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Do great artists really steal?
original thoughts are possible, right?
Ten years ago, almost to the day, I was featured in a blog called Great Writers Steal, which was a brilliant site that dissected some aspects of craft from a short story I wrote about a dog. I was especially honored. Mostly because I liked the way the site toyed with the concept and used it as a front for truly great critique and reviewing.
But I have to admit . . .
I think a lot of people oversimplify the idea behind Picasso’s attributed quote (Good artists copy, great artists steal). To say there are no original ideas is a common stance. And if you wanted to take that stance, I’m sure you could find evidence.
There are plenty of writing tropes to back up such a claim. Formulas and models speak to the value of recycled ideas. They evoke emotional responses again and again, predictably. Love stories, mysteries, poetry, and literary fiction alike have tells and techniques one can study or imitate. Common themes and analogies come up ad nauseam before being considered cliche.
In this sense, formulaic work is a lot like advertising. It’s about bringing a few existing concepts and images together in a slightly new way to evoke an emotional reaction that gets people’s attention. It takes a bit of creative theft, I suppose, and a knack for rearranging ideas.
But at a certain point, to combine ideas just to sell a thing begins to feel cheap. “Stolen” art or borrowed personas help an artist create a brand or product with a short shelf life.
Combining existing ideas, much like an algorithm, rarely leads to what endures, which is one way to define “great art,” and it’s the way I’m going to define it here. In fact, it’s the way I define art in general. Everything else is just a bit of success (capitalist success, that is).
True creative prowess takes something different and less derivative. But even great artists steal a little bit, right?
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To me, the great stuff begins with appreciation. Influence is an undeniable factor as an artist is developing her voice. But the difference in intention and formulation is the difference between something easy and shallow (that, say, AI could create) and something with a ring of originality. Something with legs.
We exist individually for a reason, to contribute unique ideas. And this kind of creativity takes time, deliberation, and, undeniably, a lot of work and . . . more time.
There is another adage that says no one can see the world through your eyes. Or no one can tell a story the way you can.
It’s easier to copy or ask an algorithm. It’s faster, too. More efficient. But it’s also more forgettable and more of the same, more inclined to blur and fade from the mind of those exposed to derivative creative works.
Replicating others can offer a decent training system for new writers and artists, and it can be done with purpose, especially if one is kind enough to pay homage to those they “steal” from. This makes for appreciation, rather than a simple grab. Appreciation is the catalyst from which we can find our unique voices.
What’s the point of an often-long, arduous journey, rather than just a quick grab? What’s the point of sacrificing a sure thing for a more enduring work?
I suppose it’s down to the person. But, to me, exploring the world authentically and creatively offers us purpose and offers our audiences something new. Something authentic. And that, my friends, just might lead to GREAT ART.
The kind of art that jostles a person from the norm and offers them a new way to see.
PS - This is my goal anyway. I’d love to hear your thoughts. While I admit that my own writing life has been a bit of a slog, I wouldn’t trade any small part of it (especially the slow, painstaking parts) for the world. The process of personal discovery contains more than I can express. I guess that’s what I’m getting at here.
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