Posted by: Thomas Stephan
Category: Dyer Straits
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Thomas (Tom) Stephan

I wrote this in response to an article link posted by Cat, who got it from here. She stole the topic of conversation from sitepoint, and I stole the topic from her, and now I’m opening it up for theft to you, Gentle Reader. Enjoy.

I was fascinated by the amount of conversation this Picasso quote generated. “Good artists copy; great artists steal,” in one of the graphic design forums that I am a slavish whore to. I found that people had a very hard time trying to justify such an incongruous quote to a master of artistic reinvention. I also ran around looking at other forums, other posts and other respondents to this quote, and nearly all of the respondents to this odd little gem MISSED THE POINT. There were two major camps: the “Picasso meant something different by the word ’steal’” folks, and on the other side the “he meant steal, and let’s all be mystified by this weird concept ,” tribe. For me, I’d like to split the difference and start with some theft of my own. Here’s a great quote from T.S. Eliot, a great thief and poet:

“One of the surest tests [of the superiority or inferiority of a poet] is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest. Eliot, T.S., “Philip Massinger,” The Sacred Wood, New York:, 2000.

T.S. Eliot’s not saying that “stealing” someone elses works is a good thing. What he’s saying is that “poets and authors can use other people’s writings as a base for their works as long as the reuse takes the work to a new place, and introduces it to a new audience.” (quote stolen from somewhere, don’t ask me where.)

Let’s return to copying for a moment. I think it’s important to stress that copying is something anybody can do. You can trace something or, with enough time, forge the Mona Lisa. But then even if it’s perfect in every way it’s still just another Mona Lisa. A copy of the Sistine Chapel frescoes is just a copy.

But stealing is different.

Why? Glad you asked.

Because you have to work harder to steal something.

None of Shakespeare’s works save 3 are original, and those 3 are rarely performed. They are reimagined stories familiar to everyone in his time period. The same can be said for Van Gogh’s landscapes; the landscapes are woefully familiar. I can lean out my window and take a photo in Texas that looks EXACTLY like Van Gogh’s landscapes.

Copying is wrong because you are appropriating another person’s work, their interpretation of literature, art, even science. But what these gentlemen, along with Picasso, did was a theft of concept.

Por ejemplo, Windows Vista copied the appearance of Mac’s OS. They didn’t attempt to figure out how to run the system on lower memory and faster processing. They didn’t steal the answer to the question: “how can we make something beautiful and functional?”

And so Vista looks like Mac…again. A decent-looking copy, but devoid of the inspired thinking behind it. And honestly, they don’t have to work too hard because they have a lock on the market. Why work harder to make something right the first time when it’s not cost effective?

Another way to look at it is to say that copies invariably deteriorate. Remember those chain-faxes you used to get before email? The original crude and tacky drawing was probably funny AND well-drawn. But 4,000 faxes later it’s a little crumbly. But if I STEAL the drawing, I have a perfect specimen. Good websites get copied; the copies get copied and those copies get copied until they look like poo on hot rocks. But if I take - for example — your website — change the colors, the spacing, the font and keep the CONCEPT of something clean and functional, then I get a perfect specimen, untouched by banality. It’s “new again” and it’s there to inspire other people. You’ve heard of “teach by example?” the real phrase is “steal my foundations and build a new spire.”

So, what do Picasso and T.S. Eliot mean? They say, in the briefest of terms: take old work to a new place. Steal the Google site, strip down what works (fast load, nonexistent graphics, small quirky changes that delight) and use the parts on your own site. Look at the curve of a Coke Bottle and create a beautiful landscape painting with it. Take the hairline pinstriping on the side of somebody’s car, reimagine it on your print job. Find inspiration in the world you live in, where nothing is truly new so that everything has the potential to be innovative.

Thomas (Tom) Stephan | Director of Something Clever
BoDo Author | Dyer Straits

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Comments to this post:

Comment: Joel Smith says

Beautifully said.

24th September 2007 Quote

Comment: TomDyer says

Thanks! I’m honored…it’ s an interesting quote, and the best part is that the quote has long been attributed to Picasso, but there’s literally no proof he actually said it…so what if somebody stole his name as well? What a great way to get your quote into the history books!

25th September 2007 Quote

Comment: Jason Chen says

I was trying to figure out the meaning for the longest time! I plan to be a graphic designer, and working on my portfolio for colleges I kept thinking about this quote as i was unsure whether i was “stealing” or “copying”. You and Cat’s article really clarify things for me, thanks.

3rd January 2008 Quote

Comment: Tom Trottier says

To an artist, others’ ideas are just more straw for the bricks.

29th January 2008 Quote

Comment: Thomas Stephan says

Hi Tom, thanks for the post!

Excellent. You know the old saying “Steal from one, and it’s called theft. Steal from many and it’s called research.”

29th January 2008 Quote

Comment: Richard Titus says

Well said! I’m going to reference this blog in a blog I’m crafting for the BBC Internet blog..


11th June 2008 Quote

Comment: Andrew Mello says

I love this quote, and thanks for clearing it up for the people who think stealing is wrong. I have been stealing for years, and no one has caught me yet ; D.

11th August 2008 Quote

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