My cousin, a diligent grandson, gave me a lift down to Virginia this past Saturday so that we could celebrate our grandmother’s 90th birthday. We drove back the next morning, meaning that we spent a lot of time with one another and no one else that weekend. We held up a conversation through most of it, so it was time well spent.
We kept circling back to the concept of authenticity. Jon, a film editor, spoke of attitudes towards it in film, but also in rap, and artistic creation in general. Authenticity—not originality.
On my mind was Julia Annas; a not uncommon occurrence since I read her tremendous history of Hellenistic ethics, The Morality of Happiness. The book on my mind this past weekend, however, was Intelligent Virtue, which I am currently in the middle of. Rather than a history, it is a positive contribution to modern virtue ethics. A large part of her framework involves the idea that virtue is analogous to a skill. This is simple comparison; Annas dives deep into what it means to acquire and exercise a skill.
This section in particular was floating in my mind while Jon and I talked:
What the learner needs to do is not only to learn from the teacher or role model how to understand what she has to do and the way to do it, but to become able to acquire for herself the skill that the teacher has, rather than acquiring it as a matter of routine, something which results in becoming a clone-like impersonator.
And while describing this to my cousin something dawned on me. I always took the line “good artists borrow, great artists steal” to mostly be about originality, but if that’s all it was about, the distinction kind of eluded me. Both “borrow” and “steal” imply that the artist is getting their stuff from somewhere else, but what’s the difference between the two?
Thinking in terms of Annas’ explanation of the process of learning a skill, it finally made sense. The good artist is still learning their voice; when they take inspiration from other artists they merely borrow because their art is still fundamentally someone else’s. It is like “becoming a clone-like impersonator”. The great artist, on the other hand, steals in the sense that they make the art their own. This does not mean that they do “original” work; they still take it from somewhere, just as the pianist must acquire their skill from a teacher.
This concept of making something your own is a bit of a black box, where the human experience is concerned. The chasm between merely copying your teacher and the beginning of real understanding—how do we bridge it? Yet we all did it as children, and adults everywhere are doing it every day with new skills they acquire out of a desire to or for their work.
Authenticity is when you have made a skill, and your work, your own. That doesn’t mean it’s any good, of course—you can be authentically bad. But it’s a necessary achievement on the road to mastery.
The phronimos, person of practical wisdom, is one who has made their life their own and mastered the art of living well.