“Steal Like An Artist” – What I’m Reading Series, #1

So far this year, in addition to a dozen or more articles every day and parts of dozens of books and several in-progress books, I have read The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American CapitalismPolitical Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart PoliticsThe American Dream: A Cultural History, Where the Boys Are: Cinemas of Masculinity and Youth, The True American: Murder and Mercy in TexasThe Butler: A Witness to HistoryThe Residence: Inside the Private World of the White HouseRise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, and Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-1945.

This evening I read Steal Like An Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative by Austin Kleon. And despite my initial concern, I highly recommend this inexpensive best-selling book to all students, teachers, professors, and writers. I’m even trying to figure out a way to rationalize requiring my History students to buy a copy!

In sum, Kleon provides 150 pages of “insider” information when it comes to being a creator, rather being a human. The title’s use of “steal” is simply a catchy, creative way of attempting to help readers and creators to be keenly aware that every thing, every where, all the time influences us: A comprehensive Bibliography is impossible. Kleon wants us to take note of random overheard conversations, to adapt that song or picture, to read regularly and copy by hand favorite passages, and to remember that all of our ideas are rooted in a countless flow of other ideas, ideas that continue to be rehashed. Kleon says that the best (and only) ideas are “remixed” from other ideas. When we focus on being singularly original, we are either being arrogant and denying due credit or we unintentionally halt our progress before we even begin.  

Kleon describes “good theft” as when we honor, study, steal from many, give credit, transform, and remix that which we find. Throughout the book he encourages generosity, curiosity, time away from technology, and maintaining diverse and new interests and friends. 

I particularly like his sub-section called, “Practice Productive Procrastination.” Here Kleon encourages working on multiple projects, simply enjoying the creative process as it unfolds, and always breaking the “rules,” always trying something new.

My only real reservation is Kleon’s constant and unwavering insistence that nothing is ever new. Opening pages quote the ancient text called Ecclesiastes: “There is nothing new under the sun.” Such a philosophy is, simply, not based on evidence: Humans, of course, are constantly making new scientific discoveries and creating new forms of expressions and reflections. While everything that humans create is absolutely rooted in prior creative works, some things just are refreshingly new. Kleon denies this. (What about the Internet?) Only when we boil down human activities to the very simplest of variables is everything a mere remix.

While I can see how that for some people (especially students) such an everything-is-a-remix approach might be helpful because our society puts such an historically unprecedented emphasis on absolutely originality and copyrights that people are either afraid to create or worried of plagiarism accusations, I am concerned that the everything-is-a-remix approach might unintentionally help perpetuate anti-intellectualism.    

That said, Steal Like An Artist, is a fascinating book. I’ve already ordered two of Kleon’s other books: Newspaper Blackout (a book of poems made by blacking out unwanted words in newspaper articles) and The Steal Like an Artist Journal: A Notebook for Creative Kleptomaniacs (even the preview on Amazon has given me some working ideas for creative assignments my students might like). 

When you read the book, let me know what you think! (And H/T to Sam Verbs for the recommendation.)

Andrew Joseph Pegoda