Nobody likes a thief, but how can you really prove that the prized possession was even yours to start out with?
I think that people (especially artists) are thieves, myself included. Be it a movement, a sound, a structure, a line, we like to steal each other's ideas because they inspire us and they help us to sandwich together our ‘own’ ideas. But those wonderful ideas that you stole, where did they come from before you witnessed them and inhabited them as your own? They were probably somehow stolen too. To present work or an idea that nobody has ever thought of or done before you is near enough impossible if you ask me. Your angle of execution might be slightly different to someone else’s, but let’s think about this seriously. As creative people, we want to be different and we want to make ‘original’ art but maybe we are striving for something that we can never completely achieve.
We are all influenced and we all steal, even when we don’t think that we do. Okay, maybe ‘stealing’ isn’t the right word here, perhaps it’s about ‘pocketing’ ideas, putting them away safely and then accessing them later by ‘recycling’ them into something (fairly) new. That cheesy joke you tell at Christmas which previously belonged to your teacher (but you’ll happily take the laughs for), the quote you saw in a book and say out loud to sound more intelligent or to appear wiser and the famous recipe which makes all of your friends momentarily silent at the dinner table which you learnt from an ex-partner – these were all pocketed at some point, sometimes without noticing. But where did these ideas come from in the first place, before you pocketed them? Personally, most of the time I don’t know, and I don’t really want to try tracing them because I know that the search is endless. However I do know that I have an internal bank of ideas, questions, images, sounds, quotes, jokes and even recipes that I remember for one reason or another. Everyone does. This bank is what governs our creative decisions and our ability to create art, recycled art. We recycle ideas that we have pocketed along the way (with or without conscious robbery) and somehow they have ended up in our bank, which means that now we feel as if they belong there, as our own.
Tim Etchells (Forced Entertainment) writes:
“I come into the front room one afternoon and the TV is playing, and I am shocked beyond belief to find that the characters are speaking words stolen directly from our piece Some Confusions in the Law about Love (1989). Moments pass, and then I realise in a slow internal turning round, that this is some nameless film I must’ve flipped through five years ago or more and that I stole lines from it, scrawling them on a newspaper, transferring them to notebook and then at some later point writing them into the work. Still watching the film from this point on I am gripped by a feeling of strange violation as a handful of moments from our show Some Confusions are repeated, out-of-context, out of character and out of costume. [...] Shit – I’m like some teen-burglar – ‘I nicked so much stuff I can’t even remember what is mine anymore’.” (Etchells 1999, p.100-01)
On the receiving end of being stolen from, it’s flattery, right? No. It’s actually quite infuriating and whenever it happens, I think to myself ‘but, but, it’s MINE…isn’t it?’. Like Etchells, I don’t even know where most of my bank’s belongings have come from in the first place. I have realised that I steal all of the time and in fact, I love to, especially from the people who inspire me and are doing something really interesting. It's fun to recycle inspiring ideas into something different.
Of course this post is to be taken with a pinch of salt, not for one moment do I think that it is okay to go around looting from other artists or to carelessly represent another person’s work. But rather, I am suggesting that from time to time we all steal, pocket, recycle, reuse and rework something that we once saw or heard, it's a beautiful process. I think sometimes we just need to try to let go of our ego and ownership, in order to allow the work live and relive freely.
Note: I wrote this before being told about Austin Kleon's book "How to Steal Like an Artist".
Etchells, Tim (1999). ‘On Performance Writing’, in Etchells, Certain Fragments: Contemporary Performance and Forced Entertainment, London: Routledge, pp. 100-01.