Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Great Artists Steal

My plan for this post was to start off with a quote, which in my mind goes like this:

"Good artists borrow; great artists steal."

I couldn't remember who it was by. Apparently, though, I can attribute it to whomever I like, because it's a saying that's been evolving for over a hundred years.

This is a great article chronicling its evolution.

I heard it a while ago and since then I haven't been ashamed of stealing things other artists have done.

If you are sceptical about this conjecture, I understand. "But artists get sued for stealing!" or whatever. Indeed, they do. For instance, George Harrison got sued for writing a song, My Sweet Lord, that sounded nearly identical to a hit song that happened decades earlier, that he just forgot he knew about. It's a fine song, but it's just not different enough from the original to avoid a lawsuit.

But this isn't the type of stealing I'm talking about. I'm talking about purposeful, constructive, and unquestionable stealing.

When an artist is good, it's because she has studied meticulously her predecessors. She knows the best works in her field. She also knows that nothing is original (watch this video). If she's clever, she realises that her idols have taken material from their idols.

Now she's going to look at one of her favourite pieces by one of her favourite artists, and improve on it. She's going to use a lot of the exact same material, but use it to tell her own story - communicate her life experiences. She will put it in a new context, or a new medium. It will become entirely original, even if some of the material is identical to the source.

As you may have guessed, I stole something just recently that exemplifies this.

Here is a link to the latest build of WordPlay, the platformer-storytelling game-thing I'm working on.

It's lifted from the last level of Super Mario Bros. for the NES. There's a piranha plant, a hammer bro, and Bowser, with an axe that breaks the floor from under him and everything. The difference lies in the goals, the failure conditions, the look, the specific jumping mechanics, the timing... it's just way different. At the same time, I'm specifically evoking feelings that would have been felt when SMB was new (as my friend said, "I've lost all my skill, because I'm so frustrated!", which is exactly what happens when you play old platformers).

Here's an image for the visually inclined:

And for comparison, the original: (I even took colours directly from Bowser's sprite)

I stayed as true to the original as I wanted to. That's the whole point of stealing from other artists: take exactly what you want. Don't worry about changing it because it's "too similar". Change it because "this needs to be different for what I'm doing", and for no other reason.

That's it for today.  Thanks for reading!

Stay dubious, wonderful thief.

-mysteriosum(the deranged hermit)


  1. I like the way you explored the quote. I have never entirely understood the difference between borrowing and stealing in this case. I still don't really think there's a difference. I think the quote should just be "Artists steal" or "Great artists steal", without the weak thing about borrowing. Anyway....

  2. That's an interesting point. I think the difference is knowing how much to take from the source.

    There's an interesting linguistic difference, now that I think about it. Borrowing implies that whatever you use still belongs to the original author. This is not as it should be! When you take something, you should OWN it. You should steal it boldly, without asking, and without hesitance. Stealing implies "It's mine now, it's not yours!"

    Of course since we're talking about ideas, stealing one just produces more. In this case, 1 - 1 = 2.