Does Talent Borrow, Genius Steal?

“Talent borrows. Genius Steals!” is a quote attributed most often, though inconclusively, to Oscar Wilde. And it’s often used by people who shamelessly rip off others, in a glib attempt to justify their appalling behavior. Tweet thieves being a notable example.

Wilde was a brilliant writer, and “The Picture of Dorian Grey” is among my favorite novels. But I don’t look to Oscar Wilde for ethical guidance. However if Wilde provides your moral compass, presumably you are also completely on board with everything else he wrote including:

  • “Nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.”
  • “Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination.”
  • “Between men and women there is no friendship possible.”
  • “When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is.”

And my personal favorite:

  • “The only thing that sustains one through life is the consciousness of the immense inferiority of everybody else.”

Words, to live by – right?

Similarly, Russian composer, Igor Stravinsky is quoted as having said “lesser artists borrow, great artists steal.”  And those who quote that line as authoritative fact presumably also support these contentions:

  • “Harpists spend 90 percent of their lives tuning their harps and 10 percent playing out of tune.”
  • “Music praises God. Music is well or better able to praise him than the building of the church and all its decoration; it is the Church’s greatest ornament.”
  • “Film music should have the same relationship to the film drama that somebody’s piano playing in my living room has on the book I am reading.”
  • “Zoo animals have been known to die from stares.”

The point being that just because a quote is famous, or was made by a famous or talented person doesn’t mean it’s true. Or even that it was intended to be taken seriously. People who work in the entertainment industry often make quotable quips that are essentially jokes.

The notion that stealing the creative works of others to pass off as one’s own is “genius” or “great” is so straightforwardly ludicrous that anyone who would take it seriously could be perhaps best, and most charitably, described as a fool.

As another example, John Lennon once sang “I am the walrus”, but refused to produce a substantiating birth certificate.

Another theory on the “talent borrow, genius steals” maxim is that it is derived from a passage in this essay by TS Eliot. That passage reads

     ”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.”

These words bear close scrutiny, because it’s clear that Eliot uses the word “steal” very differently from those who quote “Talent borrows. Genius Steals!” to justify wholesale plagiarism. The “stolen” item is “made into something better, or at least something different.” It is not retyped verbatim. It becomes something “unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn”. This line in itself clarifies that the stolen item is not a whole (like a 140 character tweet) but a part of something greater “from which it was torn.”

What Eliot is referring to is what is commonly known as inspiration or influence. Quite likely those luminaries who may have recast his words, if they didn’t intended them to be taken as mere jokes, meant the same thing.

Few creative people even claim to create in a vacuum, uninspired by what has gone before them. Dostoevsky was indebted to Dickens. Dickens to Shakespeare. The Beatles were inspired by Elvis. The Rolling Stones by Muddy Waters among other American blues artists. Nabokov owed a debt Edgar Allen Poe, as did Truman Capote. And on, and on, and on.

Among modern comedians Lenny Bruce, Bill Hicks, Phyllis Diller, Jerry Seinfeld, Richard Pryor are commonly cited as major influences. But that doesn’t mean that today’s comedians will respect someone who takes a Jerry Seinfeld joke and tells it as their own. They won’t just shrug and say “Well, talent borrows, genius steals!”

Because it doesn’t. And no one possessing a scintilla of artistic or creative spark truly believes it does either.

Does Talent Borrow, Genius Steal?

3 thoughts on “Does Talent Borrow, Genius Steal?

  1. DC says:

    Interesting article, and I can see where you’re coming from. But here’s my take on it. The true genius behind ‘genius stealing’ is that no one knows what was stolen!

    If you come across a great idea, outstanding information or something that is brilliant but hasn’t been brilliantly executed yet, then you can take that and make it your own. There is absolutely no problem if you do not share or tell a living soul, after all you are not lying from with-holding information.

    Once you are aware of something, you can no longer be ‘unaware’, and if you see something that has an opportunity to be fabulous, make a lots of money, or be of any benefit, then you have a responsibility to take that idea and stretch it as far as it can go!

    In conclusion if the originator of an idea was genius he would
    A: Tell no one the idea, or reveal it;and
    B: Have full credit and wealth for his idea, for he has manifested it, and nurtured it on an intellectual level, before anyone else has had a chance to.

    And that’s the end of my essay 😀


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