Steal Like An Artist: The Austin Kleon Interview

Creativity is something that we all possess in some form or another, but many of us discount our creative abilities. Maybe we think we don’t have what it takes to be creative or we doubt that any of our ideas are original enough to be inspiring, so we let them die. In his new book, Steal Like An Artist (Workman Publishing Company), Austin Kleon talks about creativity and the 10 things nobody told you about being creative. Here’s a short trailer about the book to give you an idea of what he’s talking about:

Steal Like An Artist Book Trailer from Austin Kleon on Vimeo.

We had a chance to talk with Austin about his new book and the idea that while nothing is original everyone can be creative by stealing like an artist.

Music Lit 101: You have a new book out called Steal Like An Artist. That’s an interesting title. Why did you call it that?

Austin Kleon: Steal Like An Artist is a riff on a quote generally attributed to Picasso, which says, “Bad artists copy, great artists steal.” The idea of the book is that you are a mashup of what you let into your life, and that the way to better creative work is to surround yourself with the right influences, work hard, and play nice.

Music Lit 101: On your website you call it a “manifesto for creativity in the digital age.” Do you think creativity has changed, and if so are you espousing a new way to go about being creative?

Austin: Creativity hasn’t necessarily changed — it’s still a matter of makers taking what came before them and remixing it and transforming it into their own thing. What’s changed is that now we have the internet, which allows us to gather influence and get our work out there in a way we never could before.

Music Lit 101: The book is based on a list you created for a talk you were giving at a community college in upstate New York. What was the genesis of the list and can you give us an idea of what the main themes you touched on in that talk?

Austin: Sure — I was nervous about giving the talk, so I went for a walk with my wife and asked her what I should talk about. She said the best talk she ever heard was just a list of things the speaker wished she’d known when she was starting out. So I decided to steal that idea and went home and wrote up the list. The talk was really about demystifying creativity — it isn’t about being a genius, it’s about gobbling up the right influences and doing the work.

Music Lit 101: I was particularly drawn to one item on your list – “The Secret: do good work and share it with people.” Do you think the social aspect of the web allows for greater creativity? And by sharing, are you fine with people being allowed to riff off or derive other works from someone else’s original idea?

Austin: It’s all about the interconnectedness of ideas — the web makes it easy to spread and mix ideas. I think it was Steven Johnson, in his book WHERE GOOD IDEAS COME FROM who said that ideas get better when they bump into each other a lot. And the great thing about the internet is that it’s easy to steal ideas—the bad thing about the internet is that it’s easy to steal ideas and do nothing other than present them as your own without improving them or transforming them into your own thing.

Music Lit 101: Clearly the old model of controlling access to creative works is breaking down. What do you think the future holds for creativity?

Austin: I try not to make predictions about the future. Thing is, all these ideas are actually really old — the way to be creative is to soak up everything, let it swirl around in your brain, and then pull it back out and try to form it into something. The future is made out of things from the past.

Music Lit 101: Do you think anyone can be creative?

Austin: Yes. Absolutely.

Music Lit 101: Now that you’ve published your manifesto on creativity do you think you, and others, will continue to change it over time?

Austin: I hope so! It would be horribly boring if in 20 years nothing changed and I was giving out the same advice


Watch Austin’s presentation at The Economist’s Human Potential Summit.

Check out Austin’s Blog

Check out Austin’s previous book “Newspaper Blackout”.

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Everything Is A Remix

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