Three simple words that completely changed the way I look at art. Written by a modern giant in the field of…er, writing books about making art: Austin Kleon. Fittingly enough, basically everything he says in his book Steal Like An Artist has been said before. But I’ve never seen it all arranged and packaged so neatly and so concisely into one convenient sequence of clubbing you over the head enough times to actually get it: art is not creating something from nothing. Art is rearranging prior existing elements into a new arrangement, and originality in your work is inevitable. You can’t escape being original. So, stop trying to be original. Instead, embrace your influence.
A great story about U2 exemplifies this point. Bono said when U2 was starting out, they tried to copy the sound of another band who was their inspiration. But they weren’t good enough to copy the other band’s sound exactly, and what resulted was their own sound.
OUR IMPERFECTIONS ARE OUR ‘VOICE’
In other words, it was U2’s imperfections, not how great they were, that made them unique, and therefore made people like listening to them. We talk about writers ‘finding their voice,’ or musicians having a certain ‘sound.’ This ‘voice’ or ‘sound’ is the idiosyncrasies that make that artist unique: in other words, their imperfections.
Who likes something that is perfect? If you’ve watched the film I, Robot, (based on the short story collection of the same name by Isaac Asimov) you’ll recall that even a robot can create a ‘perfect’ work of art. Do we want art that seems like was created by robots? One of the things that made George Lucas’ Star Wars films famous was their “used future” look. Meaning that many sci-fi movies at the time portrayed the future as shiny and pristine, where as in Star Wars we see scuffy, used looking spaceships, blasters, etc. (Ironically, Star Wars’ “used future” happens in the past.)
OUR OWN IMPERFECTIONS ARE GOOD
Be grateful for your imperfections. They are what make you you.
My friend Ryan Trimble of Discovering Rebel goes to great pains, to my dismay, to remind me of how much of a nerd I am. This always throws me off at first. I am not a nerd! my inner monologue insists. I don’t want to be a nerd, I want to be a badass. At the same time, I can’t deny my nerd-like tendencies or roots: it’s who I am. So maybe the recipe for the perfect Daniel is: add large quantities of badass. Lightly sprinkle with nerd to taste. (If Ryan were writing this article, that recipe would probably be reversed. But he’s not, and I am. So there.)
HOW DOES THIS ALL APPLY?
If you see something you like, steal it.
Picasso gave us all permission:
Good artists copy, great artists steal.
– Pablo Picasso
Example. I found out recently that while I was growing up watching the Spider-Man shows we had on TV in the U.S. as a kid, Japanese kids were watching a Spider-Man who had a submachine gun and knew how to use it.* If somehow every Clint Eastwood and Arnold Schwarzenegger flick ever made were magically conglomerated into one ultra-movie, it could not be as badass as Spider-Man with a f&*$-ing Uzi. So, what am I going to do? I am going to *ahem* borrow that concept.
ART AND GUILT
Want to hear a sad sob story? I feel guilty that I haven’t published my novel yet. I feel guilty that I haven’t made my movie yet. I want to share more about the projects I’m working on with you (other than the one with Spider-Man with an Uzi), but I find myself walking a strange tightrope. I have to talk about my work to get it out there, but if I talk about it too much before it’s finished someone could beat me to the punchline. (Like happened with Mobius.) So I find myself somewhat constricted to talking about stuff I’ve already made. But what I’m excited about right now is the stuff I’m working on now, not the stuff I’ve already made (although check out Death Pad for a good laugh if you haven’t seen it yet—how’s that for self-promotion…but that’s what artists’ blogs are for, right?)
So this section is just me saying I wish I had something new, cool, and finished to talk about, but I will have that soon enough. I’ve been doing a lot of writing, and have some really cool films and books in the pipeline. And yes, as I’ve stated before, I’m going to make a feature film on no budget! Why? Because I don’t have Hollywood financing, and I know that I don’t need it to make great work. I’ve already had one filmmaker cite my $500 article as an inspiration for him to go out and film. That makes me very happy. Screw not only Hollywood, but screw anyone who scoffs at such an idea. It’s funny that the same people that scoff at making a no budget film and not paying for actors or locations laud Christopher Nolan’s films. Guess what? The only reason any of us are watching any Christopher Nolan films at all is because he did just that: he made a film on no budget, in which none of the actors got paid, and none of the people who let him film in their homes got paid. And of course, he spent cash out of his pocket for the expense of filming it.
OKAY, STOP MEANDERING AND TIE IT ALL TOGETHER, DANIEL
Embrace your influence. Steal like an artist. Sergio Leone launched Clint Eastwood’s career doing just that. He ripped off the story from Akira Kurosawa’s film Yojimbo and made A Fistful of Dollars, Clint Eastwood’s first feature film. I’ve seen both films, and both are on my list of favorite films ever. Was the similarity strikingly obvious? Yes. Did Leone get successfully sued by Kurosawa? Yes.** But Leone’s definitely had that Leone flavor. And that Clint Eastwood flavor. Clint didn’t have to try to be original, he was just being himself. That’s the point: he was original. We are each original. When you are “trying” to be original is usually when you muck things up.
Perhaps don’t go so far as to copy something so precisely that you get sued like Leone. But do immerse yourself in other people’s art, and then use concepts, ideas, and styles as building blocks to create new stuff. There is nothing new under the sun, as the Psalmist wrote. And as Lew Hunter wrote, you are what’s new under the sun.*** So go and borrow and even steal if you have to, but above all, create. If you don’t create anything during this lifetime, no one will ever know that you were here.