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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Peaking early or climbing slowly

Back to the bibliography for my book. Today: David Galenson, “Old Masters and Young Geniuses.”

Folks, this is an important book. Notice I did not say “riveting” or “thrilling” or “entertaining”. It’s short and academic, not for the beach. But let me say it again: It’s important.

Galenson has looked into the life cycles of creative types. And he has found something. Gaze at this table for a while and try to figure out why these artists are split into two columns:

Picasso Cézanne
Munch Pissaro
Braque Degas
Derain Kandinsky
Lichtenstein Pollock
Rauschenberg de Kooning
Warhol Rothko
Eliot Frost
Pound Lowell
Cummings Stevens
Fitzgerald Dickens
Hemingway Twain
Joyce Woolf
Melville James

On the left are what Galenson calls “conceptual” types. They are the “young geniuses”.

  • They tend to succeed early in life, in their twenties or thirties, with huge breakthroughs of the imagination.
  • They have a big idea, then execute it boldly.
  • Their youth and inexperience, rather than hurting them, helps them because they don’t let the complexity of life experience confuse them.
  • They often cannot follow up later in life with more success.

On the right are “experimental” types, the “old masters”.

  • They tend to succeed late in life and gradually build toward a legacy.
  • They don’t have one big idea, but try things out, refine their craft, work hard, learn and discover.
  • They get better with age and experience, because they incorporate the complexity of life into their art.
  • They often succeed right up to the end.

By now, you will have figured out how this plays into my book. For some of the young geniuses, early success is an impostor, as Kipling would say, while for some of the old masters, early failure is an impostor.

Which type are you?
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