Stolen Art Always Grows
I find it appropriate that for this 100th post, we harken back one of the major influences for this blog: Austin Kleon and his astounding book Steal Like an Artist. After all, most creative types poach bits and pieces of earlier art, whether knowingly or in ignorance. Let’s explore the various ways we can pilfer from our fellow creative types while still having a clear conscious.
When an artist “appropriates” someone else’s art, they are lifting the whole concept and calling it their own. So how is this not outright theft? An artist who appropriates is not passing the original image or concept off as their own. Rather, they want the audience to recognize the art and bring to the viewing all the original associations. The artist can then play with the preconceptions or baggage the original art carries along.
A perfect example would be Andy Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup Can” series (1961). Warhol deliberately “borrowed” the image and recontextualized it. This allowed him to comment on the original meaning.
This is the quintessential example of the idea that there are no new ideas. Cryptomnesia is when you steal or copy an idea without realizing you’ve done so. A forgotten memory gives rise to a new writing or art project. And only later do you (or someone else) realize that you copied the original piece.
A perfect example comes from two of the Beatles. Paul McCartney woke with a tune lodged in his head. He was convinced he was recalling some earlier song. Only when no one else could remember it, did he record it as “Yesterday.”
On the other side of the coin, George Harrison famously recorded “My Sweet Lord” not realizing he had been influenced by an earlier song by Ronnie Mack (“He’s So Fine”). This plagiarism was not deliberate, yet it did break copyright law. Play the songs back to back and you can easily hear the similarities.
Sometimes we want to deliberately show our affection to previous artist in the form of homage. There’s a fine line between flattery and downright stealing. Additionally, the more we harken back to a previous image or idea, the less original our own will become.
Homage done correctly will build off already established ideas. It can be a creative shorthand in the same way an allusion brings back the ideas of the original text. A perfect example comes from Episode 13 of the Mandalorian “The Jedi”.
Here, the visual portrayal of Asoka marching toward the town borrows from the works of Akira Kurosawa. A viewer who is familiar with the original references can pull in all these past references (in much the same way Warhol does with appropriation). It allows the artist to add depth while at the same time honoring a creative inspiration.
Parody is the flip side of the homage. Here you make a very close copy of the original art, not for imitation, but to comment on it in some way. You need to transform the original art into something new. The parody must have a completely separate meaning or message from the original.
Weird Al Yankovic built his career on parodying others’ music. He always asked permission before reworking someone else’s song, but he really didn’t need to. The act of parodying itself is a legitimate form of fair use.
How to “Steal” without Plagiarizing
The goal as artists is to create something new and representative of our own viewpoint. We all steal from others (sometimes without knowing). So we need some guidelines to help us maneuver through the land mines of borrowing versus outright stealing.
Copy on Purpose: The first step in avoiding plagiarism is to know that you are being inspired by someone else’s art. Don’t try to hide it. You might turn your “borrowing” into an homage or even appropriate it for your own purposes.
Ask for a Second Opinion: Another set of eyes (or ears in the case of Harrison) can work wonders. Be open to criticism and change what need to be changed.
Be Suspicious: If an idea pops up too quickly, it might be a form of cryptomnesia. Inspiration can sometimes strike like a bolt of lightning. But often new ideas take a while to form. If a new concept comes out of the blue, be skeptical.
Be Organic: Even if you love a previous artist and want to pay homage to them, you are still responsible for creating your own work. Sometimes we start with an idea of your favorite artist and build the work around it. This is a mistake because the homage will not serve the art — everything will be a slave to the original idea. Instead, think about how your reference can strengthen the story or artwork you are trying to make. Does the homage really improve the work, or does it feel out of place?
Change It up a Little: The best way to ensure that you’re transforming instead of stealing is to tweak the idea. This can be a challenge because the original concept fit so well in its own work (which is why it can serve so well as inspiration). You can shift the genre or tone away from the original concept. The more you play with the idea and make it suit your particular project, that “stolen” concept is transformed into your own.
Beatrix Potter once said: “Stolen plants always grow.” So too do stolen ideas. Give them fertile soil and enough care and these purloined concepts can bear fruit.
Go ahead and steal, but just make sure to let the ideas grow and become your own.