How to Steal like an Artist: Nothing is Original

The majority of us spend our days desperately imitating the lives of others. It seems surprising to admit this but within the society we live in, obsessed with power and position, it is believable that we wish to mimic those who flaunt success. Henry C. Lunn upholds that ‘to appear affluent in this world, rather than to be happy’ seems to be the desire of every individual.

This imitative behaviour comes naturally to us, as it has been hard wired within us since we were new born infants. Imitative behaviour is crucial to social cognition, it is how new born infants understand that adults are like ‘me’ and to empathize. How does this social development impact us in later life? This article argues how imitation has shaped social learning, developed our traditions, our culture and how ultimately because of this, Nothing is Original.

This year the work of Eduoard Manet (1832-1883) has been exhibited at the Palazzo Ducale in Venice. His work epitomises a pivotal transition from the idealised beauty of the Renaissance period, to Impressionism. Yet this exhibition presents Manet in a different light from what we originally knew. That this is artist known to be so original and ground breaking, actually took from established artists and produced works of art with slight variations from the originals.

Manet's Olympia 1867
Manet’s Olympia 1867

The most apparent example of this statement is Manet’s controversial painting Olympia (1867) which for the first time in history is displayed beside Titian’s flawless Venus of Urbino (1538). This historic pairing is what art critics have been raving about and from first- hand experience it can be understood why. It is an intense experience to be in the presence of these two influential artists. However what everyone’s attention is focused on when entering the room that possesses both these paintings is; Manet stole Titian’s authorship!

Titian's Venus of Urbino 1538
Titian’s Venus of Urbino 1538

It is an unanticipated revelation that Manet who is viewed as the pinnacle of modernism, did not present the viewer with anything of originality. Yes, these two iconic ladies display very different intentions. Titian’s Venus softly melts onto the canvas with a glow of femininity whilst Manet’s harsh distorted female body violently confronts the viewer. Yet despite Manet’s slight dissimilarities and the paintings being centuries apart, Manet’s composition and concepts has tarnished Titian’s authorship.

Authorship is the source of origin of an idea. This argument is quite possibly providing proof that imitation does not reaffirm and strengthens authorship but dilutes it down. Whenever Titian’s Venus of Urbino is spoken about, so will be Manet’s Olympia and the paintings will continue to be paired together in art history.

However it would be wrong to accuse Manet of unforgivable theft, when many artists before and after him have proven that innovation in art is built upon stealing. T.S. Eliot, one of the most inspiring twentieth century’s poets, himself wrote that ‘immature poets imitate, mature poets steal.’ Surprisingly Titian’s idea of his reclining nude was not an original itself but was an imitation of his predecessor Giorgione Barbarelli da Castelfranco who first introduced the sensuous female nude in his Sleeping Venus (1510). The only variation is that Titian introduced the reclining nude in a domestic environment instead of her original position in a rural environment. Titian’s imitative style of Giorgione has made attributing work to Giorgione a challenge, the painting Pastoral Concert, originally believed to be a Giorgione’s but not attributed to Titian. Although Picasso is celebrated for his individuality, he too appropriated other artists such as Paul Cezanne, Rembrandt and Diego Velazuez, so much so that Elizabeth Cowling dubbed him an ‘artist without style.’ Andy Warhol‘s art imitated advertisement images and celebrated the success of commercialism. It is in fact undeniable that, borrowing from the work of other artists has been a time honored practice that is still continued in this day and age.

In contemporary culture, imitation is paraded in all aspects of the arts, especially in the music industry where we’ve become accustomed to witnessing it directly. MIA’s memorable introduction to Paper planes (2007) is a replica of The Clash’s opening rift to Straight to hell (1982), although with very contrasting sounds. Ironically, The Clash themselves are guilty of imitating; the cover artwork for their album London Calling (1979) is an imitation/homage to the cover of Elvis Presley’s self-titled debut album, Elvis Presley (1956). The same scheme was used again in 1995 for the Big Audio Dynamite, a band fronted by former Clash member Mick Jones for the album F-Punk (1995). Another example of imitation in the music industry is song covers; artists that spring to mind are Michael Bubble and Robbie Williams who have both done versions of songs from The Rat Pack. What influenced these artists to do covers of someone else’s songs?

