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To Create, First You Must Steal


One afternoon a couple weeks ago I went into the living room to see why my kids were laughing louder than usual. They had on a cartoon, one that imagined a New York populated by anthropomorphic food, but the show had none of the canned laugh tracks of a Nickelodeon series. The humor was smarter, desert-dry and farcical and even transgressive.

“What is this?” I asked.

Apple & Onion,” my 11-year-old daughter said.

I took a seat and watched four-straight episodes with them. The show reminded me of the first lesson of creative life, a lesson I learned the hard way and one any aspiring creative type, or really anyone at all, should keep in mind.

*****

Apple and Onion are two British — maybe Australian? — musicians who mostly fail to make their way in the immigrant-rich borough of their great animated city, naive to this new land but carrying an idealism that’s infectious. They break into song. They dance. They land themselves in jail more often than seems necessary. The show is a lot of fun, kid humor but not really, like a Pixar movie if Pixar were a mangy indie startup. The show also borrows far too much from the HBO cult favorite Flight of the Conchords. You remember that, right? The foreign-accented lead characters (New Zealand?) who were a pair of struggling musicians with a propensity to break into song-and-dance numbers? The humor there was desert-dry, too. And there were no laugh tracks.

The creator of Apple & Onion, George Gendi, has taken a bit of heat for the similarities between the shows. To those critics or anyone reading this who thinks George Gendi is at least a fraud and maybe a plagiarist, I say: All great art is stolen.

Nothing is original. Everything is reinterpretation. Everything you love — every novel, painting, album, movie, TV show, poem, piece of choreography — everything that is in any way artistic is influenced by the art that came before it, sometimes blatantly. To take an example at random: Dr. Dre is the unquestioned pioneer of West Coast hip-hop, a sound distinct and addictive and part of the reason, say, Kendrick Lamar is who he is today. But that singular high note that carries above so many of Dre’s beats — in “Gin and Juice” it’s almost a whistle — wasn’t Dre’s creation. He borrowed heavily from Roy Ayers’ “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” when perfecting the sound. That’s not to condemn Dre or limit his curiosity as an artist — so many people have tried to dissect his many influences — but it is to show how a very famous adage about influence got it wrong. Imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery. Transformation is. Taking what came before you and finding a way to twist it just enough to make it yours: Dre knows this well, which is why an early scene with a young Dre in Straight Outta Compton is an homage to Ayers.

You see this over and over, “original” artists who are instead expert remixers. The dripping abstract mess that was Jackson Pollock’s peerless work? Inspired, he later admitted, by Native American sand paintings. The Beatles seminal pop sound? They learned it as a cover band, playing Chuck Berry tunes and Moluccan songs from the Netherlands. All the art that came out of the Renaissance? Aptly named, because those dudes found lost Roman paintings and architecture and revived it under their own signatures. In fact, Michelangelo’s first commission as an artist came about because he could mimic his Roman predecessors so well. The forgery was seen as an asset, not a liability.

Roman art was of course deeply indebted to the Greek masters who preceded it. The Greeks were influenced by the Egyptians, the Egyptians to some measure by the Sumerians, the Sumerians, well, you get the point. Historian Will Durant wrote that not only did art flourish in prehistoric times but so did the reinterpretations of these unknown masters by unknown aspiring artists.

“Good artists copy. Great artists steal,” Pablo Picasso said. It’s a line so clever that Steve Jobs used it as a mantra at the company he co-founded. But even Picasso’s quip on artistic borrowing borrowed heavily from someone else. T.S. Eliot, decades before Picasso, wrote, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” The point is: Lean into your influences. I didn’t do that when I was young, constantly in search instead of the original idea that would propel my writing career. When I couldn’t find it — shocker — I “settled” for borrowing from every writer I loved only to discover that synthesizing these voices led to one that sounded a lot like me. Strict imitation (actual stealing) degrades the aspiring artist. But tweaking something you admire until it is something your own? That’s the work of all great art. This History of Borrowing applies not only to young artists but old ones, not only to entrepreneurs but to teachers, salesmen, people from any walk of life. The best way to live is to understand the lives of people who traveled the same path before, using their tips for the road ahead as something like a map. Viewed from this perspective, history repeating itself isn’t the blight of ignorance. It’s the reinterpretation of knowledge, lived out and, better yet, performed by the rising generation.




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