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"Good Artists Borrow, Great Artists Steal"

By January 26, 2009

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Thus go words that Pablo Picasso may have uttered, although (1) I cannot find definitive attribution anywhere and (2) a great many other writers, poets, songwriters and visual artists have supposedly said almost the exact same thing. (You can read the last word [pun intended] on that which T.S. Eliot said here, and kudos to Nancy Prager for her detective work.) Anyway.

Within the past week I've read about both the source of Shepard Fairey's Obama-HOPE head shot (hint: the artist didn't shoot it himself, nor did he pay to use it) and a lawsuit filed against Richard Prince for lifting a photographer's series of portraits, putting daubs of paint on them and selling the results as his own original work. Now, I am not a copyrights lawyer, merely a visual artist who's always liked to stay on the happy side of the law. However, my layperson's eye, in looking at the original sources for HOPE and the Canal Zone series, sees little that would deem either of them "transformative" works. And the word "transformative," Dears, is the crux of the matter in any "fair use" question--be it written, painted or notated on a G pentatonic scale.

Assuming that Picasso did say this--and seriously, I would love to learn of a verifiable source--I think the words "Good artists borrow, great artists steal" constitute one of the most misunderstood and misused creative phrases of all time. To me, it means the difference between aping and assimilating; between copying and internalizing; between being unoriginal and innovative. Between, sad to say, right-clicking an online image and picking up a low-tech pencil. Even Andy Warhol, that master of the appropriated image, had a solid foundation in studio skills and could actually draw well when/if he chose to.

I'm tired of seeing the paraphrasical use of "Good artists borrow, great artists steal" as an excuse to be lazy, and, yes, I'm angered when non-transformative "works" are, in turn, copyrighted, feted, receive royalties and/or are sold for staggering sums--though the original artist does not often benefit by so much as a credit line. How does this mindset advance an art form? What message does it send to younger generations of artists? Why, if a big enough "name" engages in this ... borrowing ... is it not only tacitly condoned, but often applauded?

Every artist of every stripe builds on that which was done by his or her predecessors. It's only the great artists who manage to take things to new heights, in new directions. That's what I think; end of rant.


January 27, 2009 at 4:32 pm
(1) Sunnygirl says:

Enough of Obama already. Real art…does it exist? Stop the nonsense!

February 2, 2009 at 6:52 am
(2) Rebecca Mir says:

Making art is a skill that must be learned, and artists draw their inspiration from the world. Art is not made in a vacuum.

So everything that anyone makes is “borrowed” in a sense; borrowed because it’s a culturally learned technique.

Great artists ‘steal’ because they know exactly where their ideas are coming from and why they’re using them and expressing them in their art.

Or, it could be deeper than that. Steal doesn’t always mean taking things without permission…it can mean taking the opportunity to give or share when it’s not expected. (Like a kiss!) I like that definition better in reference to art, because I’m also sick of lazy self-proclaimed artists.

So I’m agreeing with you!

February 2, 2009 at 2:03 pm
(3) nature girl says:

Whether Picasso admitted it or not, he is certainly known for “stealing” creatively, and his contemporaries sometimes kept their unfinished work out of sight when he visited.

This reminds me of the word “influence.” What do you think it means? I have come to think of it as “creative stealing” — borrowing an idea and making it your own. To me this is legitimate but it is not quite the same as “inspiration.”

February 2, 2009 at 3:38 pm
(4) Beth says:

“Influence” to me as a 2-D and 3-D artist means to see and then use a technique which has grabbed my attention and focus. It is less about the content of the art than the execution.

I really dislike the term “stealing” when it is used to describe the process of seeing another artist’s work, thinking about it, then using it as a springboard for your own self-generated expression of content or concept.

Stealing, to me, does denote riding on someone else’s visual/artistic coattails. Laziness and the hope for a quick buck or attention seem to vie for top reasons why someone would blatantly use another person’s work, make minor cosmetic changes (as opposed to expressing their own deeply explored concepts) and plastering it about as their own.

