Austin Kleon spends a lot of his time perfecting his craft; he’s a writer, an artist, and a model father. One of his favorite subjects is a philosophical question that has been around since the dawn of civilization; is there such thing as an original thought? The historical commentaries on this debate are vast, from a verse in the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes, to Mark Twain’s explanation of the “mental kaleidoscope.” Our ideas, and the ideas that came before, are all part of the collective consciousness of human beings, whether divine or earthly. It’s simply, yet intricately, what holds our world up. Even Albert Einstein derived his idea of Special Theory of Relativity from the work of Hendrik Lorentz, and other physicist before him. It’s natural that artists, theorists, and creators have influences. However, there is still a difference between ingenious inspiration and pure purloin. More importantly, defining how do you add value to what influences you, rather than simply denaturing it. These are a few of the intriguing topics Kleon outlines in his New York Times Bestseller, Steal Like an Artist: 10 things nobody told you about being creative. We recently had the opportunity to discuss some points of contention within this age-old, philosophical question — among other things — with the author.
When you’re not busy, how do you like to spend your free time? I like to drink whiskey and watch TV.
When you’re working, how do you like to get into the creative process? I’m so strapped for time anymore that I usually just get right to work, but if I’m not sure where to start, sometimes I’ll pull a Tarot card or toss coins and consult the I Ching. Usually I warm up with one of my newspaper blackout poems or I’ll just write two or three pages of gibberish in my notebook. Sometimes I’ll just read my dictionary until I get an idea.
You’re an advocate of “unschooling” and self-education. Why do you feel that self-education is so vital to becoming an effective artist? I think all education is ultimately self-education — eventually, the artist, like all thinkers, must learn to learn, and that requires learning how she or he learns most effectively. I’m not an advocate of “unschooling”—a very specific kind of home schooling based around the child’s personal interests—because I don’t really advocate for any kind of education. I think it’s up to parents and students. But I have been reading a lot about unschooling lately, particularly the work of John Holt, who has taught me a ton about how children learn.
You previously mentioned that as a father, you believe you learn more from your son than you teach him. Can you give us one of the many meaningful lessons he has taught you? My son has taught me how to create without any sort of internal critic — when my son sits down to draw, he’s not worried about how to get started or how it’s going to turn out, he just does it. He’s also not worried about representing something accurately; he’s actually creating something. So, if he’s drawing a tree, in his mind he’s not creating a drawing of a tree, he’s actually creating the tree. This has made me rethink a lot of my ideas about drawing. John Baldessari said that everything he knew about drawing he learned from watching children draw.
A lot of critics and proponents of media in this generation say that it is a “remix generation”. Contemporary music is filled with loops and samples, artistic styles are often recycled, etc. How is this reputation beneficial or detrimental to this generation’s artistic legacy? We have always stolen, remixed, and recycled, it’s just become a lot easier with technology. The major problem with remix culture today is that many young artists don’t have a depth and breadth of influences to draw from: they’re stealing from modern artists, or they’re stealing from each other. One has to do what T.S. Eliot said to do, and borrow from back in time or remote geography or just plain old alien sources.
A key theme of your writing is differentiating “good theft vs. bad theft”. Do you ever struggle with delineating the two in your personal work? If so, do you have any tips on avoiding bad theft? Yes, and I’ve included them all in this handy chart!
A couple of years ago you produced “a list of 10 things I wished I’d heard when I was starting out”. This was a sort of springboard to your book, “Steal Like an Artist: 10 things nobody told you about being creative.” Of the “10 things” you listed, which do you feel is the most important and why? Number 8: “Be nice. (The World Is A Small Town.)” The world doesn’t necessarily need more artists, but it definitely needs more decent human beings
In the years since you published the list and your book, are there any other words of advice that you’d like to give to the new generation of artists? A piece of advice from the writer Charles Portis: “the trick is to first be useful, then necessary.”
Are you working on any projects that our readers should be looking out for? Lots of ideas, no firm projects yet. My favorite thing I do is sending out a weekly email of 10 things I think are worth sharing — it’s the best way to keep up with what I do. Subscribe here: http://austinkleon.com/newsletter
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