleon discovered that in total, five people throughout history had famously used his “original” idea of creating art from random words in the newspaper. He traced it back to the mid 1700s, where a neighbor of Benjamin Franklin read and subsequently published the newspaper by taking the top lines of adjoining articles and stringing them together before going onto the second, the third, and so-on.
This got Kleon thinking: “Every new idea is just a remix or mash-up of one or two original ideas.” But if nothing is new, then aren’t all artists thieves? Interestingly, many incredibly famous and innovative artistic minds say just that.
Picasso, Steve Jobs, even T.S. Elliott are all famously quoted as saying that good art is theft. But here’s the key: T.S. Elliott also denotes that good artists find something worth stealing, and expound upon it to make it better, or at least, different. Bad artists merely try to imitate what has already been done. (re: Plagiarism.) As any high school student knows, there’s no art to copying someone else’s stellar essay on the song of the Beluga Whale. Using that essay, however, to inspire and challenge your own composition, well Elliott would say that doesn’t make you unoriginal. That makes you smart.
The point Kleon, Elliott, Jobs, and Picasso are trying to make is that we need to recognize that everything we see and experience influences us. Only true narcissists would maintain their work took no roots in another’s inspiration. “You are a mash-up of what you let into your life,” Kleon says. So what do you let into your life? What influences you? Who influences you? What do you love enough to proverbially “steal” and make your own?
It’s not, as Kleon knows, actually true that imitation is flattery. “It’s actually: transformation is flattery. Taking the things you’ve stolen and turning it into your own thing.”
What art/artist has shaped and inspired you to create?
“Good artists copy, great artists steal.” - Picasso