*stepping off soapbox*

February 2, 2009 at 9:06 pm
(5) starrpoint says:

Sorry, but I really hate to see stealers win.

there is nothing original about either work.

February 3, 2009 at 6:44 pm
(6) Joseph Kranak says:

I’ve always interpreted as, when a great artist takes an idea from a predecessor that idea becomes HIS or HER idea forever more because their reinterpretation is just so much better than the predecessor. Whereas, when a mediocre artist takes an idea from a predecessor, people remember it as a mediocre artist being inspired by a predecessor.

The best example I can think of would be Shakespeare’s theft of Romeo and Juliet. The story is an Italian tale, probably by Bandello. It was translated into English (by Arthur Brooke), and then retold by some guy named William Painter in prose form, and then retold a third time by Shakespeare in play form. The story was well known at the time and many people then knew full well that it was adaptation. But the brilliance of Shakespeare’s adaptation has completely occluded any prior versions from memory, so that Romeo and Juliet is indelibly associate with Shakespeare.

Others have done re-adaptations of Romeo and Juliet, such as West Side Story written by Arthur Laurents. But West Side Story will always be remembered as a musical based on the Shakespeare play.

Thus, Shakespeare was stolen from Bandello, Brooke and Painter because now Shakespeare in a sense owns Romeo and Juliet. Whereas Arthur Laurents merely borrowed from Shakespeare, since people will always remember West Side Story as an adaptation of a Shakespeare work.

Or another example: Bram Stoker stole his Dracula character from John Polidori, since now we now indelibly associate that character with Stoker’s version, whereas Anne Rice has merely borrowed it from Stoker.

February 6, 2009 at 9:14 am
(7) Namasta says:

If a work of art is truly captivating, well done and moves me, I could care less where or when the artist was inspired by it. I get so tired of the ranting and raving about this subject when I see artist produce art displaying no artist talent at all. Producing art that looks like a 3 year did it or paint that looks as though it was thrown on the canvas in some maniacal rage in a effort to do something different gets no mention. Dancers learn to dance, singers learn to sing and painters should learn to draw and paint. Time out for the games people play. Just yesterday I read an article on how a horse could paint and judging from the work I guess the horse could. I saw the same in a gallery in New York. Personally I never like the poster anyway

February 15, 2009 at 9:03 am
(8) Sonal Panse says:

I couldn’t find the source of the Picasso quote, but I came across two other Picasso quotes (from http://quote.robertgenn.com/auth_search.php?name=Pablo%20Picasso)that may have inspired these chaps too –

“Art is the elimination of the unnecessary.”

“The people who make art their business are mostly imposters.”

I’ve always wondered why people pay exorbitant rates to buy Prince’s work. I mean, if you absolutely must have his images, why not just go to the gallery with a digital camera and appropriate the appropriated images? And then get it printed.

‘Twould be so appropriate.

February 20, 2009 at 2:35 pm
(9) Dave VN says:

I did some research into the origin of this quote, and it has been attributed to Picasso, T.S. Eliot and Igor Stravinsky – each with minor variations. So… of all three of them said it, then 2 of them were stealing.

March 24, 2010 at 12:48 pm
(10) macfabian says:

There is nothing original on this earth. Why is it that all other disciplines (science, engineering, math, english, music etc) are built on those that came before? But for some reason artist are not allowed to build on what has come before them. As if each individual artists is somehow expected to reinvent art by themselves or they’re not “real artist”. What is wrong with taking a photo of a young girl, projecting it onto a canvas and painting it? Screw em all! Not only should you “borrow” or steel, but you should also lie! If you use a projector or a light-box, or sight-size or if you go on google images for inspiration to meet a dead-line just do it and then tell everyone you created it on you own. Don’t get caught, and one day people will be blogging about how great you where and how you did it with out stealing.

April 22, 2010 at 10:31 am
(11) Barry says:

This article seems a little pompous to me. I agree with the commenter who cited Shakespeare for successfully “stealing” the story of Romeo and Juliet.

The Obama “Hope” took a photo and made it an icon so it’s safe to say that was fairly successful as well.

