Austin Kleon: Taking A Peek Inside “The Invention Machine”


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The Opening Keynote of SXSW Interactive 2014, Austin Kleon, a self-described “writer who draws,” wants us to put him out of business…

And if we are successful at doing so, he believes the world will be a better place.

Kleon wants everyone to make art, with the courage to mix influences unabashedly and share the process as we go.  The work of our A TOTAL DISRUPTION CEA (Chief Executive Artist) act both as pieces of art and as guides for others on how to create.

Kleon is the author of three illustrated books – all of them New York Times best-sellers.  His first book Newspaper Blackout is a collection of poetry made by redacting words from newspaper articles using a permanent marker.  As he likes to joke, “the blackouts are like if the CIA did Haiku.”  His audience informed him that this practice (which he thought he invented) has been going on almost as long as newspapers have been around.

This realization inspired Kleon to look more closely at his influences, which in turn revealed how all artists borrow from each other to create a unique work.  “What all this remix culture – the idea of artistic theft – really uncovers is that there is a unique individuality about each person,” says Kleon.  He posits that all artists are a culmination of whatever and whomever have influenced them.  Kleon then published Steal Like An Artist, which explores the meaning of creativity in the new digital world.  “I think the Internet is an invention machine. Not just a duplication machine. It’s not like you take who you are and put it online. You invent yourself online.  And that’s part of the creative project for all artists.”

A prolific blogger, Kleon knows first-hand the power of the Internet and how technology allows him to engage with his fans directly.  As he’s opened up his process to his followers, Kleon sees the influences of his fans on the art itself: “It’s also changed the making of art. Because if all of a sudden you can share whatever you want with your audience, then – what is the artwork? Is the artwork a finished piece? Is it the sketch in your notebook? Is it the demo you recorded of the song you just wrote? Is it the, you know, 5 seconds of cutting room footage that you couldn’t squeeze in your film?”

All of these ideas have culminated in Kleon’s third book Show Your Work! Over the years Kleon has become convinced that “art is never a one-way street.”  In the process of promoting his work and ideas, he sees the unprecedented opportunity to get invaluable feedback from his fans: “Ideally, you’re getting as much from your audience as they’re getting from you.” Austin Kleon starts each day by publishing a poem online, leaving it in the hands of his audience to determine if that poem will grow into a blog post, or even a book.   He believes every phase of the development of the work is just as vital as the next.  Writing a perfect tweet carries the similar artistic merit to writing a novel.  Kleon is not alone in realizing that artists will make greater work by engaging with their fans, but he goes even further to promote the concept that engagement can become art in itself:  “There is no such thing as little writing and big writing any more.” Welcome to the Internet revolution.


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