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Creativity Lies: The Originality Lie

The Most Popular Creativity Lie

If everyone’s stealing, should you do it too? Yes.


The quote on the stone in the picture above is popularly attributed to Pablo Picasso, who knew he was a great artist. So the words are an admission of guilt, though no great admission; we all know that Picasso “stole” the African aesthetic and combined it with his European training to make Cubism.

The first sentence from Wikipedia’s definition of “Creativity” labels it as “a phenomenon whereby something new and somehow valuable is formed.”

Banksy’s hilarious appropriation is a rich riff on both statements. He has managed to openly steal Picasso’s quote about stealing, and make it completely new.

It’s all the richer when you understand that Picasso almost certainly never said these words in the first place, and if he did, he definitely stole them himself. But from whom?

The first “documentation” of “Picasso’s quote” came from our own generation’s greatest idea thief, Steve Jobs, in a 1996 PBS documentary “Triumph of the Nerds.” Jobs actually attributed these words to Picasso: “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.”

Whatever the exact structure, Jobs’ attribution of the words to Picasso seem more about his own admiration than history. Already in 1920, TS Eliot published an essay in which he wrote:

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.

Some have suggested that Eliot stole the quote not from Picasso (nor vice-versa) but from Igor Stravinsky, who supposedly said the same thing about musicians.

The online Quote Investigator unearthed a much earlier reference from W. H. Davenport Adams in the article “Imitators and Plagiarists” published in The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1892 when Picasso and Stravinsky were barely tweens, and Eliot would have been pre-literate:

Great poets imitate and improve, whereas small ones steal and spoil.

Adams meant the opposite of Eliot and whoever else. He preferred imitation. The point is, the “creativity as…



Michael Lee
Peak Performer

I’m a Creativity & Innovation expert, trainer, speaker, writer, thinker, filmmaker living in NY & South Africa