Is it wrong to borrow someone’s ideas?

Wang Qizi Mao

We all have to be original right? Not so said Picasso, who declared in his famous line, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.”

The quote is general interpreted to mean that a good artist is influenced by others but when an artist becomes great, their style is so closely associated with them that the ideas of others are essentially “stolen”. Picasso was a great example of such an artist because he spent his life copying others but history has recorded him as one of the most original artists in history. Even his famous quote was copy, believed to have come from composer Igor Stravinsky, who said,

 “Lesser artists borrow; great artists steal.”

In turn, Stravinsky’s quote is believed to have been derived from poet T.S Elliot who proposed,

 “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 of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn.”

Ok, so the original interpretation of the Picasso quote seems to be different from Elliot’s so if there was a bit of borrowing of quotes, a form of Chinese whispers seems to have resulted in meaning being changed or at the very least, interpretations being changed according to the context the idea has been heard in. And so it is with art.

Let’s have a look at Andy Warhol’s Mao. It is stolen in the sense that it has become so famous that curators the world over don’t even know who painted the original that Warhol. I’ve seen major art museums just say it came from a cover of a book that Warhol found.

The original was actually painted by someone and his name was Wang Qizhi. So should Wang Qizhi feel like he has been cheated out of millions or acknowledgement of his creative genius? Well, it’s a bit nuanced because Wang Qizhi painted his Mao’s under the direction of a panel of communist party members who made suggestions about certain feelings an images they wanted. I don’t know what that panel of party members wanted, but I would suggest it would be something different to what art patrons at a Warhol exhibition are talking about. In that regards, Warhol’s theft created a whole new feeling which was unique and utterly different from the book cover that he tore Mao from.

But how would Warhol feel if others did to him what he did to Wang Qizhi (not to mention soup can designers). Well, lets consider his quote:

“I don’t get mad when people take my things…It got a little crazy when people were turning out paintings and signing my name…Signing my name to it was wrong but other than that I don’t care.”

Andy Warhol Mao

Andy Warhol Mao


4 thoughts on “Is it wrong to borrow someone’s ideas?

  1. Such an interesting point of discussion, “borrowing” vs “stealing” art. It’s one thing to get inspired by something and another to lift someone else’s work and incorporate it into yours – it’s always a grey area between what’s uniquely yours and what is someone else’s. As you said, we all draw inspiration from a certain object or moment. I like the T.S Elliot quote where he touches upon finding inspiration from others and turning it into something different, and I like to think he meant we derive our own composition and technique by looking at how and what others did – experiment.

    • Thanks Mable. Grey area indeed. It always struck me as peculiar that what may be defined as “informed” in one discipline may be labelled “stealing, derivative and formulaic” in visual art. I like T.S Elliot as well and I think he did a good job at defining different types of appropriation. That said, it really really up to the beholder to decide if the final product is something unique or simply a copy and so often this is determined by the context and the audiences personal background.

      • “formulaic” is another apt term to describe some kinds of appropriation. A complete rip-off would be blatantly lifting one’s work completely and not reproducing it in another way, and not giving credit. I think if credit is given where it’s due and we make an effort to make our own voice shine through, then appropriation isn’t so rough.

      • Giving credit where credit is due should be easy. In music, musicians proudly boast about their influences and this adds to the appeal. In visual art; however, it seems that concealing sources and inspiration is the done thing.

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