One of the more inspiring books I’ve read about creativity was published this year by a visual artist, Austin Kleon. It’s called Steal like an Artist, and anyone who creates anything could benefit from some of Kleon’s advice.
The thin red line between plagiarism and originality has always puzzled me, not just a writer but a visual artist. As a part-time student at the School of the Art Institute, I scribbled furiously when an instructor would look at my work and suggest I check out a certain artist. He/she never explained, to my satisfaction, exactly what I was supposed to be looking for and copy. Was it a part, or the whole? I was conscious of not wanting to plagiarize, yet I knew there was something to learn from great artists.
Kleon’s book demystifies the creative-theft process. Early on, he reminds us that nothing is original. Everything builds on what came before. It’s right there in the Bible: “There is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1.9)
The first step, he writes, is to figure out what’s worth stealing, then selectively collect what you really love, from many sources: magazine articles, books, poems, blogs, drawings, paintings. Once you’ve identified an artist you love, study everything about that artist. Not just her style but what SHE loved. Research her work. Go deeper. Find out who inspired HER, then research everything you can about those people. Don’t just copy one person to be original – copy many.
Here was an enlightening moment: to be truly original. You don’t want to steal the style but the THINKING behind the style. Johnny Carson tried to be Jack Benny. David Letterman tried to be Johnny Carson. Paul McCartney tried to be Buddy Holly, Little Richard and Elvis. On and on.
Once you think you know your heroine-artist, ask yourself where you fall short. Take your copies, and transform them into something that’s uniquely you. What is the next thing that Picasso or F. Scott Fitzgerald would have created? Go there. Record, Google, Doodle.
Kleon promotes a concept called “productive procrastination.” Have a lot of side projects going at once and bounce back and forth between them. Don’t throw anything away. Do good work and share it with folks. Wonder at something, and invite others to do the same. Give secrets away, but don’t share everything.
If there’s one Kleon concept that caused me to pause, it’s his definition of plagiarism: it’s too simplistic. I’ve worked with a lot of lawyers and lawyer groups, so my innate red flag went up when I read: “Plagiarism is trying to pass someone else’s work off as your own. Copying is about reverse-engineering. It’s like a mechanic taking apart a car to see how it works.” Well, ok, but it’s more complicated than that. Talk to a lawyer if you think you may be crossing the line.
Salvador Dali once wrote: “Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.” Call it stealing, copying or whatever, but to create truly original work, you need to imitate, then build on what you borrow. Take only what inspires you, forget the rest, then transform your copies into something that’s uniquely your own.
Stealing like an artist is at once a complex and simple process. To quote Kleon: “There really are no rules.” So, as an artist, how have you benefited from copying your idols? What advice can you offer that may help others get to the other side?