"Good Artists Copy; Great Artists Steal" - How can this concept be supported & explained by a designer?


"Good Artists Copy; Great Artists Steal"

This is the most famous version of the concept described by so many great artists, yet, as a designer/artist, I'm not sure how I would explain it.

The general concept can be traced back to many great artists throughout recent history:

"Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal." - poet T. S. Eliot

“Immature artists imitate. Mature artists steal.” - Lionel Trilling

“Lesser artists borrow; great artists steal.” - Igor Stravinsky

“Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” - Pablo Picasso (according to Steve Jobs)

It seems to me that the word "steal" implies plagiarism, which certainly could not make for a great artist nor designer?

How is this saying explained and supported from the standpoint of an artist and/or designer?

5/8/2014 8:55:00 AM

Accepted Answer

Those sayings also remind me of a scripture:

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. -Ecclesiastes 1:9

Stay with me...

That being said, I'm currently finishing up a class on the History of Animation which is quite interesting. One of the films we studied was a German film done in 1943 called Der Schneeman (The Snowman).

Still from Der Schneeman

In this film, a snowman desires to see what summer is like, so he hides in the freezer of an unoccupied house until Julio (July). He succeeds and enjoys frolicking in the flowers. The character story and design was uncanny to Frozen's Olaf, who many of you will know that he sings a song in the movie about "What I would do in Summer!".

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After pointing this out to the instructor, he tells me that many of the current animators at Disney have taken his class.

The key to great art is knowing what to steal.

5/8/2014 3:42:00 PM

I've always interpreted this as a more literal reference to the possession that "stealing" implies. If you've truly stolen something, then it is no longer owned by anyone else. Nor is it a copy. It's owned by you. There's the old saying that "possession is 9/10 of the law".

Steal your inspiration, and own the results.

I don't think anyone has truly confirmed the quote attribution of Picasso by Steve Jobs. Perhaps it's more likely his own words that have gained fame, which he prefaced with:

It comes down to trying to expose yourself to the best things that Humans have done, and then try to bring those things in to what you're doing.

An Apple executive gave a similar opinion when asked about the quote in a CNET interview:

"I think people focus on the Picasso statement and focus on the word 'steal,'" said Bud Tribble, Apple's vice president of software technology and leader of the Macintosh software team during its infancy. "If you take that word, which is kind of pejorative, and replace it with 'make it your own,' I think the underlying idea is that you can't do great design by copying something because you aren't going to care about it. If you take something and make it your own, what really happens is now you care about that design. It's your design and that is the dividing line between copying and stealing...