Good Artists Copy; Great Artists Steal

Steve Jobs? Pablo Picasso? T. S. Eliot? W. H. Davenport Adams? Lionel Trilling? Igor Stravinsky? William Faulkner? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The gifted entrepreneur Steve Jobs made some controversial comments about innovation during his career. He expressed strong agreement with the following aphorism which he ascribed to the famous painter Pablo Picasso:

Good artists copy; great artists steal.

Did Picasso really make this remark? Are there other examples of similar statements?

Quote Investigator: An intriguing precursor appeared in an article titled “Imitators and Plagiarists” published in The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1892. The author was W. H. Davenport Adams, and the terminology he used was transposed: “to imitate” was commendable, but “to steal” was unworthy. Adams extolled the works of the famed poet Alfred Tennyson, and presented several examples in which Tennyson constructed his verses using the efforts of his artistic antecedents as a resource. In the following passage Adams referred to his aphorism as a “canon”, and he placed it between quotation marks. Boldface has been added to some excerpts below:[ref] 1892 June, The Gentleman’s Magazine, Volume 272, Imitators and Plagiarists (Part 2 of 2) by W. H. Davenport Adams, Start Page 613, Quote Page 627 and 628, Published by Chatto & Windus, Piccadilly, London. (Google Books full view) link [/ref]

Of Tennyson’s assimilative method, when he adopts an image or a suggestion from a predecessor, and works it up into his own glittering fabric, I shall give a few instances, offering as the result and summing up of the preceding inquiries a modest canon: “That great poets imitate and improve, whereas small ones steal and spoil.”

Note that Adams depicted poets who stole harshly, but the adage used by Jobs was accepting of the artist who copied or stole: one was good, and the other was great. Adams concluded his essay with additional praise for Tennyson and a condemnation of plagiarists. Oddly, the word “plagiarizes” was incorporated in later variants of the expression.

In 1920 the major poet T. S. Eliot published “The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism”, and he presented his own version of the maxim. Eliot interchanged the terminology used by Davenport by suggesting that: “to imitate” was shoddy, and “to steal” was praiseworthy. This change moved the expression closer to the modern incarnation employed by Steve Jobs:[ref] 1920, The Sacred Wood: Essays On Poetry and Criticism by T. S. Eliot, Section: Philip Massinger, Quote Page 114, Methuen & Company Ltd., London. (Internet Archive) [/ref]

One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. 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 from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1927 a thematically related remark was published by commentator C. E. M. Joad:[ref] 1927 March 9, The New Republic, Raspberries from England by Robert Littell, (Book Review of “The Babbitt Warren” by C. E. M. Joad), Start Page 74, Quote Page 74, Column 1, The Republic Publishing Company, New York. (Verified on microfilm) [/ref]

Whereas in Europe the height of originality is genius, in America the height of originality is skill in concealing origins.

A separate article about this collection of related sayings is available here under the title “The Secret to Creativity Is Knowing How to Hide Your Sources”.

In 1949 a book review columnist in the Atlantic Monthly employed an instance of the maxim that replaced the word “steal” with “plagiarizes”. The expression was assigned to Eliot, and this version has been circulating for decades:[ref] 1949 October, The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 184, Number 4, Reader’s Choice by Harvey Breit, Start Page 76, Quote Page 78, The Atlantic Monthly Company, Concord, New Hampshire and Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified on paper) [/ref]

T. S. Eliot once wrote that the immature poet imitates and the mature poet plagiarizes. Goethe to Eckermann, before Eliot, said: “If you see a great master, you will always find that he used what was good in his predecessors, and that it was this which made him great.”

In 1959 the book “Time of Apprenticeship: The Fiction of Young James Joyce” was published, and it contained another variant of the expression. The word “poets” was replaced by “artists”, and “borrow” was used instead of “imitate”:[ref] 1959, Time of Apprenticeship: The Fiction of Young James Joyce, by Marvin Magalaner, Quote Page 34, Abelard-Schuman, London and New York. (Verified on paper) [/ref]

Obviously, any author is influenced by what he has read; even forty years ago T. S. Eliot knew that he was perpetuating a cliché in saying so, but in the case of such eclectic writers as Pound and Eliot and Joyce, this axiom is supremely true. They are concerned not merely with the general ideas and techniques of their predecessors, but with their very lines and words, which they reconstruct in a new mosaic of verbal power. To paraphrase a contemporary critic, “Immature artists borrow; mature artists steal”; and Joyce was a mature artist.

In 1962 Esquire magazine printed a humorous piece titled “The Student Prince: Or How to Seize Power Though an Undergraduate” by Robert Benton and Gloria Steinem. Several quotations were presented by Benton and Steinem, and QI believes that the authors thought the quotes were genuine. Here are three of the sayings that appeared in a section called: “Six Quotes to Get You through Any Senior Exam. Use Them Wisely”:[ref] 1962 September, Esquire, “The Student Prince: Or How to Seize Power Though an Undergraduate” by Robert Benton and Gloria Steinem, Quote Page 85, Esquire, Inc., Chicago, Illinois. (Verified with microfilm) [/ref]

“Indian summer is like a woman, ripe, hotly passionate but fickle”—Grace Metalious

“Immature artists imitate. Mature artists steal.”—Lionel Trilling

“I think my favorite weapon is a twenty-dollar bill.”—Raymond Chandler

The statement credited to Metalious did appear as the beginning line of her blockbuster novel Peyton Place in 1956 though the punctuation and capitalization were different. Chandler did write the words above in a comical letter in 1951. QI does not know whether the prominent literary critic Trilling made the statement above, but its appearance in Esquire catalyzed its wide dissemination with the attached ascription.

