The quote can be traced back to when it was made popular by Steve Jobs, in which he echoed Picasso’s own words. It lends us the possibility that Picasso could have taken inspiration from the composer, Igor Stravinsky, when he said, “Lesser artists borrow; great artists steal.” This process of borrowing, twisting, and re-stating words and ideas doesn’t seem to stop there. If you look closely down the line, examining its roots, you will find that many, many other great names throughout history declared phrases of this shared meaning. Even though the origins of this phrase is unknown, Picasso’s work speaks for itself. He is a great artist, and “great artists steal.”
We can almost see that this is a whole evolution — journey of words — conveying the same, underlying meaning, and that it in itself is a pure reflection of great artists, well, stealing.
This easy-to-remember quote remains a hazy mystery of who said it first. But to be fair, it still remains a simple phrase with an obscured and tangled truth.
But look, I’m not here to dig into the very origins of this quote like how a paleontologist digs for fossils. Instead, I’m here to spark a little conversation revolving around the question: is it ok to take inspiration from other creatives’ output?
What is inspiration?
Factually speaking, the dictionary states that inspiration is “the process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, especially to do something creative.” But, this definition fails to fully grasp what it truly means to be inspired. It merely touches the very surface of what this word means.
To ponder upon the meaning and cause of inspiration for so many of us is quite the mind-bending ride — but for me, inspiration is something that pushes us beyond the boundaries of how we perceive our capacities. It excites us, motivates us, awakens us. It moves us to be an ideal version of ourselves and drives us to reach the most distant of our goals. Coming at the most unexpected times and in the most unexpected places, it gives us a rush of energy, a gleam in our eye, and a little grin upon our faces.
It matters because it evokes possibility in our lives. Everything is inspired by something, whether big or small — it is the very thing that guides and propels our hearts, souls, and minds to be the someone we wish to be.
Why should we take inspiration from art?
So, if everything is inspired by something, is anything really original? I recently spent an afternoon watching a movie by Wes Anderson through which his iconic aesthetic inspired me to create a short film of my own. I could almost hear the little voice in my head knocking at the door to my moral compass, “Solaia, Solaia, that’s not your work! What are you doing?” I couldn’t help but feel a sense of guilt — had I cheated? did I deserve to call myself a filmmaker? But looking at it through the eyes of another person, my own voice, my own opinion, and my own point of view resonated deeply with my chosen message.
Most importantly, I had made something that didn’t belong to me personal. What speaks to us — aesthetically, creatively, and philosophically — as artists is completely unique to the next person. What speaks to us as artists is what drives our imaginings and creations. What speaks to us as artists allows us to explore a spark and kindle it into a flame.
A creative’s work may inspire you greatly and I’m here to tell you that it isn’t wrong to be inspired. And while we may revere them, our goals shouldn’t be to merely imitate and emulate, mirror and mimic, or even become the idols we greatly admire. It is to build upon an existing idea and make it into something of our own.
Why shouldn’t we take inspiration from art?
Let’s circle back to the journey of the quote — is this creativity at work? We can almost say that it is the same idea being repeated, and repeated, again, and again. It lends a voice to the phenomenon that there isn’t any originality in taking inspiration from others. It whispers the idea that we are bottle-necking creativity; it whispers the idea that we aren’t exploring the fullest potential we have as individuals, but using the potential of others to create something that we deem to be our own.
Without the winds of other works of art swaying our opinions, we will be able to create more genuine, authentic, and pure output — but there’s no doubt that the art of creativity will be a lot more difficult to accomplish. We would have to source everything from our own minds.
Other creatives’ efforts need to be respected. There are things about a creative’s work that may present a concept so personal that the only other place it lies is in the maker’s deep abyss of their hearts. It can possibly be that veiled behind the beauty and serenity of their work was a tedious, mind-numbing, monotonous process of digging for inspiration in hopes that someday, it may miraculously flutter into their minds. Whatever the story behind a work of art is, a creative’s output should be respected and never taken for granted.
But if we don’t take inspiration from others, it will drastically impact the world we live in today. What would drive the world to invent, create, and live? We would be static beings — merely walking the path of life without much of a spark.
A healthy relationship to one’s idols involves a sense that one might one day, after suitable respectful study, outgrow them, rather than merely pay lifelong, uncreative homage to them.Alain de Botton, Art as Therapy
With these two contradicting ideas in mind, let me echo the big question this exploration has led us to: is it ok to take inspiration from other creatives’ output? In my very much amateur opinion, yes. Inspiration comes in the form of deep, blue, towering waves, crashing upon the shores of our awareness; they come like a snap, and a sizzle, and a spark of a fresh match against the side of its timid home; and they come riding the colors of the wind — like a reassuring breeze sweeping over dancing reeds and linens, ever so gently whispering into the brink of our creativity.
Moments of inspiration are meant to happen — they come, almost, effortlessly. If we refuse to be inspired in any way, what will move us to outgrow the people we look up to? In fact, what is the point of looking up to these people if that’s the case? If we accept that inspiration is a natural occurrence, it wouldn’t be necessary to scold ourselves for lacking originality. Inspiration is, inherently, human. All things considered, I think we must come to an agreement on one thing — art is theft.