Reprise: Bad Artists Copy. Great Artists Steal.

In light of recent posts about artistic license and copyright (Are We Pinning Yet? and More Pinning by Liz Kalloch), we thought we’d reprise Gwyn Michael’s post from June 2011 for yet another perspective.

For those not familiar, the title is actually a quote by Pablo Picasso and has to do with drawing inspiration from something while putting your touch on it. I guess he should know. Picasso is often attributed as the Father of Cubism when in reality he and Georges Braque worked together on the theory and were directly influenced by Cezanne, who had begun breaking up the picture plane in less abstract ways.

I have been sitting on this topic for some time now and a recent post from Bridget Pilloud brought it to the forefront. Bridget’s post is about outright stealing, using another’s content as one’s own. As a visual artist this is a sticky topic for me.

The thing is, I was accused of stealing from someone that used to be a friend. I had created some new photo collages based on an idea I had in college, after seeing her do something that reminded me of it. My images and hers were very different but both were made from buildings, different buildings (of course, no one has made art from buildings before). I credited her as an influence and she accused me of stealing outright. This, by the way, all happened on flickr where actual stealing is a regular event.

I don’t agree with her and I did not take it personally, but it made me think long and hard about how we are influenced. I could have turned it around and claimed she stole my college idea which was influenced by I don’t know what at that time. Instead I let it go, but the concept has been nagging me since.

What is originality in art?

In this age we are so bombarded with imagery (artistic and not), music, ideas, and plain old stuff that it is impossible for me to entertain the notion of true originality. That is not to say I can’t be uniquely creative in my interpretations, but that I have been influenced is not a question. The image above contains a painting by Piet Mondrian on the top left, one by Van Gogh top right, one of mine from 2003 bottom left, and a photo collage of mine from 2009. Trees all, but not the same, although there are comparisons one could make: the use of blue, red, and gold, the textural qualities, the patterns of branches. While I love Mondrian and Van Gogh’s trees, I can’t say I had either in mind when creating my trees, yet they are in my memory bank. My point is, how can we know how much is coming through as collective experience?

Is art simply a manifestation of memory?

Are “original” concepts simply the rearrangement of our perception of what we have seen, heard, felt, and experienced?

Seth Godin has this to say about originality:

I get two kinds of mail about this. One group points to organizations or individuals who are stealing my ideas. “Stop them!” they say. The other doesn’t hesitate to point out that I’ve never had an original idea in my life, and that I’m merely a promotional hack.

Now, more than ever, we can see the work an artist (in any medium, any endeavor) produces over time. If all an artist can do is steal, the truth will out. For the rest, though, a lifetime of consistent provocation, inspiration and generosity can’t help but shine through. Inspirations and all.

I think this is what Picasso means by “great artists steal.”

Great artists steal – they take the idea, theme or pattern and they make it their own. When you steal, you take away the whole thing – this particular idea no longer belongs to the original author. You take it apart, you figure out how it works and you put it together adding your own unique touches. Now it is yours and once you are done with it no one will even remember it used to belong to someone else. You started with something that was not yours, but the end product can no longer be called a copy, imitation or knock of because it stands on it’s own. You’ve successfully stolen something, and gotten away with it.
Luke Maciak

If this is the case then why is it still such a sticky topic? In my case, I am not really concerned that my work will be copied. Posting everything I do on a website and elsewhere on the internet makes it unlikely it won’t be. Rather, it really upset me to be accused of stealing. I don’t know how one can clearly define the space between inspired work and out-right forgery. I like what Jim Jarmusch has to say:

Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.”
— Jim Jarmusch

I think I can agree that originality is obscure at best, at least in the way it has been defined. Perhaps a new definition of originality can be created? Or maybe we can agree that “All creative work is derivative” and just get on with creating our art?

What does originality in your work mean to you?

How do you incorporate influence, inspiration, and experience in your work in new ways?

6 thoughts on “Reprise: Bad Artists Copy. Great Artists Steal.

  1. I can’t imagine that incorporating ideas can lead to an accusation of stealing. Life is too short not to indulge in the ideas that take us down any creative path. The only thing I would ever term stealing is to actually copy line for line, color for color, and image for image someone else’s work. I grab ideas from nature, the store clerk, the bank teller, my friends, my kids and the whole world around me. It is reflected in my writing and in my art. There is no lack–that’s what I feel–there’s enough for everyone and let us all take freely unless actually copying (then credit the source). We should revel when someone uses something of our own craft to further their own. It’s a compliment and I hope to be able to inspire others to their own greatness through any influence I can offer.

  2. When you write something please don’t use the 26 letters of the alphabet that I use . . You may claim you have rearranged them, but that is beside the point.

    Albert x

  3. We all have our influences & inspirations, but I agree with Laura, it can only truly be called theft if it is copied exactly & then passed off as our own. If you bring yourself to an idea, then it becomes yours, you have changed it & made it something different, you have made it your own & it is now an original. Thank you for adding perspective to this ongoing debate!

  4. I actually just wrote about this. I don’t think you can create something WITHOUT being influenced somehow. All creative work is influenced, either consciously or unconsciously. Something is only stealing when it’s ripped off exactly ‘as is’. Perhaps your friend was upset that you COPIED her idea, but copying isn’t stealing. Copying is perhaps where the grey area is, but if you attributed the original concept to her, I don’t see what the big fuss was all about.

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