Robbie Williams Swing when you're winning
Robbie Williams Swing when you’re winning

In their article Don’t Innovate, Imitate, Tim Deveney and Tom Stein believe that it is a lot easier to imitate a successful idea instead of coming up with your own. It is often a shorter and surer path to a first million. This is because as humans we find it hard to adapt to change and therefore find comfort in something we enjoy that is familiar. We are drawn to that lifestyle those particular artists exhibit, we wish to reminisce of a past life we can only imagine, that to us seems flawless and quintessential. With imitating a song from the past, we can enjoy its meaning but in our updated present culture.

Despite this chain of events and many others, musical artists and filmmakers have made it a well-known fact that the success of their work is directly linked to copyright protection. Authorised in 1787, the copyright clause made it possible to protect the interests of the creator and give them in authority to determine who may adapt their work to other forms. These rights given to protect artists from copy right, illustrates how imitation is not considered the sincerest form of flattery to these creative minds but a threat to originality; a necessity to their art form. Roland Barthes once said that “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author.” To take freely from an artist’s work supports the idea that the original artist is dead or so it is thought.

The fashion industry on the other hand, avoids copyright restrictions, which is acknowledged in the New York Times article, Why imitation is the sincerest form of fashion (2010). The article argues that fashion designers have never asked for the approval of copyrights because ‘much growth and creativity in the industry depends on imitation’. Designers take ‘inspiration’ from other designers, but in the fashion world this has no impact on the success of their work. In fact, it gives their work credibility and success; this method of copying is what creates trends of the season. It is how fashion designers and people can keep up with the latest trend through imitation. Every item of clothing is a rework of something before, which is why fashion trends fade out and back in, over years.

Artists rely on tradition as guidance; they often repaint the works of others to explore the application of their own style to a similar composition. It is common for artist to study fine art and its history before making their own name for themselves. This tradition goes back to the Renaissance period where an artist would work under an artist and imitate their style to develop as an artist, regularly finishing off pieces of their master’s work.

However Lunn explains the damaging side effects of this, that the artist will imitate one who has already gained fame, instead of developing any talent he originally possesses. Therefore it can be agreed that to some extent that tradition restricts creativity and that after struggling to imitate others after a while Lunn comments how an author becomes a literary drudge.

As human beings it is in our nature to imitate actions of success as a survival instinct, therefore being doing so, we are undermining our own originality. Film directors would much rather rework a classic or imitate the story line of a popular book than create their own plot as David Bowie said, ‘the only art I’ll ever study is stuff that I can steal from’.

Yet my argument is that without any form of originality, our society could begin to bare similarities to settings within dystopian themed fictional pieces. Individuals will become dehumanized by imitation of one another; we may literally become walking drudges. As in the words of George Orwell, 1984;

“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Caraballo Paulette

    It is what we define as original, which does not mean that it is unique at all. Lovely read.

    • Giovana Picone

      Thank you 🙂
      I agree also I think it also has a lot to do with the context the art work is presented in that makes it appear original.

  2. “Immature artists borrow; mature artists steal”

  3. Giovana Picone

    Thank you Caraballo 🙂

  4. Jerry Truss

    Very important article, well done. In my opinion, if a piece of art is captivating, well done and truly moves me, I could care less where or when its artist was inspired by it.

    • Giovana Picone

      Thank you 🙂
      To be honest I am the same, if I like a piece of art work then the context around it is irrelevant. However studying history and philosophy of art opens your eyes to different ways of looking at art work.

  5. Frankly, there is not much that is original on this planet. Ask yourself: why is it that all other disciplines like Music, Maths, English… are build on those that came before?

