“A good composer does not imitate; he steals,” Igor Stravinsky supposedly said. Faulkner allegedly phrased it as “Immature artists copy, great artists steal.” Steve Jobs put it most simply: “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” The saying regularly inspires artists, thinkers and dorm-room poster designers. But in practical terms, what does it mean?
Still from HeadHunters
There are some definitely wrong interpretations. “Steal” here doesn’t mean “plagiarise”; that doesn’t turn anyone into a great artist. It explicitly doesn’t mean “copy”. So what’s left? Plenty.
Make the idea yours
Artist Adam J. Kurtz, author of creative inspiration books such as 1 Page at a Time and the upcoming Things Are What You Make of Them, explained the difference between copying and stealing over email. One is imitation, the other is inspiration. “The difference,” Kurtz says, “is intent.” Imitation is laziness or refusal to accept your influences. Inspiration is recognising that influence and turning it into something new:
“Great artists steal” is at its root about finding inspiration in the work of others, then using it as a starting point for original creative output. Artists may recontextualize, remix, substitute, or otherwise mashup existing work to create something new. Sometimes it’s as simple as calling something art (Duchamp’s “Fountain” being the sort of ultimate example).
So what makes this “stealing”? It’s that instead of just borrowing something for a weak imitation — which just reminds people of the superior original — you change it with your own compelling ideas. When you’ve truly transformed and elevated someone’s idea, an informed audience could look at both works and say yours explores a certain idea better. You “own” that idea now. So you’ve stolen it!
Here’s a famous example. In Macbeth, a ghost prophesies that “Macbeth shall never vanquished be” until the very forest marches on his castle. But then the English army marches on the castle holding branches from the forest, and Macbeth is vanquished.
J.R.R. Tolkien has such “bitter disappointment and disgust” at this “shabby use” that, as he told the poet W.H. Auden, he invented a moving, talking forest, which actually uproots and goes to war in The Lord of the Rings. And for now, the public knows Tolkien’s trees better than Shakespeare’s. He stole like an artist.
Modern writers also steal Shakespeare’s entire plots; The Lion King is a kid-friendly Hamlet and West Side Story is Romeo & Juliet with a slightly less tragic ending. But note that these adaptations transformed the idea enough to become iconic. 10 Things I Hate About You is a fun movie, but it isn’t exactly Criterion Collection material, partly because it doesn’t build an extremely compelling new idea such as “What if the animal kingdom were a literal kingdom?” or “What if we expressed simmering racial tension through the medium of dance?”
So choose the grandest or most compelling source you can. You want to commit a grand heist, not a mugging.
Follow the Pattern
There’s a difference between inspiration and imitation, but also between inspiration and best practices. It isn’t copying to learn how the great masters used perspective in their paintings; it isn’t copying to follow the “hero’s journey” plot for your book or script. That’s just what art is.
Young creatives often feel pressured to invent something entirely new. Experimentation is essential! But there’s a reason most people don’t want to watch a student’s “experimental film”. Experiments are for learning why artists all tend to follow similar principles, and to learn which of those principles you want to break.
But to effectively break the rules, you need to understand and appreciate them, and why you’re breaking them. Before Picasso could use cubism to show multiple perspectives at once, first he had to learn traditional perspective. For Bjork’s “It’s Oh So Quiet” to effectively pierce your ears, she first has to sing sweetly and softly. Learning and using traditional methods isn’t lazy, it’s necessary if you want to build your own ideas.
There’s honour among metaphorical thieves. If you’re consistently inspired by the work of another culture, make sure you draw attention to the original works. If you’re just watering down someone else’s culture so a mainstream audience will accept it, that’s appropriation. That’s how the black artists who invented rock and roll went widely unacknowledged while white artists re-sold their ideas to a white audience.
So if your work catches on better than that of your influences, don’t assume it’s because you invented something new — make sure you aren’t just re-selling something. If you’re ever worried about revealing your influences, that’s a danger sign. “One way to ensure you’re not being a dick,” says Kurtz, “is to be open about your sources, credit your collaborators, and name your inspirations freely.”
Conversely, believing that “great artists steal” does not at all mean you can’t stand up for your rights. When fashion outlet Zara blatantly copied pin and badge designs from Kurtz and his fellow artists, Kurtz called them out and promoted their original work.
Zara doesn’t steal like an artist. Photo via Shop Art Theft
The golden rule applies: Steal in the way you’d want to be stolen from, with credit, respect and transformative new ideas. Artists, says Kurtz, “all understand the challenges that other creatives face. So I can’t understand why anyone would deliberately hurt another creative.” So always remember: Great artists steal, but bad artists copy.