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Good Artists Borrow…

May 8

Dear kind readers of this blog, sorry for the lag in posting.

A friend of mine posted a link to this blog on Facebook and it reminded me of the many stealing artists I write about in The Steal.

We often advise  artists to steal or talk admiringly about them stealing or having stolen. What we’re referring to is ideas or technique or influence. Its a romantic idea. The quote “Good Artists Borrow, Great Artists Steal” has been attributed and misttributed to writers, poets,and  playwrights going back at least to the early twentieth century. But what does it really mean? Are we really endorsing stealing?

And if we are endorsing stealing in some intangible, literary way, it surely doesn’t mean that we are endorsing shoplifting.

I think that encouraging artists to steal means that we’re telling them to honor their artistic fathers to not be afraid or intimidated by them, to not waste time with “the anxiety of influence” but rather to be influenced by them, while also transforming whatever they steal from them. 

At the same time, I read about many instances in which this intangible literary and artistic stealing and shoplifting do get confused.

In this blog, the writer counsels artists to steal and move on. In other words, don’t think about your stealing too much. If you’re good, you’ll transform the stolen stuff into an original work of genius. Again that word transform, which seems a defense of stealing.

But the literary or artistic stealing and the uh tangible kind are sometimes found together. In Patti Smith’s engrossing and award-winning memoir, Just Kids, she recounts how she and Robert Mapplethorpe stole art supplies while they lived in the Chelsea Hotel. They would steal by day and paint by night. They were, if you will, stealing to steal. Smith read about how Lee Krasner stole for Jackson Pollack, she confesses.

And here is a testimonial from one of the friends of Dash Snow, as quoted in Ariel Levy’s New York fascinating Magazine cover story:

“But Dash wasn’t like a lot of the derels I was hanging out with who would run out of stores with clothes in their hands. Dash would steal, but it’s the way you steal: I go in and I’m really friendly with the help and I’m smooth. I’ll make it sweet, so the next three or four times I come in the store, it’s all good with the help. Dash got really good at it. One of the things I always say is that a really good graffiti writer will make a good shoplifter-someone who’s used to breaking the law fifteen or twenty times a day.”

The Morrissey song, Shoplifters of the World Unite, is an homage to Patti Smith. Here is the refrain:

Oh, shoplifters of the world
Unite and take over
Shoplifters of the world
Hand it over
Hand it over
Hand it over

Anyway, I’d like to hear from readers. What is the relationship between art and theft, exactly?

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