    By some law in the artist’s rulebook, you are not allowed to build on what has come before you. Kind of like you are expected to reinvent art by yourself or you are not a “true artist”.

  6. Dan Smith

    Great Read. Some lovely quotes and good references to music and art!

  7. Karissa

    An artist should try not to be only influenced by others work. The artist should be influenced by themselves and their own experiences to allow creativity to bloom to it’s fullest.

  8. Helen O

    The George Orwell quote was a particularly interesting one to have at the end of the article. Would you be able to explain what he means when he says “He who controls the present, controls the past?” It links in well with how time and history have played such a key role within art forms, as it can be used to either move onwards from or to move backwards to, especially when looking at the different art movements that have cultivated through influence and imitation.

    • Giovana Picone

      What I meant by the quote is that it seems tradition and past has had a major impact on artists and art movements. The Renaissance period was inspired by Classics, whilst other art movements like Impressionism fought against the tradition of the past, breaking boundaries which we saw in Cubism and in today’s Conceptual movements (proving that paint to canvas is not the only way to create art). My point was that weather art is using traditional methods or breaking it’s boundaries, it is all center around the past.
      Hope that is a good enough explanation.

  9. Everette Dykema

    Interesting discussion. We all borrow because it has all been done before and we are not the originators. To steal an idea is to take something of value and make it yours. To make an artistic element yours you have to interpret it your way with your own approach.

  10. Interesting article. I think a balance between innovation and imitation is key when creating; it’s impossible not to be influenced in some way by something, and in the act of stealing or re-creating something that has come before, it is by definition made new. I can’t remember who said this (possibly Gertrude Stein?) but even the same object could be considered being different each time you see it, because the circumstances surrounding the viewing have changed.

  11. Giovana Picone

    Yeah you’ve made a really valid point, have you ever read John Berger’s ‘Ways of seeing’. I’ve just finished it and I think it contains really strong essays that talk about how we see things and how we’ve been trained to see things.

  12. Aliya Gulamani
    Aliya Gulamani

    I really enjoyed this article, it’s so well written and has brilliant references throughout. I also enjoyed how you explored music, art, fashion, literature and film – all the different elements of art.
    Personally, I think complete originality is impossible – from the moment we are born we look outwards to others and the world around us. There are always – whether subconscious or conscious – influences on our work.
    Having said that though I also think that it is also impossible to avoid originality because we are each of us, individuals with our own thoughts and ways of seeing. In an artist’s reworking of another artist’s work, there is always something that is their own, that betrays the presence of the individual.
    Out of interest (I might have missed it as I can’t find it), where are Lunn’s ideas from? I’m interested in reading more of his work as it seems really interesting.
    Thank you for this excellent read, I look forwards to reading more of your articles.

  13. Sierra Throop

    I really enjoyed this article and agree with your points! Great read.

  14. Michael Hedges

    Interesting article! I am sure you are already familiar with their work, but if not, have a read of Julia Kristeva’s and Mikhail Bakhtin on ‘intertextuality’: I think it is a concept that would fit nicely into what you have said here. Fairclough, Mulderrig and Wodak described it as ‘any text is a link in a chain of texts, reacting to, drawing on, and transforming other texts.’

  15. Lachlan Vass

    Very fascinating article

  16. SeanHutchings

    This is an absolutely stunning read. I do fear we are leaving the age of imitation and into the age of repetition, bordering on uniformity. The world looks so good from the shoulders of giants I suppose. But yes, a truly wonderful read. Thank you.

  17. gracenalty

    This is a great article – I’m studying authorship at the moment and it’s really interesting to know that these two pieces are next to each other now

  18. Interesting! Frederic Jameson’s essay on postmodernism ties in quite nicely with your article. Whether true creative innovation exists or ever existed is always an interesting debate.

