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SXSW: 'Steal Like An Artist'

by Alan Melson 10 Mar 2012 3:17 PM

Where do artists draw the line between creation and theft? Does there really need to be a line at all?


“Good artists copy; great artists steal.” – Pablo Picasso, via Steve Jobs

Austin Kleon - 'Steal Like An Artist'Where do artists draw the line between creation and theft? Does there really need to be a line at all?

These questions formed the basis of an intriguing conversation Saturday morning at SXSW Interactive between Kirby Ferguson, a Brooklyn filmmaker whose “Everything Is a Remix” web video series explores how mashup culture has been around for much longer than some might think, and Austin Kleon, an author from Austin whose new book Steal Like An Artist covers similar themes.

Ferguson contends that the creation of art is surrounded by near-epic myths about divine inspiration, mad genius and magic, when in fact it’s often a messy process of learning by imitation. He breaks down the process into three basic elements: Copy, transform and combine. History is chockablock with great creators who started by simply repeating works that inspired them; through this repetition they gained the vocabulary to begin transforming these imitations into something more unique, and then finally mastered the domain enough to try combinations with other concepts or ideas.

Klein, who admits to being forgetful enough about artistic inspirations that he keeps an AquaNotes pad in his shower to get ideas written down before they disappear, takes a similar view: Good work can be derivative, as long as it still retains the power to be transformative (and comes from a single individual or co-collaboration rather than committee).

Sometimes ‘remix culture’ is embraced by those whose original work is deconstructed or copied, but in other cases the reaction can be swift and angry. Take the case of Shepard Fairey’s iconic ‘Hope’ poster created for President Obama’s 2008 campaign, which led to a drawn-out legal battle with the Associated Press over the photo that served as Fairey’s inspiration.

The most visceral crowd reaction came from Ferguson’s deconstruction of the venerated Star Wars trilogy as one great big mashup, distilling everything from Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth to Kurosawa films, 1930s radio serials and even Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will into the mix. Not that Ferguson has a problem with this; he praised George Lucas’ ability to do it in a way that was hugely popular with mass audiences (and has maintained a lasting legacy). Other directors execute their own variation of a similar path, including Terry Gilliam, who once described himself as more of a filter than an auteur.

Kleon admitted that some artists still have a problem with the basic idea, articulated as far back as the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes, that “there is nothing new under the sun” – and instead prefer to create in a vacuum and consistently attempt to come up with something new or different. But he contends that this often leads to people using the romantic idea of creator as eccentric lone genius as an excuse for bad art.

Kleon summed it up thusly: “If you try to swallow the history of your medium, you’re going to choke.”

Ferguson concluded with the idea that it’s ultimately healthy to look at your art as part of a larger creative lineage, as it can often be an educational process that helps you learn more about your influences (and maybe discover more you didn’t even know you had). Why not embrace those who have gone before you, while still maintaining enough clarity to do your own thing?

Everything is a Remix Part 3 from Kirby Ferguson on Vimeo.

Check Art&Seek throughout the coming week for plenty of SXSW coverage, including film dispatches from Stephen Becker and much more.