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Originality is dead. Let’s steal.

It’s easy to feel like you don’t belong or like you weren’t meant to be here – as an artist or a creative, as an activist or even just as a person (you’re always welcomed here). A lot of the time, we feel like phonies, as Holden Caulfield would say.

Meet imposter syndrome – a psychological occurrence where an educated or otherwise knowledgeable person feels out of place or inadequate in the position they are in.  They feel like they don’t stack up to their peers. Those who experience imposter syndrome cannot fathom or internalize their own successes and accomplishments. As an artist, an academic, a creative, I often experience imposter syndrome. Activists – people who want to use their voices and skills to incite change for the better – often feel like this (note: anyone can be an activist). 

These constant feelings wash over me. “Am I making something new? Something exciting, unique? Original?” Or the biggest one yet, “do I actually know what I am doing here?” The answer may surprise you, and the answer is almost always no. But, does that mean we don’t belong? That we don’t have accomplishments to be proud of? Also no. The buzzword here is originality. For me, imposter syndrome and the fear of my work lacking originality go hand-in-hand. 

What is originality anyway? I often find that trying to create something “original” stymies the creative process and hinders what great work you could be making. Jean Baudrillard and Walter Benjamin, philosophers of art and media, both talk about how in the age of digital reproduction, nothing is wholly “original” in the traditional sense that it is unlike anything we have ever seen or known. Baudrillard argues that almost everything we know, see, read or speak is, in one form or another, a representation of another representation (mind blown… probably). For a philosophic deep dive on these topics, turn to Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation (fun fact: his work inspired The Matrix series). For a more user-friendly take on copying and recycling ideas, styles and essences, turn to Austin Kleon’s “Steal Like An Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative.”

 A little less heavy on the media studies jargon, Austin Kleon provides an accessible exploration into what it means to be an artist today and ways to break through, be seen, be heard, be confident in the work you’re putting out there. Of course you can argue all day and night over what it means to be an “artist” or what “art” even is. I define artist as anyone who creates thought- and discourse-stimulating visual media items (sculptures, video, sound, painting, etc.), writing, performances, so on and so forth. He cracks open the topic of originality and stealing as an artist. He argues that it is overrated and almost impossible to be original. All of the great artists got started by looking towards other artists and copying them incessantly. If we try to “be creative” by attempting originality, nothing would ever be created. Once tackling and repeating this idea to yourself, imposter syndrome could begin to fade away.

“If I’d waited to know who I was or what I was about before I started“being creative,” well, I’d still be sitting around trying to figure myself out instead of making things. In my experience, it’s in the act of making things and doing our work that we figure out who we are. You might be scared to start. That’s natural. —

Nobody is born with a style or a voice. We don’t come out of the womb knowing who we are. In the beginning, we learn by pretending to be our heroes. We learn by copying.  We’re talking about practice here, not plagiarism – plagiarism is trying to pass someone else’s work off as your own. Copying is about reverse-engineering.”

Whether you’re an artist, an activist or just  a person with thoughts and feelings, it’s hard to find your voice when you feel like you shouldn’t even have one in the first place (read: Can I Hold The Mic?). I think Austin Kleon’s book can help break through to the understanding that a lot of people feel the same way you do, and to get over that hump you just have to start creating with no inhibitions or reservations towards being unoriginal.

We are all products of other people, other creations, other photographers, other politicians and community leaders, other songs, other sculptures and drawings. Michelangelo began his journey by copying the drawings and paintings of Domenico Ghirlandaio during his apprenticeship. The Beatles started as a cover band. Copying your heroes is the first foothold secured on whatever path you find yourself on to making art you’re proud of and acknowledging your own successes that allow you to be in your current position. 

Francis Ford Coppola assures us, “We want you to take from us. We want you, at first, to steal from us, because you can’t steal. You will take what we give you and you will put it in your own voice and that’s how you will find your own voice. And that’s how you begin. And then one day someone will steal from you.” This is just another way of considering how one uses “inspiration” to fuel their work. It’s all part of the process. When cognizant of how we use other people’s work in our own, it may be uncomfortable. Being comfortable with being uncomfortable will help us to push forward into finding our own voices, styles, rhythms. 

“At some point, you’ll have to move on from imitating your heroes to emulating them. Imitation is about copying. Emulation is when imitation goes one step further, breaking through into your own thing.” (38)

So, go forth. Recognize that copying others is okay… to an extent. Originality is dead. Unreachable in our traditional sense of the word. Redefine what it means to be original and unique. 

Copy. Study. Credit. Transform. Remix and alter. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. It leads to you and how your brain creates things around others’ ideas. Your brain has the ability to take the work of others, put that shit together and make something new.