Great Artists Originate and Don’t Steal: How You Know This Is True

Stuart K. Hayashi

 

“Good artists copy; great artists steal.”

–Insipid Cliche

“The best artists originate.”
–Me

This is a colored pencil drawing I did in 1998. The man depicted is supposed to be the young Howard Hughes, an original artist and inventor.

When people say everything in art is a copy of everything else — frequently expressed in the cliche “Good artists copy; great artists steal” — it’s not just inaccurate; it offends me, because the implication is pernicious. First, it relies on a straw man. Secondly, it denigrates the originality that is one of the greatest attributes of man qua man.

 

The Familiar and the Strange

Here is my theory on what makes an artwork interesting to you, and it itself is not particularly original, as Teller (of Penn & Teller fame) said something similar: an artwork interests you when it has the right mixture of both familiar and unfamiliar elements. As Teller phrases it, “ Aristotle used to say that a good show is a mixture of the familiar and the strange.”

The artwork needs to be somewhat familiar to you so that you can relate to it. It has to remind you of some part of your life that you already understand. If an artwork is completely unfamiliar, I will say, “This has nothing to do with me; why should I care?” Likewise, if a new invention is completely unfamiliar, I will say, “I don’t see how anyone benefits from this. It hasn’t earned my attention.”

Often, for the artwork to make itself sufficiently familiar to you, it places itself in an already-established genre, such as, say, “domestic comedy.” It might be said that, to the degree that an artwork is making itself accessible to you by utilizing tropes that are already familiar to you, it is “unoriginal.” By that standard, an artwork that is “100% original” would not register with you, because that would mean “100% unfamiliar.” That would mean there would be no aspect of it to which you could relate; it would be incomprehensible, comparable to all the sensory data bombarding you as you exited the womb.

I take an interest in a work of fiction when the characters are somewhat like me; that makes it easy for me to imagine myself in that position. When artworks are categorized by genre, I notice specific patterns: I find that I like artworks in Genre 1 at a greater frequency than instances where I enjoy artworks in Genre 2. Hence, as a consumer, I end up seeking out more works from Genre 1. If artists find that Genre 1 is more popular than Genre 2, they might decide, even before starting their next piece, that it will belong in Genre 1. Then, as he crafts this piece, he will add familiar tropes that have already been established as hallmarks of that genre.

However, an artist can go too far in making an artwork “familiar.” If one “action movie” is too much like all the others, then my reaction will be, “I have seen it all before.” If all the movies were exactly like my life, then I would think, “I don’t have to watch this; I already know what happens. The movie is superfluous.” Therefore, there has to be some element that is new — novel.

This is the passage from Aristotle’s Poetics — Part 22 — to which Teller referred:

The clearest style is that which uses only current or proper words… That diction, on the other hand, is lofty and raised above the commonplace which employs unusual words. By unusual, I mean strange (or rare) words, metaphorical, lengthened — anything, in short, that differs from the normal idiom [expression]. Yet a style wholly composed of such words [flowery language] is either a riddle or a jargon; a riddle, if it consists of metaphors; a jargon, if it consists of strange (or rare) words. For the essence of a riddle is to express true facts under impossible combinations. Now this cannot be done by any arrangement of ordinary words, but by the use of metaphor it can. … A diction that is made up of strange (or rare) terms is a jargon. A certain infusion, therefore, of these elements is necessary to style; for the strange (or rare) word, the metaphorical, the ornamental, and the other kinds above mentioned, will raise it above the commonplace and mean [mean as in mundane], while the use of proper [normal] words will make it perspicuous [clear, easy to understand]. But nothing contributes more to produce a cleanness of diction that is remote from commonness than the lengthening, contraction, and alteration of words. For by deviating in exceptional cases from the normal idiom, the language will gain distinction; while, at the same time, the partial conformity with [ordinary] usage will give perspicuity [clarity, easiness to understand].

 

How This Applies Elsewhere

That principle even applies to experiences, friends, and technologies. If I want a friend or even a lover, that person has to have some commonalities with me. We are able to communicate based on those shared interests. If we’re completely unalike, we have nothing to talk about. However, if everyone is exactly like me, then I wouldn’t discern a need for one more friend. I would say, “I don’t need that duplicate of me; I already have me.” When someone is the right combination of similar and different from you, the similarity allows for bonding and communication, and the differences allow you to experience excitement and learn something new.

That is also the case with new technologies. New technologies build upon older technologies and, to make themselves accessible for use to consumers, there have to be aspects that are already familiar. Guglielmo Marconi did not actually refer to his invention as “the radio”; he called it “the wireless telegraph,” just as the first automobiles were called “horseless carriages.” The first automobiles had an element that was already familiar to people: it had wheels like carriages do; the new feature was the motor. The radio was like the telegraph in that it transmitted communicative messages over long distances through electric signals; the difference is that Marconi’s wireless telegraph (which produced only a few simple sounds, not enough to produce discernible speech) transmitted those signals through the air and not a wire.

