How Your Belief That “Great Artists Steal” Cripples Your Creativity
Steve Jobs didn’t know how to build a writing career
In olden times, a popular urban legend told us that Pablo Picasso said, “Great artists steal.”
Maybe he did, and maybe he didn’t, but at least he was an artist. Today, we’re told over and over that Steve Jobs said it. And we’re told this not to discourage theft but to encourage it.
I’ve snapped. All I want for a Happy New Year is for all y’all to stop repeating this tired old quip. When you share this drivel, all you’re doing is:
- Shooting yourself in the foot.
- Telling other people shooting yourself in the foot is cool and they should do it too. Preferably while wearing a black turtleneck.
Have mercy. I can’t stand it anymore.
Also, Picasso is rolling his eyes while rolling in the grave, and that’s a pretty neat trick. Read in context. He wasn’t telling artists to steal. He was telling them they don’t know how.
The Quote Circa 1974
Apocryphal or not, here’s the full quote as it used to be repeated from the lips of my various teachers when I was but an impressionable sprog:
“Lesser artists copy. Great artists steal.”
What’s crazy to me is how the quote got flipped on its head. Nowadays, people use the concept as an excuse for being a user, a shortcut taker, or a coattail rider. If no one is doing original work, they needn’t bother either.
Talk about your creativity killers. And the sad thing is, the quote isn’t saying this at all. The quote isn’t even meant to be advice.
It’s a simple statement of privilege.
First you become great.
Then they’ll let you get away with murder, mayhem, and misogyny. Along with a little artistic appropriation.
Nothing in Picasso’s biography suggests he had the slightest interest in giving us a shortcut to greatness. Even if he was, he couldn’t. The man didn’t know any shortcuts. He worked from early childhood at his art.
Of course, it helped that his father was an artist, a professor, and a museum curator, but Picasso wasn’t one of these guys who coasts on his family background. He’d put in his 10,000 hours of study before he reached the age when you or I squeezed our first tube of titanium white.
Great Artist Steal: A Self-Destructive Belief
The trouble with stealing is this: Every time you steal, you risk getting caught.
Many people (including Jobs) seem to assume there’s something brilliant and breezy about stealing. Scammers are cool. They’re getting away with something. Well, no. They’re not cool. And, most of the time, they’re not getting away with much of anything.
That’s the whole point of the quote.
Great men have privileges the rest of us don’t. So what else is new?
You completely misunderstand Pablo Picasso if you believe he thought everyone was potentially great and all they had to do to release their greatness was get in touch with the larceny in their soul.
Oh, please. He knew very well that he was Picasso, and we’re not.
When lesser artists steal, they look foolish. It’s too easy to tell how and who you’re imitating. At best, you’re called derivative. At worst, a copyist, a plagiarist, or a counterfeiter.
How To Get Away with Stealing
- Be rich. Jobs got away with stealing because of money. Whoever didn’t get the liver Jobs took probably never even knew a rich man from outside their poor community cut ahead of the line. Being rich works, but you’re not that rich, and I hope you’re not that heartless.
- Be genius. Ah, but there’s a catch. The genius gets away with stealing because they aren’t stealing. They’re doing something truly transformative with an earlier concept.
In other words, the quotable quip is just a quip. Not a reality.
Great artists don’t steal. They transform.
Even not-so-great artists who achieve success do it because they’ve transformed something. Fifty Shades of Gray might not be well-written, but E.L. James found a heck of a twist on the story of the girl who falls in love with a creature of the night.
Lesser artists aren’t being called out for copying because they’re inspired by earlier work. Everyone is inspired by earlier work. They’re being called out because they’ve got nothing new to add to the conversation, but they’re saying it anyway. Usually for money.
Doing art for money is fine, but you need to actually art if you want to take the money. You’ve got to put the “you” into the work before you call it yours.
When Non-Genius Steals
The perks of genius come only after you’ve done something genius. I’m repeating myself, but so did my teachers before me. As a kid, I took art class any time I had the option, so I heard the speech quite a few times over the years.
Every time we reached the lesson on Picasso appropriating ideas from African artists — and perhaps after a few other examples of Picasso’s famously bad behavior — our teacher would laugh nervously and say, “Well, he was Picasso. But if you steal, you’ll get an F and be expelled.”
And yet “great artists steal” continues to hang around as an annoying nonfiction trope. Everyone wants to believe greatness is something you can rip off effortlessly.
Quote Investigator has a long list of “great artist steal” variations. For example, here’s a clunky version from a James Joyce biography published in 1959:
“T. S. Eliot knew that he was perpetuating a cliché in saying so, but in the case of such eclectic writers as Pound and Eliot and Joyce, this axiom is supremely true. They are concerned not merely with the general ideas and techniques of their predecessors, but with their very lines and words, which they reconstruct in a new mosaic…”
A cliché indeed. Tons of people, both known and unknown, keep on saying great artists steal a ton of times a ton of different ways. By this time of millennium, saying “great artists steal” isn’t new or helpful.
At best, it’s a fluff opinion the wise person ignores. At worst, it buys you a ton of trouble while you try to defend by accusing the non-thief of being a bad art friend.
The worst-case punishments for plagiarism include expulsion, lawsuits, fines, Twitter beef, being banned from Amazon and/or traditional publishing, and getting struck from our fellow authors’ Christmas card list.
Of course, “can” get you in trouble isn’t “will” get you in trouble. Most of the time, most of this stuff doesn’t happen. That’s why so many people keep trying it. They figure they’ll get away with it, so why not roll the dice?
Most of the time nothing happens. Good or bad. You don’t get laughed at. You get ignored. After all, everybody else on the planet has already heard the same quote. If a million monkeys on a million typewriters are all stealing and reprinting the same stale ideas over and over, nobody cares.
Stealing isn’t just lazy and kinda immoral. It’s also unprofitable. Everyone’s onto this one weird trick.
You’ve sold your soul and made yourself a thief for nothing.
A Ladder to the Sky
I have a reading assignment for you. No, not that same slim volume everyone else already recommends. I’m a novelist, and many of my followers are either novelists or would like to be.
So I’d like you to read a novel. This novel:
A better book on the theme of a writer stealing greatness does not exist. Even the jacket copy is brilliant:
“Maurice Swift is handsome, charming, and hungry for fame. The one thing he doesn’t have is talent — but he’s not about to let a detail like that stand in his way.”
Author John Boyne walks through all the usual ways a “great” artist steals. First, our anti-hero takes a story directly from life. Somebody else’s life, of course, since he’s too young to have done anything of much interest.
Later he plagiarizes an entire manuscript. Well, that’s a nuisance because the other author may be expected to object. And then he discovers the joys of what we now call patchwork plagiarism. And then…
But read it for yourself. Once you pick it up, you’ll find it hard to put down until you’ve turned the very last page.
At one point, the larcenous Maurice tells his son:
“Stealing is very bad…Only really bad people take things that don’t belong to them.”
He doesn’t mean it, though. We say what we must to children. Adults know life is more complicated. Real genius rises above morality.
Or does it?
This story originally appeared in Synergy, a Medium publication. If you enjoyed it, please hit that <3 button to let me know. I also accept tips.
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