To the author of this article – stop sippin’ on the hateraide (stole that from Stuart Scott, I think). Not every great work of art is original or even requires a great amount of “skill” or “originality”. What it does require is a great amount of courage and confidence.

October 14, 2010 at 2:22 am
(12) TSKorigami says:

As seen from my URL, I do origami. And an extension tto it would be “art”. So I am an artist(!).
and origami is not just a child’s game. It’s a technical, structural, sometimes mathematical game(well, not so mathematical for me).
Of course, we origamists make Crease patterns for our designs before folding them to make our designs with the specified lengths, widths, rivers, etc.(I know this is off topic but I will get to the point).
And our models, of course, use certain structures. The most common structures consist of 22.5, 45, 180 and 90 degree angles. When we see some CP(Crease Pattern), and want to use that structure in our model, we ‘steal’ the structure. For example, I stole the structure of the wings of my eagle(http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4129/5008210152_7365363c29_m.jpg) from Kade Chan’s werewolf. But it forms the majority of the model imho. but, in origami, i don’t understand difference between “borrow” and “steal”. even robert lang quoted picasso in his book, origami insects and their kin. for quality readers, his newer book, Origami insects 2, has far more realistic and complex insects than in insects and their kin :-P

December 21, 2010 at 8:59 am
(13) peachy says:

A photograph is a copy of God’s work or mother nature if you prefer, I find it absolutely adherent that photographers call it their creation in any way, unless they actually changed something in the scene or made digital art with the image etc…

artists shouldn’t be expected to be photographers to. Photographers are shooting themselves in the foot by expecting it to be so, as they now have more competition. Call is God or karma or whatever … but one who refuses to share nature with others, is egoistic and unreasonable.

I don’t think that one should do an exact copy of an image though…

an image is an image and a painting should be a painting

December 21, 2010 at 9:06 am
(14) peachy says:

and taking someone else’s work an making it better is also immoral and stupid. The person who had the original idea could have very well reworked it him or herself. One can’t know.

I see no merit in such a thing and have no respect for such work, unless the person is not taking credit for the idea.

An artists should try not to be influenced by others work anyhow, as to allow creativity to bloom to it’s fullest.

December 26, 2010 at 8:07 pm
(15) Ben says:

Peachy, and most of the others, are clearly not artists.

January 2, 2011 at 4:37 pm
(16) Orson Rockwel says:

macfabian said it perfectly!

“There is nothing original on this earth. Why is it that all other disciplines (science, engineering, math, english, music etc) are built on those that came before? But for some reason artist are not allowed to build on what has come before them.”

its pretentious to think otherwise

March 16, 2011 at 10:06 pm
(17) Daniel Cvammen says:

Your creativity is dependent upon the obscurity of your sources.

Get over the phrasing of the word ‘steal’. Its short and concise and makes a point. If people are going to literally ‘steal’ work, not figuratively stealing ideas, then write them off. Don’t count them as artists.

March 24, 2011 at 12:32 pm
(18) Fernando Ybarra says:

Picaso once stole an old bicycle from a dumpster. He took the seat and handlebars and mounted them on the wall to make a bull’s head. Spain had been the battered and humbled rider of a tattered bicycle, shoulders hunched over, poor and oppressed. But by the eye of the artist that symbol was transformed into the heart and hope of the fighting bull, proud and indomitable, willing to struggle for his freedom or die.

For the rest of us, an ordinary object. For him, the saga of a people hidden in a rusty pile, stolen or rescued from ordinary life, from obscurity and anonymity, to creative genius.

Great artists steal.

March 24, 2011 at 7:25 pm
(19) Cola says:

So photojournalists are artists now? Who knew.

I disagree that Fairey didn’t create a transformative work, and he is, actually, a classically trained artist who is quite talented in the vein of Andy Warhol.

I agree with the other stuff though. :/

April 8, 2011 at 8:54 am
(20) Ted says:

Sorry, but Fairey’s work was plainly transformative. Really he had a slam-dunk case if he hadn’t tampered with evidence. Really, what morons think what he did was wrong? If you do, basically art won’t exist anymore–only lawyers.

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