In 1967 the Los Angeles based music critic and lecturer Peter Yates published the book “Twentieth Century Music”. Yates claimed that he heard the prominent composer Igor Stravinsky employ an instance of the saying. Stravinsky’s version did not reference “poets” or “artists”; it was tailored to “composers”:[ref] 1967, Twentieth Century Music; Its Evolution from the End of the Harmonic Era into the Present Era of Sound by Peter Yates, Quote Page 41 Pantheon Books: A Division of Random House, New York. (Verified on paper) [/ref]

Igor Stravinsky said to me of his Three Songs by William Shakespeare, in which he epitomized his discovery of Webern’s music: “A good composer does not imitate; he steals.”

In 1974 a book about stage design for theaters included an instance of the saying credited to the Nobel Prize winning author William Faulkner:[ref] 1974, Design for the Stage: First Steps by Darwin Reid Payne, Quote Page 236, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale, Illinois. (Verified on paper) [/ref]

There is probably more truth than we care to admit in William Faulkner’s observation that, “immature artists copy, great artists steal.” Knowing what and when to steal is very much a part of the designer’s self-education.

In 1975 Brendan Gill, a long-time writer at The New Yorker magazine, printed a version of the expression in his memoir. He credited the words to the poet T. S. Eliot but he incorrectly used the word “plagiarizes”; thus, he echoed the mistake in the Atlantic Monthly in 1949:[ref] 1975, Here at The New Yorker by Brendan Gill, Chapter: 6, Quote Page 53, Random House, New York. (Verified on paper) [/ref]

In senior year, I won a prize for writing a long narrative poem in what everyone must have seen was a pastiche of Frost. (I had not yet read Eliot’s dictum: “The immature poet imitates, the mature poet plagiarizes,” Nevertheless, I was obeying it.)

The popular 1977 collection “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” by Laurence J. Peter included the saying and attributed the words to T. S. Eliot. However, Peter wrongly used the version printed in the Atlantic Monthly:[ref] 1977, “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” by Laurence J. Peter, Quote Page 385, William Morrow and Company, New York. (Verified on paper) [/ref]

The immature poet imitates; the mature poet plagiarizes.
—T. S. Eliot

In 1986 a text about preparing computerized documents credited Stravinsky with a novel version of the adage:[ref] 1986, LATEX: A Document Preparation System by Leslie Lamport, (Footnote 2), Quote Page 7,  Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Reading, Massachusetts. (Verified on paper) [/ref]

“Lesser artists borrow; great artists steal.” Igor Stravinsky

In 1988 the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper of Australia printed an article that discussed lawsuits in the computer industry and the development of the Macintosh computer system. The article contained Steve Job’s oft repeated controversial remark:[ref] 1988 April 11, Sydney Morning Herald, Computers keep the courts active, Quote Page 20, Column 5, Sydney, Australia. (Google News Archive) [/ref]

He headed the team that developed the Macintosh. Steve Jobs said that while it was being developed he kept in mind a quote from Pablo Picasso.
“Good artists copy. Great artists steal.”

In 1996 a movie reviewer writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer presented a modified version of the adage ascribed to Picasso by replacing “good artists” with “bad artists”:[ref] 1996 June 21, Philadelphia Inquirer, Section: FEATURES WEEKEND, (Movie Review), Arnold’s Mission: Keeping Vanessa Williams Alive by Carrie Rickey (Inquirer Movie Critic), Page 3, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (NewsBank Access World News) [/ref]

All of which goes to prove Pablo Picasso’s statement that “bad artists copy, great artists steal.”

The multi-part PBS television program “Triumph of the Nerds: The Rise of Accidental Empires” premiered in 1996. During the program Steve Jobs again mentioned the saying that he attributed to Pablo Picasso. Here is a transcript excerpt:[ref] Companion Web site for the PBS television special “Triumph of the Nerds: The Rise of Accidental Empires”, TV show premiered in June 1996, Television Show Transcript Part III, Steve Jobs speaking. (Accessed on March 6, 2013) link  link [/ref]

Ultimately it comes down to taste. It comes down to trying to expose yourself to the best things that humans have done and then try to bring those things in to what you’re doing. I mean Picasso had a saying he said good artists copy great artists steal. And we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.

In conclusion, in 1892 an important precursor of this family of expressions was published. The author was W. H. Davenport Adams, and his words may have influenced the version that T. S. Eliot published in 1920. Both writers referenced “poets”, but by 1959 a version with “artists” was in circulation. The expression continued to metamorphose and instances were attributed to major artists such as Igor Stravinsky, William Faulkner, and Pablo Picasso. The attachment to Stravinsky depends on the credibility of Yates. QI has not yet located substantive evidence for the attribution to Picasso.

(Thanks to Mario Klingemann who pointed out the thematic similarity between this quotation and “The Secret to Creativity Is Knowing How to Hide Your Sources”.)

Update History: On October 5, 2021 the 1927 citation was added, and a crosslink to the article titled “The Secret to Creativity Is Knowing How to Hide Your Sources” was also added.

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