  19. Really well written article. The cycle between of imitation seems endless and maybe even inevitable in the world of visual art especially, but maybe this isn’t necessarily always negative – any idea that you’re going to want to express in art is probably an idea that already exists in society. So building upon previous works of the same/similar themes can be a good way to continue the discussion of this idea in society. So in this way individual pieces may not be seen as made for themselves, by themselves at all but more a part of a broader concept.

  20. Jonathon Wilson

    Very nice. The idea of originality is a very slippery slope. Chances are, in the end, that nothing is truly original, as you state. However, I don’t think that the lack of originality always comes from stealing others work. Granted, many things of the artistic persuasion include some degree of theft, some more than others. To that point, one of my professors in college used to tell us all the time, “Good writers borrow, great writers steal.” But I think that we as artists can’t help but be, at the bare minimum, inspired or influenced by other works around us. The difference is, of course, what you do with that inspiration and influence. If the mimic falls too closely to the original, then you have a good argument for a real lack of originality. However, if a person can take ideas and work from others and then turn it into something completely new, with a fresh perspective and voice, that’s where real originality lies. That’s the point that we all want to reach when we reach for the keyboard, brush, camera, etc.

  21. Originality was once explained to me as having everything to do with doing and nothing to do with knowing. It is merely how the individual perceives the aesthetic they are creating. To copy word for word a Shakespearian sonnet and to publish it today is an original choice that alters the work merely by being published in a different time period. Originality seems to be a foray into doing something different every time you set out to be creative.

    Is there original thought anymore?
    in, obsessed with power and position, it is believable that we.

  22. We all have fresh ideas and spins on unoriginal ideas. Some people are afraid to create because it’s been done before but there are plenty of ways to make it new.

  23. Excellent piece. Originality today seems to be confused and lost. Perhaps we should have people inspiring us to take time every day to explore new ideas and develop new artwork.

  24. This was a fascinating read! In the Renaissance and Baroque periods in Italy, imitating the Old Masters was how an apprentice learned to draw and paint, and being able to render, say, the forms of Michelangelo, with mastery was something held in high esteem (rather than being thought of as stealing). One thing that’s so perplexing about the idea of imitation is the question of if imitation is stealing, if imitation is a way of honoring the original artist by appropriating their work, or if imitation as emulation is a way of surpassing the achievement of the original artist.

  25. I’m not sure that I agree with your argument. I think even if an artist borrows (or steals) from an influence, they would have to put something of themselves in the work. They wouldn’t be able to stop themselves. Already the artist is influenced by so much–their parents, their schoolteachers, their cultural values–that most of what they create didn’t strictly come from their own mind. Their creation is just their interpretation of their environment, which leaves its indelible imprint on their psyche. I don’t think anyone invents anything, just innovates. T.S. Eliot has an essay called “Tradition and Individual Talent” in which he argues exactly this, and proclaims that instead of searching for what makes a poem (I’ve expanded his argument to all works of art) unique or original. We should instead look at the ways in which the poet incorporates past techniques and adds to the rich tradition of poetry, which has lived long before the individual and will continue to live after him, always growing, always changing. If an idea is good, why should we only use it once? If the first person to paint a horse on a cave wall sued the second person to do the same, would art even exist? Remember that the horse didn’t come from that first person’s mind, it was something they reproduced from their environment. All art is inspired by our environment, and the art of the past is part of that environment because we are exposed to it everyday.

  26. Although Robbie Williams does cover other artists he does so in his own unique way and acknowledges them as his heroes.

  27. Aung Khant Kyaw

    Hi, Ms Picone
    I’m an artist and educator from Myanmar. I found this article quite interesting and important that i consider my country needs a translated one. Can i translate this article pls?

    Best regards
    aung khant kyaw

  28. Lovely article! But I was under the impression that the fashion industry actually does have certain copyright regulations, like a limited number of features than cannot be exceeded when designing pieces of clothes similar (copied) to others. Counterfeit clothes and fashion accessories have become a problem for huge brand companies. That is why these measures were necessary.

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