“Why does the art community condone stealing? Isn’t that like plagiarism?”
I used to think so. But no. It wasn’t until I recently read How to Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon, that I finally ‘got it’. And by ‘it’ I mean a hugely important piece of advice that all artists should know: stealing is okay.
This podcast will summarize the main points from the book, and finally break down this often misinterpreted advice.
Copying is taking from one source of inspiration, and replicating it.
Stealing is taking from multiple sources of inspiration, to create something unique.
Copying is plagiarism. Stealing is original.
Stealing is the one to aim for.
“What is originality? Undetected plagiarism.” —William Ralph Inge
“Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.” –Salvador Dalí
Ideas don’t fall out of the sky. Everything you know and everything you produce, is a result of things you’ve seen, heard or experienced in the past. It’s impossible to create something new without drawing from your past.
‘You are, in fact, a mashup of what you choose to let into your life. You are the sum of your influences.’ -How to Steal Like An Artist
“Where do you get your ideas?” The honest artist answers: “I steal them”. -How to Steal Like An Artist
“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” -Isaac Newton
“Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But, since no one was listening, everything must be said again.” - André Gide
Now that we’ve established that all new ideas are born from somewhere, it’s time to delve into the world of stealing and see just how much goes on under our noses.
Before continuing I highly recommend watching Everything is a Remix, which thoroughly breaks down the concept of stealing in hollywood, gaming and writing:
Here’s a fun game: Pick any movie, visionary thinker or novel and research their roots. You can bet everytime that they were heavily influenced by predecessors, and that’s okay.
Everyone loves Daft Punk. They brought electronic music to the masses with catchy beats and music that you just can’t help but tap your feet to. But one could argue that a large part of their success rides on their predecessors:
Obviously, the line between Copying and Stealing can get very blurry. Where some would call the above copying, others would say they were “influenced”.
The trick is to steal from many, not one. Ala carte your inspiration.
In my opinion, a great example of an artist that took from many, but produced something new is Kanye West:
His work is a perfect example of stealing shamelessly from many, and creating something totally unique. Essentially, what every artist should be doing, and not be afraid of doing it.
Start a swipe file. A folder. A collection of your favourite works. Anything that inspires you, put it in the folder. Does a song strike a nerve with you? Put it in the folder. Does an artwork on CGSociety blow you away? Put it in the folder. Does that sunset on the walk home leave you awe struck? Take out your iPhone, photograph it, then put it in the folder.
Use this folder whenever you need inspiration, or just to form new ideas. Again, don’t pick just one to steal from, pick many.
“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.” —Jim Jarmusch
‘You’re only going to be as good as the stuff you surround yourself with.’ -How to Steal Like An Artist
Abuse the public domain. You’ll be amazed at how many artists in the past know better artistic theory than people today. And they didn’t have the internet.
“It is better to take what does not belong to you than to let it lie around neglected.” —Mark Twain
A great site is ArtRenewal.org. Go there and browse the artworks till you find something that speaks to you. Study an artist that inspires you. Find out who inspired him. Then find the people that inspired them. But don’t just steal their style, steal the thinking behind the style. Understand why they did what they did. ‘You don’t want to look like your heroes, you want to see like your heroes.’
At the start it can help to just try to replicate exactly what they made. Doing so will help you to understand the thinking that makes up the end result.
‘We learn to write by copying down the alphabet. Musicians learn to play by practicing scales. Painters learn to paint by reproducing masterpieces.’
Hunter S Thompson actually retyped The Great Gatsby in it’s entirety, just to get a feeling for what writing a great novel is like.
…a quote that we’ve all heard, but few realize how true it is for almost ever famous artist or celebrity today.
“You start out as a phony and become real.” —Glenn O’Brien
Did you know The Beatles started as a cover band? Yup. Paul McCartney said, “I emulated Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis. We all did.” They only started writing their own songs “as a way to avoid other bands being able to play our set.”
“We want you to take from us. We want you, at first, to steal from us, because you can’t steal. You will take what we give you and you will put it in your own voice and that’s how you will find your voice. And that’s how you begin. And then one day someone will steal from you.” —Francis Ford Coppola
The great thing about stealing from your idols is that it’s actually remarkably hard to copy them.
Kobe Bryant stole all his moves from watching tapes of his heroes. But due to his stature he realized he couldn’t physically move like they could. So he adjusted those moves to suit him. Thus resulting in his own unique playing style today.
‘Johnny Carson tried to be Jack Benny but ended up Johnny Carson. David Letterman tried to copy Johnny Carson but ended up David Letterman. And Conan O’Brien tried to be David Letterman but ended up Conan O’Brien.’ -How to Steal Like An Artist
Don’t let anyone tell you what you can and can’t make. The best art is the stuff that you’re truly passionate about. If you’re really drawn to tanks and mech suits then don’t let me or anyone else stop you.
Why? Because if you aren’t making what you love, it’s very likely to suck.
‘The manifesto is this: Draw the art you want to see, start the business you want to run, play the music you want to hear, write the books you want to read, build the products you want to use—do the work you want to see done.’ -How to Steal Like An Artist
If you enjoyed this topic and want to dig deeper, I highly recommend purchasing the entire book “How to Steal Like An Artist”. In my opinion it’s mandatory reading for any artist.
Whilst I summarized it here, the book goes into greater detail on:
Give the author’s TED Talk a watch too.
Hope you enjoyed this weeks podcast! Stay tuned for next weeks podcast with Gooseberry director, Mathieu Auvray!