Book Review: 'Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative' by Austin Kleon
Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative Austin Kleon Workman Publishing Company (2012)
The power and achievement of “artistic theft”
A 12th century French monk, Bernard of Chartres, once observed, “We are like dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants.” I thought of that observation as I read Austin Kleon’s brief but insightful discussion of ten “things nobody told you about being creative,” with the first serving as this book’s title. There are dozens of quotations throughout the narrative that reaffirm Kleon’s thesis: Almost anyone can become more creative in what they do and how they live by applying the lessons that Kleon learned during the past decade. What he learned, of course, is what he stole from others and then applied…and the world wisdom they possessed had been stolen from still others and then applied…you get the idea.
In his thought-provoking book, Ignore Everybody, Hugh MacLeod identifies and discusses a total of 40 “keys to creativity” and, of course, the first is to Ignore Everybody. Taken literally, that would include both MacLeod and Kleon. However, in each of his several books, MacLeod duly acknowledges his appreciation of countless others who have helped him to become the best Hugh MacLeod he could be. My own opinion is that Kleon has a similar objective: To help his reader think more creatively about becoming more creative by introducing his reader to a variety of different perspectives that will help the reader to become more alert, more aware, of how to live a more productive, a more enjoyable, a more fulfilling life.
The quotations he includes are indeed excellent. Several have become classic insights. Here is a representative selection:
o “Art is theft.” Pablo Picasso o “The only art I’ll ever study is stuff that I can steal from.” David Bowie o “What is originality? Undetected plagiarism.” William Ralph Inge o “It is better to take what does not belong to you than to let it lie around neglected.” Mark Twain o “Start copying what you love. Copy copy copy copy. At the end of the copy you will find your self.” Yohji Yamamoto o ” The work you do while you procrastinate is probably the work you should be doing for the rest of your life.” Jessica Hische o “Complain about the way other people make software by making better software.” Andre Torrez o “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” Gustave Flaubert
My take on “artistic theft” is that it is essential to the development of more creative thinking. All of the world’s great chess players throughout history, for example, devoted thousands of hours to studying and replaying, then evaluating the greatest matches in decades past. The advice “steal only from the best” is relevant to just about all (if not all) human initiatives. However, it is also imperative to then make what you steal your own. In the field of human development, Oscar Wilde is correct: “Be yourself. Every one else is taken.” That has been true of Leonardo, Shakespeare, Mozart, and countless other creative artists…and it is also true of those who read this book. I am grateful to Austin Kleon for sharing what he has learned from others and then made it his own: this book.
Editor's note: This review was written by Robert Morris and has been published with his permission.Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.