“Good Artists Borrow, Great Artists Steal”
by Shelly Esaak
“Assuming that Picasso did say this–and seriously, I would love to learn of a verifiable source–I think the words “Good artists borrow, great artists steal” constitute one of the most misunderstood and misused creative phrases of all time. To me, it means the difference between aping and assimilating; between copying and internalizing; between being unoriginal and innovative….
“Every artist of every stripe builds on that which was done by his or her predecessors. It’s only the great artists who manage to take things to new heights, in new directions. That’s what I think; end of rant.”
I quote the above because I’m about to discuss two instances over the years in which Jean Shepherd, whom I consider to have been a fine creator in many fields and a genius in radio, seemed to have copied/borrowed/stolen from two of his favorite people. (Or maybe the examples are instances of what might be called totally innocent, independent creation?)
P. G. Wodehouse
Shepherd said that, as a kid, he’d read all of Wodehouse and considered him one of the best and funniest writers. The printed dedication to Wodehouse’s 1926 book The Heart of a Goof is “To my Daughter Leonora without whose never-failing sympathy and encouragement this book would have been finished in half the time.” This is Wodhouse’s self-borrowing dedication from his 1910 book The Intrusion of Jimmy (In England A Gentleman of Leisure
) which reads “To Herbert Westbrook, without whose never-failing advice, help, and encouragement this book would have been finished in half the time.”
A copy of Shep’s In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, which I held in my hand
(and still highly covet) when I visited Lois Nettleton’s apartment
soon after she died, has Jean’s inscription to her:
What I’ll probably never know is whether this inscription is a
thoughtless/unpleasant dig at Lois, or whether Jean meant, somehow,
that he was so in love with her that he had been distracted from his writing.
(Also of perplexing interest is that the book is not a first printing and was published
at about the time +/- when they
were breaking up despite what are said to have been his protests,)
Whichever–of course this copying of Wodehouse was not
a public display, but a private act.
S. J. Perelman
Shep had Perelman on his show once (I recorded the talk), and therefore, I’m fairly sure that he appreciated Perelman’s written wit. I remember hearing Shep say once on a broadcast (anyone know when?), that some woman–his mother?–had on her head “aluminum rheostats.” Having a vague recollection of the phrase in Perelman, I recently searched for and encountered in the November 26, 1960 issue of the New Yorker, the Perelman story, “Monomania, You and Me are Quits,” with the following opening sentence: “My immediate reaction when a head studded with aluminum rheostats confronted me over the garden gate last Tuesday morning was one of perplexity.”•
I hope to never find another such worrisome item.
I’m sure everyone does these things–even Picasso.
Please, someone, comfort me in my distress.
[Well, heck, subsequent to the above I read David Kinney’s The Dylanologists (Simon and Schuster 2014) describing many of the obsessives who study every word and garbage scrap of Bob Dylan’s for “meaning.” Dylan is known for “stealing” material from prior creations, and he has explained that his borrowings are “quotations” and noted that it is a tradition, especially in folk music and jazz. Kinney refers to an extensive article by Jonathan Lethem in the 2/2007 Harpers, “The Ecstasy of Influence,” which includes:
…it becomes apparent that appropriation, mimicry, quotation, allusion, and sublimated collaboration consist of a kind of sine qua non of the creative act, cutting across all forms and genres in the realm of cultural production….Dylan’s art offers a paradox: while it famously urges us not to look back, it also encodes a knowledge of past sources that might otherwise have little home in contemporary culture,…Dylan’s originality and his appropriations are as one.
The same might be said of all art.
Well, heck again, yes, we all do it–and isn’t it amazing that I’ve only encountered two times (so far) in Shepherd?]