Austin Kleon is a local artist and writer who is the first keynote speaker at this year’s South by Southwest Interactive. His book “Steal Like an Artist” spent six months on the New York Times best-seller list, and now he has a new advice guide for artists with this important lesson: show your work. KUT’s Nathan Bernier talked to Kleon in studio.
This was a fun interview. Thanks to Nathan and KUT.
“it’s making something better by stealing something… In a way, everything is coming from somewhere, depending on how far back you want to trace it. It’s just where you want to take from along the way.”—Wes Anderson
You have to live your life with a certain blind confidence that if it’s your destiny to succeed at these things, it will happen, if you just continue to follow a straight path, to do you work as conscientiously and as creatively as you can, and to just stay open to all opportunity and experience. There’s a performing motto at Second City…to say yes instead of no. It’s actually an improvisational rule…It’s about supporting the other person. And the corollary to that is if you concentrate on making other people look good, then we all have the potential to look good. If you’re just worried about yourself—How am I doing? How am I doing?—which is kind of a refrain in Hollywood, you know, people are desperately trying to make their careers in isolation, independent of everyone around them.
And I’ve always found that my career happened as a result of a tremendous synergy of all the talented people I’ve worked with, all helping each other, all connecting, and reconnecting in different combinations. So…identify talented people around you and then instead of going into competition with them, or trying to wipe them out, make alliances, make creative friendships that allow you and your friends to grow together, because someday your friend is going to be sitting across a desk from you running a movie studio.
“I’m the most relentlessly self-promoting person in the world, but I’m also deeply embarrassed by the need to do it.”—Harold Ramis (He continues: “There’s a concept in Buddhism called “anatta.” It means “no self”—that the self is an illusion. It’s a bunch of projections and it doesn’t really exist. And yet, we base our whole identity on it… I work in an industry where self is everything. The constant hum in LA is, “How am I doing? How am I doing? How am I doing?” And if you’re there, you live it. And if you’re in this business, you live with it all the time — this desire to be a public figure, and then it happens, and suddenly you’ve created this Self, this Thing, that exists even apart from who you really are. So imposter syndrome starts to happen, where you don’t feel like you really deserve what you’ve got and one day people are going to find out that you don’t really have any talent and you don’t really have any character. They’ll find out how weak you are. And it’ll all be over…”)
Mason Currey (author of Daily Rituals) on famous dudes who wore the same thing every day:
I’m thinking, of course, of wearing the exact same thing every day. This is hardly an original idea—plenty of noteworthy men have adopted a signature uniform, particularly those working in artistic fields. Stanley Kubrick owned a dozen sets of the same slouchy outfit (chinos, blue shirt, cotton jacket, sneakers), and Hitchcock’s closet was stocked with identical dark-blue suits. In 1898, the French avant-garde composer Erik Satie used a small inheritance to purchase a dozen identical chestnut-colored velvet suits (with the same number of matching bowler hats). In the late 1970s, Andy Warhol’s uniform was Levi’s 501s, a button-down shirt, a striped tie, and a navy blazer, often accessorized with a Polaroid camera around his neck. Tom Wolfe was never without a white suit; Steve Jobs had a lifetime supply of black mock turtlenecks. And that’s not even mentioning the many fashion designers who wear more or less the same thing every day.
"I like the idea of a personal uniform," says Richard Haines, the fashion illustrator who sketches stylish guys on the streets of New York for his blog What I Saw Today. "Years ago, on my first trip to Europe, I noticed people would wear the same thing everyday and just changed up little pieces. It’s this mentality of having less, but owning quality." And perhaps that’s a good a theory to have right now.
Chronocyclegraphs were a technique used by early 20th century efficiency experts Frank and Lillian Gilbreth to assess the motions of workers. They attached bulbs to people’s hands and took long exposures. This is a surgeon sewing.
"The motion study method of attack considers the work to be done as a demand for certain motions, and the proposed worker as a supply of certain motions…
By the use of the scientific method of analysis, measurement and synthesis we arrive at the method of least waste for performing the work. Through special teaching devices we then transfer the selected elements of skill and experience, in a new synthesized cycle of least waste, to workers who have never had that all around, non-guided experience or its slowly acquired skill. Not only are the methods transferred more efficiently but there is saving of time and effort to both teacher and learner, as is satisfactorily shown by learning curves of many past performances on widely varied types of work.”
[There is] a sense of safety, borne of boundaries. I’ve always been a claustrophile, and I think that explains some of the appeal—the train is bounded, compartmentalized, and cozily small, like a carrel in a college library. Everything has its place. The towel goes on the ledge beneath the mirror; the sink goes into its hole in the wall; during the day, the bed, which slides down from overhead, slides up into a high pocket of space. There is comfort in the certainty of these arrangements. The journey is bounded, too: I know when it will end. Train time is found time. My main job is to be transported; any reading or writing is extracurricular. The looming pressure of expectation dissolves. And the movement of a train conjures the ultimate sense of protection—being a baby, rocked in a bassinet.
“Artists shouldn’t kid themselves that most people give a fuck about them directly. At least not at first. People want what you’ve made, they don’t want you. You have to seduce them into also wanting you. And you can only do that by making more stuff that they want, and hopefully attaching yourself to it in the minds of some small percentage of its fans. This is branding.”—Clayton Cubitt
“My heroes, from Hank Williams to Frank Sinatra to Bob Dylan, were popular musicians. They had hits. There was value in trying to connect with a large audience… [But] artists with the ability to engage a mass audience are always involved in an inner debate as to whether it’s worth it, whether the rewards compensate for the single-mindedness, energy and exposure necessary to meet the demands of the crowd… [A] large audience is, by nature transient. If you depend on it too much, it may distort what you do and who you are. It can blind you to the deeper resonances of your work and the importance of your most committed listeners.”—Bruce Springsteen, Songs
“What an artist is trying to do for people is bring them closer to something, because of course art is about sharing: you wouldn’t be an artist unless you wanted to share an experience, a thought. I am constantly preoccupied with how to remove distance so that we can all come closer together, so that we can all begin to sense that we are the same, we are one.”—David Hockney (via thinkprocessnotproduct)
“Everybody wants to have a goal — I gotta get to that goal, I gotta get to that goal, I gotta get to that goal. I can finally get to that goal. Then you get to that goal, and then you gotta get to another goal. But in between goals is a thing called life, that has to be lived and enjoyed — and if you don’t, you’re a fool.”—RIP Sid Caesar
“When they throw the water on the witch, she says, ‘Who would have thought good little girl like you could destroy my beautiful wickedness?’ That line inspired my life. I sometimes say it to myself before I go to sleep like a prayer.”—John Waters on The Wizard of Oz