The Art of Stealing / by Chris Hall

Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery - celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from - it’s where you take them to."  Jim Jarmusch

Good artists copy, great artists steal.  Pablo Picasso.

Pablo Picasso, Guitar, 1913

Pablo Picasso, Guitar, 1913

Maybe Picasso is referring to the collage elements in some of his work, where you steal elements from newspapers and advertisement, cultural clutter, and transcend the original.  It is important to transcend the original if one wants to create a valid work of art, or else you are creating homage (and there is nothing wrong with that, but you can not build a career on homage).  The process of artistic theft has been around since the first artists; it is a grand tradition that works in a variety of media. 

Sound artists Negativland steal from a variety of sources and create true sound collage.  For one album, they ripped of a U2 song and outtakes of American Top 40 DJ Casey Kasem cursing while dedicating a U2 song to a dog named Snuggles.  Negativland was sued by both Casey Kasem and Island records.  Artist Girl Talk, however, famous for his pop song mash-ups, pays homage.  Clever as the work is, Girl Talk’s work does not always transcend the original sources.  I get the same pleasure out of listening to a Girl Talk song as I do listening to the original sources (and often, I prefer the original).  Below are links to listen to examples from Negativland and Girl Talk.

If you are going to steal, use the theft to make a better art, and if you can’t do that, make a different or critical interpretation from the original source.  If you can’t do that, well, then you’ve made homage . . . and if your original source is something banal, such a newspaper, or cultural pollution such as an advertisement, well, then you done the world a bad thing by creating more useless clutter. 

In the above quote, Jarmusch says “select only things to steal that speak directly to your soul.  If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic.”  I have to agree.  Sherrie Levine, who uses theft to critic modern art, chooses work that for some reason does not speak to her soul and it reflects in her work, which is definitely inauthentic.  Levine would most likely say that is the point, to challenge notions of authenticity.  I would then have to ask, why?  Why is it so important for you to produce work that is so decidedly inauthentic?  What are you trying to challenge?  Below are two works "by" Sherrie Levine.  The first is a pixelated photo of Cezanne painting, followed by a black and white photograph of a Van Gogh portrait.