Austin Kleon: Steal Like An Artist

Austin Kleon
Steal Like An Artist
(2012, Workman Publishing Company, 151 pages)

Recently, in severe need of inspiration, I happened on this book by chance at the Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino, California (a lovely independent bookstore you should make a point to check out and support if you’re ever in the vicinity). This New York Times bestseller is subtitled “10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative.” It’s quite short, and can easily be read in a couple of hours. But you might find it actually takes longer as you find yourself meditating on the many excellent points and suggestions it makes.

I’m not sure that I learned anything absolutely revelatory in it, but it certainly served to validate some of my ideas and perspectives. And the book was genuinely energizing. For instance, Kleon’s Point Number 1 is “Steal Like An Artist.” Taking the advice of people like Pablo Picasso (“Art is theft”) and Igor Stravinsky (“Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal”), I’ve always stolen from the people I admire – not plagiarized, mind you, but stolen bits of ideas and stylistic influences. If you steal widely enough, after all, your models are inevitably changed and the result is in the end completely yours. Kleon cites André Gide to this point, in a quotation I love: “Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But, since no one was listening, everything must be said again.” Looking at the same question from the other direction, Kleon quotes Howard Aiken: “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”

It was surprisingly easy to recognize myself in much of this book, insofar as my concerns are obviously no different from countless other people who aspire to be creative. Find yourself living a monotonous life? Kleon’s Point Number 9 is “Be Boring – It’s The Only Way To Get Work Done.” As part of his “boring life” philosophy, Kleon preaches the wisdom of financial planning, and of having a day job and regular source of income. While this may make it harder to carve out time to create, as Kleon reminds us, “Establishing and keeping a routine can be even more important than having a lot of time.”

Joseph Campbell, who has been a big influence on me over the years, felt that the most valuable way to learn is to find writers, musicians, and other artists that really move you, and explore their work thoroughly. Then you move on to people that influenced that person and study their work similarly. Gradually your knowledge will grow in a logical and organic way that is uniquely yours. Whether Kleon stole this notion from Campbell, I don’t know, but he describes the same process in a very cogent way as “climbing your own family tree.”

Some of Kleon’s suggestions are very practical. He suggests stepping away from the computer, at least for a while – the screen between you and your creation has an inevitable alienating effect. We must remember to use our hands and our bodies. They have their own wisdom, and we must use it. Sometimes it’s also just a matter of using one’s time wisely: “I always carry a book, a pen, and a notepad, and I always enjoy my solitude and temporary captivity.”

He also makes the important point that an effective way to overcome a creative stall is to impose limits on yourself. Unending possibilities can be daunting. Reading this, I was reminded of the Oblique Strategies cards created by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt in the 1970s. To guide his work, Eno would choose a card from the deck. Their statements might be specific, like “Work at a different speed,” or they might seem to have little connection with the current problem, like “Only one element of each kind.” But using such statements to constrict possibilities can be oddly freeing. A wonderful example of this that Kleon cites is Dr. Seuss, who wrote The Cat in the Hat with just 236 different words. His publisher challenged him to write his next book with just fifty. The result? Green Eggs and Ham.

A really hopeful note is struck with the seventh of Kleon’s points: “Geography Is No Longer Our Master.” Even living and working in an enlightened place like Austin, Texas, Kleon finds that most of his artistic connections are online. Geographical boundaries, at least of certain kinds, are gone. As Kleon says, and as we must all remind ourselves, “You don’t have to live anywhere other than the place you are to start connecting with the world you want to be in.”

Find out more at Austin Kleon’s website.

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