There is a famous quote often deployed by artists that goes; “good artists copy, great artists steal”. The quote is often attributed to Picasso, as stated by Steve Jobs but it in fact has its origins in several other artists including T.S. Eliot, Igor Stravinsky, and William Faulkner. You can find a more detailed investigation in to the quote here.
Over the last 6 months as I’ve been on my journey to explore how to create, i’m often reminded of this quote because I inevitably have found myself being “influenced” by other artists, by their techniques, by their marks, by their ideas, and their vocabulary. This has always bothered me, because if I’m trying to convince myself that I’m on a journey to explore how to create authentic art, how can it ever be authentic if I’m constantly copying others work. And so I would rationalize by falling back on the quote..
“Good artists copy, great artists steal”Pablo Picasso
But I’m not sure I ever really knew what it meant. Originally my understanding was that if you just copied from others without integrating it into your own work and making it your own then you’d be copying. And that’s true. But I still didn’t feel I understood what that meant. What did it mean to make it your own? I was constantly seeing marks made my other artists and integrating them in to my work. Was I making them my own?
I recently believe I’ve understood what this means, and can use the analogy of Poetry as a good demonstration of what i’m learning about the creative process and what it means to own the ideas I “steal”.
In poetry one is arranging words and phrases in a particular order, in a particular rhythm to, as a whole, create something original and authentic. The “vocabulary” that a poet uses is shared, most often the phrases are shared, and even the ideas are often borrowed, but the overall composition can still be considered authentic and original even though the parts may be shared. This is a case of the whole being greater than the simple sum of the parts.
The more original your ideas, your phrases, the more specific and unique the combination of vocabulary that you use, the more authentic and original your poetry is considered. Great authors may even invent new vocabulary to help describe new and original concepts. Charles Dickens coined “boredom”, “flummox”, and “rampage” amoung others, whereas Shakespeare coined “luggage”, “bumped”, and “eyesore”.
Every now and then you get genious authors who create new phrases that infiltrate our everyday language such as Shakespeare’s “Neither here nor there”, “send him packing”, “all of a sudden” and “wild-goose-chase” amoung many others. It seems creating original phrases that stick are more rare than creating new vocabulary, a detail that is neither here nor there for the purposes of this analogy.
“Neither here nor there”coined by Shakespeare
In contemporary art the artist is also developing a vocabulary of marks, and techniques that is deployed to communicate something in particular, usually an emotion. It seems to me that this vocabulary of marks and techniques are most often borrowed and shared between artists. In fact, when exploring the various contemporary art expo’s and fair’s it is common to see marks and techniques that are “borrowed” and very rare to find anything truly original. Actually to be candid it is common to see whole styles completely copied word for word, phrase for phrase, marks and techniques all copied!!
Sometimes, however the arrangement of the borrowed vocabulary is new and original making a work more authentic – these would be “good” works – and they tend to stand out. At a recent art fair in Toulouse, I came across the works of the Artist Mihoub (shown below). His work stood out to me because, although he was employing techniques,vocabulary, and palette that I had seen before the sum of their parts was unique and authentic. He had very much crated his own style.
Mihoub is 1 of two or three artists that I found at the Toulouse art fair that I believed were creating something new and authentic although deploying a shared vocabulary (others include Stephane Leberloa, Stephane Cauchefer, Jazzu, and Alexandra Huens de Brouwer . These artists are journeymen (journeypeople) artists who leverage a largely non unique vocabulary to create original compositions. The sum of the parts, the whole, representing their unique style and their authentic creation.
From the limited experience that I have at this stage, it seems very rare that and artist creates an authentic original vocabulary. Perhaps that is restricted to the greats such as artists such as the Pollock’s and Basquiat’s of the world.
And so, based on that framework for understanding art and the creative process, it is a little delusional for a beginning artist to create unique marks, techniques, or vocabulary. The best an inexperienced artist can expect, is to perhaps, try to avoid simply “copying” someone else’s vocabulary, and creating derivative work. Instead the goal should be to brazenly “steal” others vocabulary, to use it, to understand it, to create a proficiency with, and to eventually leverage it in a new way, and perhaps one day, if you’re lucky, you’ll end up with an authentic style all to your own.
So steel away, plagiarize freely, adopt what you like, let go what doesn’t work for you, get loose with it all, use and abuse. But what ever you do, don’t just copy.
That is at least how I see it.