Austin Kleon

Writer, Artist, Poet and Presenter
Credit: Clayton Cubitt
Matt Killeen

Austin Kleon’s trilogy of books on being a creative, staying creative and enduring as a creative are New York Times Bestsellers and the first, Steal Like an Artist, was Amazon’s top selling book of 2012. You may have seen him at any number of TED style talks and he’s been asked to inspire PIXAR, Lucasfilm, Google and others. He’s kind of a guru, if you can say that without throwing up a little, but he’s not the kind of person who would welcome that title.

His message is that “creativity is not magic. Creativity is for everyone.” It’s not a talent, it’s a way of operating. A verb, not a noun. The implication is, as Picasso said, “inspiration comes, but it has to find you working.” But Kleon also has Picasso in mind when he says that “art is for life, not the other way round.” He warns of what author Jenny Offill calls, the art monsters, those whose careers are littered with victims. Although bad people can make great art, he reasons so can good people. So, there is no necessity to indulge your demons to be creative, nor should we indulge artists who do.

There isn’t anything original in the sense in which we tend to mean it, but that’s kind of the point. He steals – or as he clarifies, he honours, credits, studies, transforms and remixes – many previously available sources and ideas – as an artist must. We learn by copying, by playing as our heroes.

The value of Kleon’s books is in the repackaging and reiteration of some basic guidelines for success or at least survival as an artist or creative. These things artists forget, over and over again, because artists are often a mess of competing toxic drives, desperate for a framework and validation but allergic to procedures and process. The inevitable unhappy marriage of arrogance and self-doubt leads many artists to think their last piece of inspiration is just that. Their last.

His distillation of a few concepts to live by – steal well, share, contribute – in concise, witty and fully cited works, cut through all that ancillary overcomplication. His influence leads to people getting stuff done, with more joy and in a better world. That’s very 2269.

Don’t wait until you know who you are to get started…You’re ready. Start making stuff…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.

—Austin Kleon