Good artists borrow; great artists steal. – Pablo Picasso (maybe)
While I’ve been hearing this quote a lot lately, and it’s encouraging, I’m not sure it’s right.
It’s way harder to borrow than to steal.
In high school jazz band, we learned that in the language of jazz improvisation, borrowing elements from the great jazz artists was a form of compliment, “tipping your hat” to a jazz great that had gone before. My problem was that I was probably never a good enough jazz musician to borrow. The best I could do was steal, copy someone else’s voice, note for note.
It’s only when you have your own voice you’re able to weave in elements from another artist. Stealing in easy.
In looking into the history of the above quote I came across T.S. Eliot’s words about theft and imitation in poetry:
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 from that from which it was 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. – T.S. Eliot
Here’s to the journey!