Paris, 1907. In a ramshackle studio in Montmartre, a twenty-six year-old Spanish artist presented the painting he had been working on day and night for the best part of a year to a small group of fellow artists, dealers and friends. They were visibly aghast.
One considered the work “a veritable cataclysm”. Another concluded that its creator must be on the brink of suicide. None could foresee that it would one day be considered the most influential artwork of the twentieth century.
The painting, then untitled, was later to become known as Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. It is credited as the first work of Cubism, and the catalyst for a revolution in Western art and culture.
The reaction of its first viewers that day was understandable. Les Demoiselles was ugly, chaotic and confusing: everything art was not supposed to be. It represented a wrenching, violent rupture with artistic convention. It flouted laws of perspective, representation and beauty that had endured for over four hundred years.
In a predictable world, Les Demoiselles would have been regarded as a regrettable aberration and quickly forgotten. Yet within a few years, Cubism had become the dominant art movement in Europe, and Cubist artists were commanding sky-high prices for their work.
The painting’s creator, at the time barely known outside of Montmartre, went on to become the most famous artist in the world. The name “Pablo Picasso” became synonymous with “genius”.
Certain innovations have the power to reset reality. Cubism, like Darwin’s theory of evolution, Edison’s lightbulb, or Apple’s iPhone, was an idea that made everything around it seem instantly obsolete. When we think about why such ideas succeed, our instinct is to hail their creators as godlike visionaries, and their success as somehow inevitable.
Stoyan Sgrouev thinks we’re missing something. Sgrouev is a management professor at ESSEC in France. Scholars of innovation usually study the incremental improvements that give existing products a slight edge over their competitors and which, in the long run, add up to progress. Sgourev focuses on the rarer bird of radical innovation: great leaps forward. The lens through which he examines this phenomenon is the history of art.
In a recently published paper in Organization Science, Sgourev discusses the explosive impact that Cubism had on the Parisian art market. Before 1907, Paris was already a hotbed of radical thinkers, hawking novel ideas, but very few enjoyed commercial success. The road to riches and respectability ran through establishment salons, controlled by elderly cliques. The once innovative techniques of the Impressionists and their followers had been absorbed into the mainstream. If you were doing something different, you were restricted to a niche.
Cubism burst out of its niche and into the mainstream, and did so with extraordinary force and velocity. Impressionism took several decades to make its movement from the margins of the Parisian scene to its heart; Cubism made a comparable impact within a few years, and the stylistic experiments it led to defined the international art market for the rest of the century.
Understanding why this happened is no easy matter. Was it simply that Picasso was special? Sgourev finds the “genius” explanation wanting. He cites the counter-example of Vincent van Gogh, an artistic innovator of comparable talent and radicalism to Picasso. Ten years before Picasso arrived in Paris, Van Gogh killed himself, aged 34, having never sold a painting in his life. Neither is it as if Picasso was a superior marketer of his work; he shied away from promoting it and refused to assume leadership of the group of artists associated with Cubism.
What makes one brilliant iconoclast wildly successful, and another ignored? Answering this question, according to Sgourev, means looking beyond the individual, however gifted, and beyond even the idea itself. Just as a painting is defined by its frame, innovators always operate in a market of some kind, and the success or failure of their idea is invariably contingent on its quirks. To explain Picasso, we first need to understand Picasso’s Paris.
The Parisian art scene had changed since Van Gogh was alive, in ways that were still unfolding when Picasso began his great experiment. First, there was a new kind of consumer: the industrial revolution had created a class of young, educated, affluent Parisians, who, keen to distinguish themselves from their more conventional elders, prided themselves on daring displays of taste.
Second, new channels of distribution were opening: the French government had divested itself of responsibility for the city’s annual art salon, and private galleries sprang up in its place. Finally, a new breed of art dealers emerged, many of them foreign and thus outsiders to the Parisian establishment. These young, hungry businessmen competed to find the new new thing first and sell it at the most aggressive price possible.
In short, and almost without anyone noticing, Paris’s art market had become receptive to the commercial possibilities of risk-taking. Artistic innovation was becoming economically viable for the first time. Breaking with the past was starting to be encouraged; soon it would be demanded. This was the environment in which Picasso made his leap into the unknown.
Sgourev’s analysis of Cubism suggests that having an exceptional idea isn’t enough: if it is to catch fire, the market conditions have to be right. That’s a question of luck and timing as much as it is of genius. The closest modern analogy to Picasso’s Paris is Silicon Valley in the early days of the dotcom boom, with art dealers as venture capitalists and entrepreneurs as artists.
Jeff Bezos would probably have been successful in whichever era he was born, but the world-changing success of Amazon was the product of a unique set of converging economic, technological and cultural circumstances. Steve Jobs took a huge bet on design at a time when, especially during his second and more successful tenure at Apple, everyday design was already becoming more important to consumers.
It’s not that Picasso’s talent was immaterial to Cubism’s success – far from it. It’s that his talents were perfectly suited to the movement of the market. In a world that was increasingly rewarding experimentation, he was more energetically experimental than his peers: he made over seven hundred sketches of Les Demoiselles before settling on one that satisfied him. In an art scene that was becoming more open to diverse influences, he looked further afield than most of his competitors, to ancient Etruscan and African art. In a milieu that romanticised the exotic, he was a mysterious, black-eyed Spanish immigrant who spoke barely any French. At a time when it was cool to bend the rules of art, Picasso smashed every one.
For radical innovation to succeed, the moment has to be moving towards the innovator. But the innovator must still reach out and seize the moment.
Ian Leslie is the author of Born Liars; Why We Can’t Live Without Deceit