Lesser Artists Borrow, Great Artists Steal – Igor Stravinsky

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Who was Igor Stravinsky?

Igor Stravinsky

Born on 17 June 1882 in Russia, Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky is considered to be one of the greatest music composers of the 20th century and among the pioneers of modernist music. He was known as a revolutionary who drew ideas from traditional music forms, adopted new procedures and came up with new melodic ideas. He always had a desire for learning, exploration and new discoveries, which helped him become a towering figure of the music industry.

His music career mainly revolved around stylistic diversity. Stravinsky redefined musical design and changed the way how composers perceived rhythmic structure. From paying tribute to earlier masters to revolutionizing musical design, Stravinsky was one of the greatest contributors to the music industry. His musical career can be categorized into three phases i.e. Russian Period (1907–1919), Neoclassical Period (1920–1954) and Serial Period (1954–1968).

Igor Stravinsky

Origins of the Quote

A certain degree of controversy surrounds the quote “Lesser Artists Borrow, Great Artists Steal” because it’s not clear who actually said it first. There are many other famous personalities who said a similar thing with slightly different variations, including W. H. Davenport Adams, William Faulkner, Lionel Trilling and Pablo Picasso.

The quote might have been from Stravinsky, but quotes with different variations in words but similar meaning have also been attributed to Pablo Picasso and TS Eliot. Although the quote “Lesser Artists Borrow, Great Artists Steal” is attributed to Igor Stravinsky, he might himself have borrowed it from someone and added his own flavor to make it unique. He probably did the exact same thing he said in his quote. 

T.S Eliot and Pablo Picasso said something similar to what Stravinsky said. Even Eliot and Picasso might have borrowed or stolen the quote from W.H Davenport Adams who said “That great poets imitate and improve, whereas small ones steal and spoil.”, which was included in an 1892 article.

The Modern Version

The modern version of what is believed to be the original quote is reversed in order. The current version is believed to have been originated from T.S Eliot’s The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism, which was published in 1920 and read “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.”

People often attribute “Good artists copy, Great artists steal” to Pablo Picasso, but its origins are unknown and it does not occur by itself. The idea behind the quote is much older. Shakespeare is known to have borrowed or stolen even whole scenes and plotlines from the work of other writers and incorporated them into his own plays. Whether or not its borrowing or stealing is another debate, but the idea has been around for quite some time.

The Meaning: Borrow Shamelessly or Steal with Pride?

The quote “Lesser Artists Borrow, Great Artists Steal” attributed to Igor Stravinsky tries to establish a contrast between blindly copying (borrowing) and enhancing the original idea (stealing). ‘Borrowing’ is similar to plagiarism and copying without adding any real value to the original idea, which even diminishes the value of the original idea.

‘Stealing’ on the other hand should add significant enhancement and improve the original work. Borrowing in the quote means shamelessly borrowing or copying existing ideas just to cash in on them, while stealing refers to getting inspiration from old ideas to innovate and come up with something even more valuable.

Innovation is a Rehash of Old Ideas

It’s a common belief that someone is creative only when they come up with something totally new. However, the reality is different and almost everything is a constant rehash of old ideas. What really matters is how old ideas are improved upon and put together. The products or art we love are a result of constant re-discovery, re-invention and improvement. Almost none of them came out of the blue.

Steve Jobs referred to ‘stealing’ as exposing yourself to the greatest ideas and merging them with your own to create something even greater, and feeling no shame whatsoever in doing so. Apple’s iPod is a great example to prove the point. Music players were already available in the market when the iPod was launched.

Apple ‘stole’ the best of what already existed, introduced a new design and transformed old nerdy MP3 players into a product everyone loved. Compare that to other MP3 player manufacturers who just ‘borrowed’ the idea and did not add anything new to the product. That’s probably why we don’t even hear their names anymore.

Borrowing vs. Stealing Art

The ‘borrowers’ are just cashing in, while ‘stealers’ are stealing with pride and have a vision to constantly innovate and offer something unique that adds a lot of value to the original ideas. Although the quote applies to almost every field, it makes more sense when it comes to arts because Igor probably said it in context of music. Borrowers just copy what others have done, while stealers hand pick the greatest elements and collaborate them in such a creative manner that the final work becomes something totally unique.

Is Borrowing and Stealing Even Ethical?

Despite the controversy surrounding the origins of the quote, the main idea behind it is the same i.e. how important existing ideas are for innovation and creating new ideas. The choice of words in Stravinsky’s quote is rather interesting. Words such as borrowing, copying and stealing all refer to violation of physical property rights and are not considered ethical. When we borrow something from someone, we are taking permission from the owner and usually taking it for a short time period.

In that sense, borrowing is socially acceptable and nothing seems to be wrong with it. Stealing on the other hand is socially unacceptable, done without permission and means that the real owner will lose the right to use it forever. The question arises that why did Stravinsky say that stealing is good and borrowing is bad while in social terms it’s the opposite?

The Power of Ideas

Ideas are intangible, so stealing one does not mean that the owner is deprived of using it. Using someone’s idea can lead the ‘stealer’ to create new ideas, which can even benefit the owner of the original idea. The author of the quote believes that ideas should not be treated like a physical property and locked behind intellectual property rights laws, which should be limited to physical objects.

Without improving on old ideas, it might not have been possible to move forward as a society. The problem however is that people can apply good ideas in a cheap way in order to make undeserved gains without offering any real value to the end user. For example, Xerox was the first to coin the idea of a GUI (Graphical User Interface), but turning that idea into reality for the masses required a lot of technical resources, time and more innovation, which Xerox could not do on its own. Microsoft and Apple caught on the idea and turned it into a game-changing operating system that enabled an average person to use a computer.

Conclusion

closeup of star on the hollywood walk of fame for igor stravinsky

Arts, science and the human culture as a whole is based on observing and understanding the world around us and constantly refining and improving existing ideas. Ideas are not physical objects and innovation comes by sharing them not locking them up behind copyright laws. The patent protection system encourages inventors to make their ideas public and offers them limited protection otherwise, inventors might keep their ideas to themselves forever, fearing losing the competitive edge.

The question that actually matters is that do you only want to ‘borrow’ an idea without adding any enhancement just to make quick bucks or are you willing to put your own effort into create something even more useful for others? It’s ok to get inspiration and pull influences from other’s work to create something great whether it be music, science or arts. But it’s a shameful act to blindly copy someone else’s hard work for undeserved gains, without adding any innovation. 

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