How To Be An Art Thief

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If one is involved in any sort of artistic or design related endeavor, it won’t be long before one is met with this perennial justification for lifting someone else’s work:

“Good artists copy, great artists steal.”

Ostensibly dripping forth from the lips of Picasso, the essence of the idea is that sometimes great art or great design (depending on which one is engaged in) will at times involve drawing a great deal of- ahem- “inspiration” from other works. And since an artist of Picasso’s fame said it’s ok, well, then it’s ok.

Aquinas would no doubt wish to insert a sed contra here. But since he’s dead, I’ll have to fill in for the angelic doctor so as to avoid the obvious appeal to authority.

This idea is- quite unfortunately- quite prevalent (one might even go so far as to say rampant) within church design, especially in relation to whatever is the pop culture du jour. Clearly “great artists steal” means that one should certainly create a poor “parody” of the latest Star Wars movie.

That digression aside, I’ve always found this idea amusing for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the quote is likely not even something Picasso ever uttered. Rather, it’s likely genesis is found in the critical works of the poet T.S Eliot. The germane passage is here, in which he speaks of how poets borrow from other poets:

One of the surest of tests 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 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. Chapman borrowed from Seneca; Shakespeare and Webster from Montaigne.

Of course, this extended passage gives the lie to the justification, in that the terminology of “theft” clearly doesn’t have anything to do with how the phrase is normally employed in modern parlance.

For example, the not-really-parodies that are often created are in a sense stealing: they bring little to nothing original to the source material;, hence, we tend to call them a “rip-off.” It might also be noticed that these sorts of things and this sort of practice actually lands one squarely in what Eliot describes as being “bad:” one ends up “defacing” what one takes, and this is usually pretty evident in how the not-really-parodies are usually ultimately hollowed out versions of their former selves.

The delicious irony is that the very meaning behind the euphemism that ostensibly justifies so many rip-offs actually serves to roundly condemn them precisely because of what they are.

It is worth looking a little more closely at what Eliot is getting at; in what way do great poets/artists/whatever steal?

He gives some indication in the second and third lines: the mature poet steals not so as to copy or mimic what he is stealing, but rather to transform it into something better. What arises out of the theft is something that draws upon what it stolen so as to become something wholly different.

This cannot occur haphazardly; it is an act in which the artist must fully imbue the meaning and feeling of the work he will steal so as to be able to transform it. It is only by intimately knowing it that he can transform it.

As an example, the premise of forbidden love between two lovers in rival households in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is hardly a novel concept. It had been in rough outline a fairly prominent theme for stories and plays for centuries, if not millennia. Ovid created a version in 2 AD of a story/myth that had long antedated him. And Shakespeare’s source is actually an English poem of this tale.

As you glance at the rough outline, there are obvious similarities in plot, characters, etc. Yet Ovid’s work differs drastically from Shakespeare’s even though they go after roughly the same theme.

To be able to create around the same theme while creating a work that lives and breathes on its own entails that one must have drunk deeply from the well of inspiration. But not simply so as to copy, but rather to understand the vision behind the work, to breathe the same rarefied air. In Eliot’s understanding, the artist who steals does so because he recognizes that he himself is not the font of inspiration or creativity; that is drawn from what our senses perceive. As the old scholastic aphorism has it: “There is nothing in the mind which is not first in the senses.”

The art thief in this manner steals so as to transform; he takes what is best and beautiful and creative and praiseworthy and makes it a seamless part of a greater whole, and by doing so transforms it. He is grasping after the same re-presentation of Beauty, but is able to bring his own craft to bear upon it and thus draws out a different perspective of the same Beauty. He does not see himself as existing as a creative island, but with a simultaneous humility and boldness takes what is beautiful in the works of others and so impresses it into his mind that the act of re-presentation by means of the theft becomes an act of transformation.

The theft-by-means-of-transformation also means that the resulting work- while perhaps having contours in common with its inspiration- is able to stand by itself as a cohesive whole. It does not rely on that which it is stealing to make sense or to draw in the viewer; it has become its own raison d’etre. How different this is from the not-really-parodies that gut the original to create a mess on the other end, which would utterly fall apart and (shockingly) be even more unremarkable if the source material were to be forgotten or fall out of faddishness (which invariably happens).

It might be theft, but it’s not the theft that great artists commit.

Understood in this light, how glibly seems the use of this aphorism to give cover for that which merely borrows, rather than transforms. To be sure, the source material is often not worthy of the theft, but perhaps in all things we should strive for more.

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Jason Watson

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