DMNW Book Review: “Steal Like An Artist” by Austin Kleon

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily represent the views of Dance Music Northwest or its leadership.

The new generations of the world appear less and less inclined to be interested in physical books. Instead, they choose to get information from the internet or download e-books from Amazon and the like. Everybody will eventually find themselves seeking inspiration someplace and the best place to get ideas is wherever you can find it.

Stealing doesn’t have a positive connotation, especially within the sphere of the arts. Artists have been known to go to great lengths to defend something as their own. However, makers and doers are reinventing the concept. Many creators choose to promote the influence, importance, and prominence of ‘stealing’, rather than express negative sentiments regarding the circumstances of the state of art.

The Avalanches, a renown electronic Australian music group, is a perfect example of this phenomena. Their famous 2000 album, Since I Left You, was delayed for almost a year in America and other places, because of the need for sample clearances. There are over 3,000 samples on the album, yet Since I Left You is often regarded as one of the best albums of that year. The album has innumerable recognizable samples, from Madonna and dusty disco records, to classic rock.

Because popular music is so full of samples and stealing, it is clear that stealing and sampling are more accepted. Ironically the most sampled music is what we hear on the major radio channels, not indie masterpieces. We all probably know a one hip-hop song that is essentially rapping over a recognizable pop beat. 

The incredibly hard-to-find LP of the 2001 The Avalanches’ album

Steal Like An Artist, by Austin Kleon, is an important textual expression of the modern creative atmosphere. His book eloquently addresses the ancient concept that creators selectively ‘steal’ to further (or make) their own creations. Instead of writing of stealing in a bad light, Kleon promotes an understanding of self-awareness, personal investment and inspiration. Steal Like An Artist also serves as a practical tool to form new perspectives. 

The poetic nature of Steal Like An Artist makes it easily digestible for any interested reader. Anybody looking to refine their creativity and be more conscious of their motivations and inspirations, should definitely read this book.

Our Natural Inclinations

Kleon begins his book by carefully explaining what he means by the title, advising the reader to avoid plagiarism and be honest. He encourages the reader to be readily cognizant of their artistic direction and choices. He also motivates the reader to actively participate in the process of reading of the book, whether its writing on the pages or keeping a journal regarding certain practices.

We generally understand that our creativity reinvents the past. On the other hand, we are inclined to make and do things that are ‘original’. He writes, “[…] If we’re free from the burden of trying to be completely original, we can stop trying to make something out of nothing, and we can embrace influence instead of running away from it.”

We can all recognize that there is a lot of social pressure surrounding creativity. It stems from our tendencies to compare ourselves to others and hastily setting personal limitations.

Inspiration Outside Us and Within

Kleon attacks the natural barriers in our minds, in his attempts to deconstruct originality. He sets us upon freeing ourselves of our negative comparative processes, so we can more readily find inspiration in the efforts of others. Then we can allow the inspiration within us to expand, uninhibited. Self-consciousness can have an incredible influence on our inspiration. This may seem obvious to some, but it is not an easy concept to explain shortly. However, Kleon makes our complex creative tendencies clearer in his 160 page book.

The book provides a clear perspective for anybody wanting to investigate the ways we learn. We “reverse engineer” (as Kleon puts it) the things we like. Through that process, we find our own unique inspirations. Whether we hear it in the song of a bird or in The Avalanches’ Since I Left You, we all convert the signals differently in our brains. The end product is a unique assimilation by our individual minds. Collectively we have forgotten that originality and inspiration builds upon the past.

Where To Steal It

The paperback of Steal Like An Artist is only $6 on Amazon, and a kindle version is also available. And if you don’t have the money, check out your local library because they’ll probably have a copy. It’d also be pretty awesome if you stole your friend’s copy (or borrow and return, if they are really a friend).

Austin Kleon is the author of two other books, Show Your Work! and Newspaper Blackout. If you want to learn more about him or get additional motivational energy, check out his website.

What good books have you read recently? What other books do you recommend for reflecting upon our collective creative experience? Let us know in the comments below!

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily represent the views of Dance Music Northwest or its leadership.