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What Are We Looking For at SXSW?

Austin Kleon

Daniel McInerny - published on 03/14/14 - updated on 06/07/17

The annual film, music, and interactive media event in Austin, Texas has become a cultural touchstone--and it’s interesting to think about why.

“It is possible, however, that the artist is both thin-skinned and prophetic and, like the canary lowered into the mine shaft to test the air, has caught a whiff of something lethal.”

–Walker Percy,
Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book

Perhaps you had never heard of the South by Southwest Festival, commonly known as SXSW, until yesterday, when a drunk driver fleeing from police plowed into a group of people attending the annual March event in Austin, Texas, killing two and injuring many more. But SXSW, a film, music, and interactive media conference and showcase, has been going on since 1987. In recent years, however, it has taken on a broad cultural significance. To appear at SXSW is, in some sense, to have arrived as an artist or interactive media entrepreneur.

Which is what happened March 7 when Austin Kleon took the stage to give the festival keynote. Austin Kleon is a young, 30 year-old artist who bills himself as “a writer who draws.” He came to prominence in 2010 with a book called Newspaper Blackout, a collection of poems made by redacting words from newspaper articles with a permanent marker. The way in which Kleon uses this playful genre is at times witty and engaging. But these blackout poems are not how I, and probably most people, discovered Austin Kleon. That is because Kleon is also the author of two enormously popular non-fiction books, 2012’s Steal Like an Artist and the recently released Show Your Work. Steal Like an Artist first came to my attention via an advertisement on my Kindle, and as soon as I clicked and began to read it, I knew I had come upon something special.

Steal Like an Artist might best be described as an extended riff on T.S. Eliot’s aphorism: “Immature artists imitate, mature artists steal.” It is a book that claims, as I heard Kleon put it in a recent interview, that any artist is just “a mashup of his influences.” Originality, the idol of the romantic artist, is in fact an illusion. Or better, originality is a function, not of sequestering one’s imagination from influence, but of a full immersion into the artwork one loves. It is allowing oneself to be inspired by, even to the point of taking apart and recombining, the favorite elements from one’s favorite works.

Kleon’s new book, Show Your Work, is more about the marketing side of being an artist in the digital age. But “marketing” isn’t the right word. Because what Kleon wants to say is that marketing and self-promotion for the artist in the contemporary online world is really just an extension of the artist’s creativity. The best way for the artist to excite the world about his projects, Kleon argues, is to show his work, to take his audience behind the scenes and show them his inspirations, his process, even his failures.

Both Steal Like an Artist and Show Your Work reveal a remarkable insight into the mystery of creativity, especially remarkable coming from a writer so young. But they also address, as does SXSW itself, a cultural hunger for the power of creativity. It’s not just artists who are fascinated by creativity. Google the word and you’ll soon discover that creativity is also a chief concern of teachers and psychologists, entrepreneurs and marketers, CEOs and “thought leaders” of all stripes. There is hardly anyone not looking to become more creative and to get their creativity in front of an evermore divided audience. And so much of the work being done is really interesting (see, for example, this piece from the Harvard Business Review by Pixar founding partner, Ed Catmull).

But as interesting as so many discussions of creativity are, it’s also important to step back from them and ask:

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