For a new technology to be accessible to users, it has to have similarities with a technology with which those users are already familiar. When I was three years old, I had not yet seen a mobile phone; I only knew of landline phones. The first telephone I ever saw and used was a rotary phone. Then I saw a phone where, to enter someone’s number, you pressed buttons. The new attribute was that I used buttons instead of the dial; the familiar feature was the Arabic numerals. Then I saw a cell phone. The familiar property was that, to enter a number, I still pressed buttons labeled with Arabic numerals; the new attribute was that I could carry the mobile phone with me and the sounds were converted to electric signals sent through the air. If a new technology was completely unfamiliar to us — 100% novel — it would be comparable to presenting a mobile phone to a newborn and expecting the newborn to know what it was and to start using it immediately. The same would apply to an artwork that is 100% new and unfamiliar.

Therefore, yes, everything that maintains your interest remains a combination of the familiar and the strange.

One might think of the “familiar” aspects as the “unoriginal” part and the novel aspects as the “original” part.

When people say all artwork is a copy, or that “Good artists copy; great artists steal,” they expect you to pay attention to only half of that consideration.

 

“Great Artists Steal” = “You Didn’t Build That”

Every single time I say that I object to the cliche “Good artists copy, great artists steal,” someone presumptuously starts a lecture he assumes I have never heard before: No artwork is created ex nihilo. Every artwork hailed as original still relied on familiar, already-used elements. As those aspects had already been applied before, the extent to which that artwork utilized them was the extent to which that artwork was unoriginal. Therefore, you ought to stop overstating the importance of originality — pretending not to notice the ways in which you have copied your forebears — and give more respect to such ideas as pastiche and homage.

For example, The Jazz Singer is considered a historically important motion picture on account of its being the first to have sound. But it was not the first story ever told about a man disappointing and worrying his father by taking on a career choice the father deems risky, now was it? Nor was it the first motion picture ever, now was it? Here, one might say that it “stole” storytelling elements that were already familiar. It wasn’t 100% novel after all, now was it?

That is actually a way of saying “You didn’t build that.”

Many people who recite that argument seem to be talking about themselves and practicing what they preach, because they are reciting the tritest of cliches.

The argument is a straw man because no one who celebrates originality ever claimed, while hailing an artwork or technological innovation as original, that this new work was created ex nihilo. It was not so much as implied. Nor has the celebration of any innovator’s originality ever implied denigration of predecessors upon whose works that innovator built. Celebrating Isaac Newton does not imply disrespect for the “giants” on whose “shoulders” he stood.

 

How Do We Know There Is Still Originality in Art?: Artists Do Make Use of Ideas That Did Not Have Precedent in That Medium

When people say “Good artists copy; great artists steal,” it is not a plea that, when we praise someone as a genius, we should also recognize the people who helped that genius. It is, in its implication, primarily an attempt to downplay the importance of novelty and originality.

Here is the problem with saying “Everything is a copy.” If it were true, no one would ever achieve anything unprecedented.

It is true that as I try to identify “the first ever model” of some invention, such as the sewing machine, in history it turns out that every time I think I have identified the first-ever model, someone later finds a record of a still-earlier model. But the fact remains that unprecedented events do happen. There was a time when there were no sewing machines. Now there are sewing machines. More dramatically, there was a time when there were no airplanes. Now there are airplanes.

One might say, “But that’s technology; not art. It’s much harder to be original when it comes to art.” But unprecedented innovations even happen in art.

For example, we are accustomed to a storytelling device called “the flashback.” When it comes to motion pictures and even written works, this refers to a story not being told in chronological order. Rather, the tale is set mostly in one particular chronology but, at some point in the narration, we are treated to a story-within-that-story that took place earlier. The first motion pictures were straightforward narratives where the events were depicted in chronological order, even if the scenes were not filmed in that same order. But there came a point where there was some first motion picture to make use of the flashback narrative device.  The first silent picture to use a flashback sequence might have been made the pioneer Col. William N. Selig. The first “talkie” to use that storytelling device might have been City Streets in 1931.

Whatever was the first motion picture to do that, it is the case that, subsequent to the invention of motion pictures, there was a time when no motion pictures made use of that literary device. Then some artist made use of that literary device which, in this medium and context, was unprecedented. Afterward, other people began using that same storytelling device. If, in the early twentieth century, everyone believed that everything is a copy and it’s impossible for artists to do anything unprecedented, no one would have thought of adding “flashbacks” to their storytelling repertoire to begin with.

The first motion picture to make use of the “flashback” storytelling device did build that. That was not copied or stolen; it was originated.

 

Update Notes:  On Saturday, December 10, 2016, I added the quotation from Aristotle’s Poetics, Part 22 about combining familiar words and strange words.

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