Creativity and Originality: “Good Artists Copy, but Great Artists Steal”

A quote that’s been thrown around by countless innovators, entrepreneurs and mavericks. The quote, originally spoken by Picasso leaves behind a few questions. Is creativity still alive? If it is, is it anything more than recycled ideas and regurgitated thought? And finally, does creativity have to live with originality? 

Ah, creativity and originality.

Well, to answer this, we first have to look into those who have said these fabled words. Typically, it’s the writers, the poets, the musicians, the leaders, entrepreneurs, business leaders and then the rest.

First uttered by Pablo Picasso, a Spanish painter, sculptor, printmaker, ceramicist, stage designer, poet and playwright. Known to be full of creativity and originality, despite this quote. For this reason, Picasso is globally renowned for his ability to create and to inspire. However, since then, there have been many… Regurgitators. Most recently, Apple founder Steve Jobs and one of Hollywood’s resident ‘crazy creatives’, Quentin Tarantino.

The question surrounding creativity and originality leaves me wondering… is the reusing of ideas even a bad thing? Because at some point throughout the creative process, there can sometimes be an undeniable alignment between the act of ‘stealing’ and paying homage.

Because creativity and originality is much like life. It’s not always black and white. Instead the evident shades of grey are the completed product that is likely improving an industry, pushing boundaries or pushing the creative envelope.

Creativity and Originality - Reservoir Dogs/City on Fire comparison - Storypick
Creativity and Originality – Reservoir Dogs/City on Fire comparison – Storypick

Quentin Tarantino – Homage or thievery 

Quentin Tarantino is an icon and even the poster child for 90’s counter-culture. Being named not only a creative, but a genius.

Maybe it’s quite an apt title, as he writes, directs and has creating some of the most widely successful films since his filmic genesis. And now, because of that, he’s one of the most highly sought after and anticipated directors… But because he’s so admired and accepted, you already know this.

The general public, film reviewers and pundits alike all tout Mr. Tarantino as being one of the most creative people in the film industry.


But is he truly deserving of this creative title? Is being called a creative just an arbitrary term we give ourselves to feel important or superior? Or is being a creative a wide range of things that we struggle to truly categorise? Frankly, it doesn’t really matter.

Regardless, Tarantino is no stranger to the idea of gathering inspiration from all around you. He frequently pays homage to some of his favourite films. ‘Copying’ scenes from Jean-Pierre Melville, Alfred Hitchcock, John Woo and many others.

In fact, his breakout film ‘Reservoir Dogs’ is widely reviewed as almost a carbon copy of Ringo Lam’s Hong Kong cinema classic, ‘City on Fire’. Despite its similar themes, plot, character development and general actions within the film, it’s revered and held in high pedigree.

So is ‘Reservoir Dogs’ really a masterpiece of creativity and originality, even though it isn’t totally original? Because it is creative.

Well, despite the nods to Lam’s ‘City on Fire’, I’d say it is. Overall, it’s written well, well shot and tells an interesting and gut wrenching (if you’ve seen the film, you’d know why this is funny) story. Essentially, it builds on from Lam’s initial foundation. Although ‘City on Fire’ is now said to be a great film. It’s theatrical release got very average response. Being said to have holes and errors throughout.

Since Tarantino’s edition is said to be a masterpiece, is it fair to say that he’s covered such holes? I’d say, yes. He added, paying homage to something he admires, ultimately making it great… That’s fairy creative.

“I steal from every movie ever made” – Quentin Tarantino

What does the Picasso quote mean?

When tackling the question about the link between creativity and originality, we have to first direct this quote. So the best way to describe and thus defend the quote “good artists copy, but great artists steal” is through Steve Jobs’ wording.

“It comes down to trying to expose yourself to the best things that humans have done and then try to bring those things into what you’re doing.” – Steve Jobs

Essentially, it’s giving yourself the ability to build onto what is already great. Whether that means by updating something, introducing a new theme, changing it to suit a new audience or any other reason for that matter.

Yet, this only addresses one part of the quote. The part of the quote that say’s people steal ideas. Which is fine, because when it’s read or heard, this is usually the most confronting part of the statement.

Instead, maybe we should look at the saying and address the idea that the only way an artist can theoretically be good or even great, is to either copy or steal. So from this we can assume that new and original ideas will no longer cut it. That it’s the tried and true methods that will continually reap reward. Basically, although originality may be a sub-set of creativity, it now has no value in comparison to the norm.

No, I refuse to believe this. I think that if the idea is good enough, it’s good enough. Still, even if it’s an amazing idea, it doesn’t mean it’ll be successful. After all, as the adage goes, if you mutter the meaning of life in a loud stadium, nobody will hear it. So at the end of the day, marketing is an important side-note for creativity. Ipso-facto, marketing is creative…

But I digress.

A more fitting quote

When it comes to creativity, sure, originality may not always be there. Because like it or not, the quote from Picasso and later by any number of ‘winners’ over the years does hold water to an extent. Building on an idea may theoretically make it better, push the envelope and even potentially help millions.

However, I believe there’s a better quote that sums up creativity and originality.

“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination… Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent” – Jim Jarmusch

In summary

When discussing originality and creativity, you might think that these two words aren’t even connected. Or not, it doesn’t matter. Maybe they are, maybe they’re not. Depending on your lean, you may be right or wrong. I like to think that originality still exists, even if it may take a while to rear its head. But really, what even is an idea? It’s merely a culmination of all your experiences, good, bad and otherwise. Of all the books you’ve read, films you’ve watched, people you’ve listened to. Everything. We learn by looking at others, gathering experiences and just being exposed to as much as possible.

So in light of this, I’ll leave you with this thought if you want to keep your creativity and originality flowing.

When you watch a film, read a book, hear a speech, consume media, or whatever, think to yourself… What would you steal?

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