Here is the full transcript of Austin Kleon’s TEDx Talk: Steal Like An Artist at TEDxKC.
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Austin Kleon – Author
So there is a story about the composer Igor Stravinsky.
Stravinsky was about to start a new ballet. But instead of starting completely from scratch, he pulled out some of his favorite classic manuscripts, and he got out his red pen, and he started correcting the scores as if it was his own music. And he borrowed baselines and melodies from the famous works, but he composed his own harmonies and rhythms underneath that work.
And when the ballet came out, critics were outraged. They said, “How dare you do this to the classics? Leave the classics alone.”
Anybody knows Stravinsky’s reply? He said, “You ‘respect’, but I love.”
Well, I love newspapers. I grew up with newspapers. My parents subscribed to two different newspapers. My father in law and my uncles are both reporters, and I’ve been reading newspapers my whole life.
The trouble with newspapers is that they’re ephemeral. They don’t last. When we’re done reading them, they stack up in the recycle bin.
Despite all that, I don’t know anyone who hasn’t clipped something out of the newspaper. Our impulse is to save the things that mean something to us from oblivion. I think the human beings are collectors and artists especially. Not hoarders, mind you, there’s a difference. Hoarders collect indiscriminately, and artists collect selectively. They only collect the things that they really love.
An artist’s job is to collect ideas and the best way I know to collect ideas is to read. And what better thing to read than a daily dispatch of human experience that is the daily newspaper.
So, in 2005, I was right out of college, right out of undergrad, and I had a horrible case of writer’s block. I would sit, I would stare at the Microsoft Word screen, and that little cursor would blink at me as if it were taunting me.
And writing, which is once given me great joy, it was now — it wasn’t any fun for me anymore. So one day, I was staring at that screen and I looked over at the recycle bin with that stack full of papers, and I thought, “Here am I. Here I am, without any words. And right next to me are thousands of them, and they’re delivered to my doorstep everyday.”
So I thought I might steal a few, and this is what I did. I picked up my marker that I used for drawing, and I started making boxes around words that popped out at me. And I start connecting those words into little phrases and funny sayings.
And when I was done, I blacked out all the words I didn’t need. And this is what it looks like. It looks like as if the CIA did haiku. And I really wasn’t sure what I was doing. All I knew was that it felt really good to watch some of those words disappear under that marker line.
And so what I did was I started posting them to my blog and I called them newspaper blackout poems. And slowly over time, they spread around the Internet and I collected them in my first book Newspaper Blackout.
Now, I thought I was ripping off the Government. That’s John Lennon’s FBI file on the left and the blackout poem on the right.
But over time I started getting all kinds of emails and tweets and other comments that my work was completely unoriginal. And the artist that people pointed to the most was this brilliant British artist named Tom Phillips. Back in the ‘60s Tom Phillips walked into a bookstore, and he picked up the first Victorian novel he found. And he went home, and he started drawing and painting of the pages. And if you can see, he left words, much like I do, he left words floating in his art pieces. And he’s done this for 40 years. His project is called “A Humument”. And you could look it up — it’s been a lifelong project for him.
And what I discovered about Tom Phillips is that he actually got the idea for his 40-year project by reading a Paris Review interview with the writer William Burroughs, when Burroughs was talking about his cut-up method of writing, which is when you take a piece of writing, cut it up and reconfigure the pieces to make a new piece of writing.
Funny enough, when I started researching Burroughs, I found out that Burroughs got the idea for the cut-out technique from his friend Brion Gysin. Brion Gysin – he was a painter at the time. And he was preparing a canvas and when he was cutting the canvas, he cut through a stack of newspapers and the way the newspaper strips floated and the words worked together, gave him an idea of how to make poetry.
But then, you do a little bit more research and you find out that 30 years before that, there was a poet named Tristan Tzara who in Paris, went onstage, got a hat, got a newspaper, cut up the newspaper, put the pieces in the hat, pulled them out one by one and read them as a poem.
I traced things all the way back to the 1760s where neighbor of Benjamin Franklin named Caleb Whitford — in those old days, the newspaper was fairly new and the columns were very skinny. So what Caleb did is he read across the columns instead of reading them top to bottom. And he would get all these funny combinations and he’d crack up his friends in the pub. And eventually he published a broadsheet of them.
So not only was my idea completely unoriginal, it turns out there was a 250 year old history of finding poetry in the newspaper.
So what am I supposed to do? Instead of getting discouraged I kept on, because I know something that a lot of artists know but few will admit to. And that is nothing is completely original. All creative work builds on what came before. Every new idea is just a remix or mash-up of one or two previous ideas. And this is a bit of what I’m talking about. They teach you this in art school.
Draw a line. Draw another line next to it. How many lines are there? Well there is the first line you drew. And there’s the second line you drew. But then, there’s a line of black space running in between them. One plus one equals three. And speaking of lines here’s an example of what I’m talking about: Genetics.
You have a mother and you have a father, but the sum of you is greater than their parts. You are a remix or a mash-up of your mother and your father and all of your ancestors. And just as you have a familial genealogy, you also have a genealogy of ideas. You don’t get to pick your family, but you can pick your friends, and you can pick the books you read, and you can pick the movies you see, the music you listen to, the cities you live in et cetera. You are a mash-up of what you let into your life.
So, what I decided to do, was I decided to take all these artists that came before me, and build a kind of family tree, a creative lineage that I could draw from. And then I would add those to the artists that I already admired and appreciated. And steal everything from them that I possibly could.
That’s right. Steal. I am a creative kleptomaniac. But unlike your regular kleptomaniac, I’m interested in stealing the things that really mean something to me, the things that I can actually use in my work. And Mr. Steve Jobs actually has a better way of explaining it than I think I could.
[Video Clip Starts:
Steve Jobs: It comes down to trying to expose yourself to the best things that humans have done. And then try to bring those things in to what you’re doing. I mean, Picasso had a saying, he said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” And, I’ve always been shameless about stealing great ideas.
Video Clip Ends]
Picasso, he said it. Art is theft. One time a writer asked the musician David Bowie if he thought he was original. He said, “No, no, I’m more like a tasteful thief.”
And he said, “The only art I’ll actually study is the stuff that I can steal from”.
How does an artist look at the world? Well, first, she asks herself what’s worth stealing, and second, she moves on to the next thing. That’s about all there is to it.
When you look at the world this way there is no longer good art and bad art. There’s just art worth stealing and art that isn’t. And everything in the world is up for grabs. If you don’t find something worth stealing today, you might find it worth stealing tomorrow, or the month after that or years later.
T.S. Eliot said that immature poets imitate, great artists, great poets steal. But he said, “Bad poets take what they steal and they deface it. And the good poets turn it into something better or at least something different.” And that’s really the key to creative theft.
Imitation is not flattery. So, instead of writing poetry like William Burroughs, or doing colorful art pieces like Tom Phillips, I decided to try to push the poems into my own thing and keep going with them. Because I know that it’s actually transformation that is flattery: taking the things you’ve stolen and turning it into your own thing.
So today, you listen to all these wonderful speakers for the past hour or so. And what I want you to do is what my friend Wendy MacNaughton the artist does, I want you to rip off everyone you’ve met. All the speakers you’ve heard take a nugget of something that resonates with you. The people you bump into today, later, take something from them, but bring it back to your desk. Bring it back to where you do your work, combine it with your own ideas and your thoughts. Transform it into something completely new. And then put it out into the world, so we can steal from you.
And that’s how you steal like an artist.