Earning the Right to Quote Picasso

I see this Pablo Picasso quote thrown around a lot to justify plagiarism, lack of planning, short deadlines, or just plain laziness:

“Good artists copy; great artists steal.”

You know what the problem with this quote is?

We’re not Picasso, baby.

He was a childhood prodigy who was so talented that his father, an artist and art teacher himself, vowed to give up painting when Pablo’s technique surpassed his own.

Picasso was 13 at the time.

In his lifetime, Picasso created more than 1,800 paintings and 12,000 drawings. He was an accomplished sculptor, potter, and occasional architect. By the time the “great artists steal” quote was attributed to him, he had mastered (not just dabbled in — mastered) every established painting style and moved on to help create and experiement with new ones.

When Picasso says, “great artists steal” he has a very different definition of “great artist” than we do.

If this quote is used to justify how there aren’t any new ideas so we borrowed someone else’s, or how we’re just getting started and still learning so we ripped off someone’s work and called it our own, we’re not great artists. We’re Xeroxing other people’s creativity and effort.

We’re not taking the heist far enough.

T.S. Eliot, in the quote that likely inspired Picasso’s more famous quip, says this of immature and mature artists:

“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion.”
 — T.S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (1922)

Better. Utterly different. Unique. Let’s aim for those first, and use what we steal to make something new and fresh.

Then we can quote Picasso.

Pablo Picasso in Mougins, France in 1971
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