Picasso, Copying, Stealing, and Woodshedding

I often see this quoted, typically justifying inspiration, plagiarism, lack of planning, or laziness:

Good artists copy; great artists steal.

Pablo Picasso

You know what the problem with this quote is? Picasso was a childhood prodigy so talented that his art professor father vowed to give up painting when Pablo’s technique surpassed his own—Picasso was 13 at the time. Picasso created more than 1,800 paintings and 12,000 drawings in his lifetime. He was also an accomplished sculptor, potter, and occasional architect. And by the time this quote was attributed to Picasso, he had mastered (not just dabbled in) every existing painting style and moved on to help create new ones. So when Picasso says, “great artists steal” he has an extremely different definition of “great artist” than you and I do. 

When this quote is used to justify how there aren’t any new ideas so you borrowed someone else’s, or how you’re getting started and still learning so you ripped off someone’s website and called it your own, you’re not a great artist. You’re missing the point.

The poet T.S. Eliot, in the quote that likely inspired Picasso’s more famous quip, says: 

“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion.” 

T.S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (1922)

Better. Utterly different. Unique. Let’s aim for those first, then we can quote Picasso.