Disruptive innovation (1): Cézanne


I ended my post on Clay Christensen’s idea of disruptive innovation in business with a promise (threat?) to try to extend the concept to other spheres of life. The purpose of this little exercise–as with almost anything on The Hannibal Blog–is to test this idea. In other words: If Christensen’s idea is profound (as opposed to banal, as many of you seem to think, based your comments) it must be extensible, so let’s see whether it is.

Attempt Number 1: Context = Art; Example = Paul Cézanne

Here is how I would write a biography of Cézanne using (in green italics) concepts from Christensen’s theory:

I) The incumbent

The incumbent during the nineteenth century, especially in France, was the mostly neoclassical art establishment. Conservative, staid, rigid, it demanded high and traditionally-defined technical mastery from artists:

  • The improvement trajectory of art was to paint/sculpt the same old subjects (Rome/Greece, Virgin Mary etc, flower vases, hunts….) in the same style but with ever more skill.
  • The intended market was that of existing art connoisseurs (gallery goers, critics, the nobility).
  • If we were to choose an institution to represent this establishment, we would pick the Paris Salon, an exhibition by the Académie des beaux-arts whose gate-keepers were a jury of art snobs.

II) The disruptor

One group of hirsute and rebellious young men finally said the obvious: that this art establishment was boring and served only the twisted standards and tastes of a small circle of snobs. They told that establishment to go to Hell and painted in a different style. The incumbent considered it less technically accomplished and either ignored or insulted it, dubbing it, derisively, impressionism.

One man, so loosely affiliated with this “group” that he did not even consider himself to be part of it, was Paul Cézanne. Cézanne was not obviously gifted at painting in a technical sense (his best friend, Émile Zola, was far better at drawing, which was all the more infuriating since Zola did not even take this talent very seriously because he wanted to be, and became, a writer instead). But Cézanne pressed on:

  • He embarked on his own improvement trajectory, beginning with incredibly simple subjects–for example, the same house in the sun of Provence, over and over again–and gradually, over the course of an entire life time, became better.
  • His market, if he thought about it all, was that of non-consumers: all those people, from his friends to ordinary folks, who did not necessarily visit the Paris Salon, or any museum, who did not care whether this artist was technically superior to that artist, who just looked at something and said Ahhhh.
  • The incumbent, seeing that Cézanne was technically inferior, ignored him. Year after year, Cézanne submitted his canvases to the Paris Salon, and year after year the jury rejected him. Cézanne instead hung his paintings in the ironically-named Salon des Refusés.
  • Over time, however, Cézanne became good enough (technically speaking), while staying original and simple, so that, his market of previous non-consumers swelled and eventually embraced the market of previous consumers, ie those who had once paid attention only to the art sanctioned by the Paris Salon but now decided that Cézanne was worth a look.
  • At this point the disruption occurs. The Paris Salon belatedly recognizes Cézanne, but hardly anybody even cares any longer. A new generation of artists now looks to Cézanne, not Neoclassicism, for inspiration. Cézanne’s rebellion and authenticity become the “new normal” and a century of permanent revolution in art begins. Pablo Picasso calls Cézanne “the father of us all”. Cubism, Expressionism, and all their descendants acknowledge their debt to Cézanne.
  • Cézanne thus becomes the incumbent, even as Picasso and others are already beginning their new round of disruption.

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12 thoughts on “Disruptive innovation (1): Cézanne

  1. Yours is a great analysis of how Cézanne became king of the castle in the art mileau of his time. As I read, I saw the parallels in the business world eg Honda v GM; and Volkswagen’s invasion of the US with it’s Beetle.

    But I see an Ur-Story here, which is that the incumbent fails to adapt to changes in its environment. The incumbent lost its former flexibility because it became too big, and too much part of the crustaceous establishment. Thus it had stopped doing the sorts of things it did to become number one.

    I think people as disparate as biologists and historians have long known this Ur Story (or dynamic).

    Even the god of political conservatism, Edmund Burke, said in the 1800s, something to the effect that a state without the means of change was without the means of its survival. Burke obviously knew that the world outside the borders of any political entity is constantly changing.

    As good an example as any of Burke’s observation was the Soviet Union.

    I listened carefully to Christensen’s video, and I have to say that, for me anyway, he said nothing new. So I’ll repeat what I said in another comment: Christensen is banal (in my humble opinion). He is trying to re-invent the wheel.

    I think I’m close to the 250 word (or is it 150 word?) limit, so I’ll stop.

    • Yes. An incumbent is often so absorbed in himself that the only adaptations he makes are to his own environment. This is because the wider world is too painful for him and he cannot accept that he has to start again. The other opt-out is to make change for the sake of change, having no relevance to a changing environment – that leads to extinction too.

      There is a vague distinction between the creative artist and a business. The creative artist believes he works for posterity; a business, particularly an old one, works mostly for security. Often a creative artist expects no reward or acceptance. The whole of business is based on reward for work done.

      In time of war things are different. Do you listen to your diplomats or to your soldiers? Do you tinker with an existing set-up or do you battle it out? “Security” in this context is a misnomer. You cannot deal with life-or-death challenges according to your own established standards. Anyway, those standards may just be wrong, or partially wrong. Assuredness as to the near perfection of one’s own culture may blind us to the virtues, perhaps superior virtues, of another.

      Starting a new business is very much like going to war. You know you have to go out there to survive and that you need a set of skills, people and equipment. Success in business breeds a sense of self- justification. It is a shock when a mouse, a little tiny mouse, threatens you.


      How did Hannibal’s elephants cope with mice, Andreas?

  2. Andreas: I think you have very aptly demonstrated how the idea of disruptive innovation is extensible to art. However in doing so, you have further proven what some of us have been saying about Christensen’s ‘banality’ for lack of a better term. I don’t have a problem with the concept–what bothers me is Christensen’s packaging up a fundamental way in which the world works, tacking on some neologisms and calling it the management theory du jour.

    So don’t ignore the concept, just don’t credit Christensen for it. Because it really does describe the way the world works. For example : One time there were these incumbents called dinosaurs and they became complacent. They were so self-assured they ate everything in sight and ignored the little mammals running around between their legs . . .

    Or if you are of a different mind, there was once an incumbent called God and this disruptor named Satan came along and created a whole new industry . . .

    Let us know the results of the poll!

  3. Hey, I just figured out why some of us are having a problem with Christensen’s ‘theory.’ It’s because we’ve seen it before. It’s called the dialectic!


    Is this idea ridiculous, intriguing or convincing?

  4. My –

    So dialectic is the ideal and this world is a miserable representation of it?

    We’re back to self-reference. Does the barber shave himself? Remember, he is the only barber in the village and shaves everyone who doesn’t shave himself.

    No wonder Cezanne rebelled. Now I know why I voted “Intriguing”.

  5. This is great. I’m learning a lot from the comments under this and the previous Christensen post.

    The poll, so far, shows that most of you find extending Christensen to Cezanne convincing or intriguing.

    But the comments overwhelmingly vote that Christensen’s theory per se is banal–ie, stating the obvious while masquerading as profound.

    I’m coming around, guys, I am coming around.

    And I’m very pleased: I’ve used the Hannibal Blog to test an idea and it appears to have failed the test, which is progress.

  6. Bonjour!
    J’habite à Aix-en-Provence.Je pense que ça va vous faire plaisir de savoir que nous parlons de vous ici en France Monsieur Kluth.
    Je suis bien contente de ce que vous dites sur Cézanne ici, c’est juste!
    Bonne continuation!

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