“Picasso had a saying — ‘good artists copy; great artists steal’ — and we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.”
“Good artists copy, great artists steal.”
This provocative statement, often attributed to Pablo Picasso, has stirred the pot of the creative world for decades.
At first glance, this might sound like an endorsement of artistic thievery, but that’s not what it’s saying at all.
Rather, it’s speaking to the adaptation of influence.
To borrow is to take elements from another’s work, perhaps imitating them superficially.
In contrast, to ‘steal’ in this artistic sense is to completely absorb an influence, integrate it, and transform it into something distinctly personal and original.
History’s greatest artists exemplify this: they didn’t just mimic their predecessors; they internalized various styles and techniques, eventually creating work that was revolutionary and uniquely their own.
This transformation is the key – it’s about making an influence so deeply your own that its origins become almost unrecognizable.
The perfect example is pop music.
Watch this video of Gabriela Bee singing 18 different pop songs you definitely know, all using the exact same four chords.
These artists know exactly what they’re doing, but because they’ve internalized the influence so deeply, they can then produce a new song that goes undetected as having the same foundation as thousands of other songs.
It’s pretty wild when you realize how much success people have had by stealing from the greats before them.
So, why do people do this?
Because it works!
It’s way less of a gamble using the success of a predecessor than it is to start something completely from scratch.
It’s like when you’re learning to cook.
You start by following other people’s recipes. You follow those recipes exactly. It’s only after you start to understand the fundamentals of cooking that you start modifying those recipes to your own tastes.
The message here is to let the works of others inspire you, but let your work be uniquely yours.
In this way, we can all strive to be not just good but great in our creative pursuits.