Good Artists Copy Great Artists Steal

During our  initial meetings on any new project at Mobnia we usually show our clients an interactive album of screen-shots from our favourite websites, and if the client had completed the project review form earlier, they would have also come across this pertinent question:

List a few sites that you find compelling and why?

At first glance the question might strike the un-informed as our way of sampling their design taste or their expectations but the real reason runs deeper than that and has its roots in the very science of knowledge and the creative thought process. An aspect of which philosophers have come to call conversio ad phatasmata or 'conversion to sense experience'.

According to St. Thomas Aquinas,

…human beings can acquire concepts only by abstracting forms from sense appearances, Aquinas can be called an empiricist. He insisted that without some sensory input on which the mind's abstractive power could get to work, no concepts would ever be constructed, nor would any rational activity ever take place: there are no 'innate ideas'. Moreover, any actual use of concepts in thinking or willing must—at least in this life, in which the soul is embodied—be constantly referred to sense contents, either of perception or memory or imagination. This necessary human orientation to sensory data is what Aquinas called 'conversion to sense experience' (conversio ad phantasmata)… Cf:

In lay terms, we identify things through a process of matching the concepts we have in our minds (a result of abstraction from previous sense experience) and the present object before our eyes (senses). Thus we say that an artist [designer, developer, etc] is good or has copied, if he/she were to reproduce these original mental concepts, verbatim, in an artwork [website, web/mobile application, graphic design, etc ]. When Pablo Picasso made his famous statement:

Good artists copy
Great Artists steal

He acknowledged that to be a great artist one had to strive to make products that go beyond merely the identity or the conversio ad phantasmata.  So what does it take to be great?

As humans our imagination can give birth to new concepts at a second or higher level of abstraction. At those stages the resulting concepts are not bound by the physical laws which limit the original concepts because of their basis in sense experience. It is at the second level and above that the artist can 'create' new concepts different/distinct from the original concepts. You find examples of these objects of the imagination in folk lore such as fairies, dragons, fawns, etc or even in technology products that provide you with their fresh sense of originality, such as the iPhone. This is the result of the creative process and that's what Picasso meant by 'stealing'.

Great artists steal.

Whether it is a new web-site/application or a mobile application, the interactive album and the question we ask: "List a few sites that you find compelling and why?" form the sense experience on which to base the first level of abstraction. If we were to stop (we don't and you should not) at this first level then we would have copied, and that is not being great.

One problem however with the second or higher levels (as seen in Inception’s dream within a dream) is that there are apparently no laws and the higher you go in the mental creative process levels then the less your constraints become. Now this may seem a good thing, but it is not. The issue here is that as humans we live in a world governed by physical laws, society and culture and as such any product that deviates widely from these laws is seen as weird. So perhaps the most important quality of the good artist that wants to become great is to know when to stop.

Francis Onwumere

I work with technology and business teams to make a significant difference in lives, one project at a time.

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