The difference between great artists and good ones is in how they steal. Certain of their independence, great artists know what they want, what they need, and they take it. Because the great artist is not concerned with being seen as a mere copyist, he or she can steal grandly and openly. Lesser artists cover their tracks, conceal the traces of their borrowing, and live in fear. This was a story often told in the first part of the 20th century, most famously by T. S. Eliot, who informed readers in 1921 that, “immature poets imitate, mature poets steal.” Eliot’s own work is full to bursting with things more or less maturely stolen: lines and images from Dante and Baudelaire, from Ovid and Shakespeare, from St. Augustine and The Upanishads. They are woven together: “fragments,” as the poet says at the end of The Waste Land, “shored against my ruins.”
But what about today’s fragments and their ruins? Various types of theft among artists in recent years have drummed up a discourse. One type is perfectly straightforward, and is seen in the current court case surrounding the alleged theft and sale of unfinished works by Jasper Johns by his longtime assistant. Another is less straightforward, and is exemplified in garbage—in the somewhat less recent court case concerning an individual who scavenged through Robert Rauschenberg’s trash, took certain items, and sold them as what they were (Robert Rauschenberg’s garbage). A more complex form of theft is that of Maurizio Cattelan who, in 1997, broke into the Galerie Bloom in Amsterdam, stole its entire collection, and put it up the next day in a nearby Amsterdam gallery with the title, Another Fucking Readymade. (The police arrived not long after.)
In Cattelan’s act of theft, the parading of the crime and the treating of someone else’s work as though it were as anonymous and readymade as a urinal or a bottle holder was part of the spectacle. One thing this demonstrates is that while legal definitions of theft may be clear enough for present purposes, artistic definitions of theft are far from clear.
We can find a response, if not quite an answer, in Cattelan’s own remarks. “I’m not trying to be against institutions or museums,” he remarked in an interview with Nancy Spector for the book Maurizio Cattelan: All. “Maybe I’m just saying that we are all corrupted in a way; life itself is corrupted, and that’s the way we like it.”
Independent of our level of corruption, and of how much we like it, is the question of what artists—visual and verbal—take from one another. Where does influence stop and theft start? Maybe Eliot was wrong, not in distinguishing major artists from minor ones in function of how they deal with the anxiety of influence, but in calling one mode theft. Maybe art is too flexible a field to admit of theft—even in such a radical case as Cattelan’s. You can of course steal Rembrandt’s “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” but can you steal its motifs, its coloring, its upsweeping waves or its calm demeanor? They are there for the taking. They are, as Eliot’s friend Ezra Pound once said, “thine own true heritage.” Do with them what you will.