“Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” I think it’s safe to assume a lot of people have probably heard this quote. Most people just give it a little chuckle and move on. I think that there’s actually a lot of profundity to this quote, however, and a lot of people seem to overlook it. This quote can teach us a lot, especially if we consider who had said it: Pablo Picasso.
I’ve written other posts about this before, but learning any form of art by imitating the artists you admire is a process that all of the greats went through. As musicians, especially, we learn a lot by becoming little mini clones of the players we like. We digest their style into our own and mix it together with all of the other artists we have fused into us in previous obsessive phases.
This always follows a long tradition. Not only are you learning from that particular artist and learning how they speak the language of music, but you’re also absorbing all of the influences they had, as well as those influences’ influences. This is a family tree that goes back to the earliest forms of music.
What happens after some time, when you get a melting pot of artists under your fingers or in your vocal cords, is something awesome. You start to sound like yourself. All of these influences blend together in a different ratio than how they’re being blended in someone else, and no particular one is overly prominent. Sure, from time to time, someone might notice a lick or technique that you had gleaned from someone else, but you’ve put your own twist on it.
This process is a grueling one, but an extremely worthwhile one. Miles Davis famously said “Man, it takes a long time to sound like yourself.”
For some reason, people have become more and more resistant to this idea. They want to be originals. They don’t want to sound like anyone else. This is an extremely valid concern, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be absorbing other people’s ideas. Remember that art is a language, and when you first learned to talk, you copied those around you, and this is exactly what the quote above alludes to.
I think the biggest selling point for this idea and this quote is who actually said it. It would be one thing if Picasso was just a good artist, but this idea has so much more validity when you realize Picasso is regarded as one of the most revolutionary and original artists for all time. If you look at pieces like “Guernica” you see a piece of art that was unlike anything before it’s time. Picasso was the inventor of cubism, a form of art that had people scratching their heads and lead to a redefining of what art could be. Picasso had one of the most individual and in turn influential styles that art had ever seen, and even he admitted he didn’t only copy others, but straight stole from them. Doing this, and, of course, putting in a ton of work, paved the way to a revolution. Think of this next time you find yourself questioning if it’s worth it to “learn your roots” before trying to come up with a style all of your own. I would argue it’s not even possible to do be an individual without this tradition backing you up. This has been shown throughout history.
How lucky are we that today we not only have more history to draw from, but also easier access to that history?
Anything you’d like to add? Leave a comment below! You can also subscribe to this blog or follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and Google+, to stay up to date on content!
Guitar Instructor, Co-Owner
Falls Music School