In “The Picasso Effect: What The Success of Cubism Teaches Us About Radical Innovation,” Ian Leslie describes the impact on the art world of Picasso’s shocking “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” the first work of an astounding new style which broke with centuries of aesthetic convention: “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 name ‘Pablo Picasso’ became synonymous with ‘genius.’” By contrast, Vincent Van Gogh, another artist whose extraordinary vision challenged the status quo, died without having ever sold one painting in his miserable lifetime. “What makes one brilliant iconoclast wildly successful,” Leslie asks, “and another ignored?”
Naturally, when certain innovations “reset reality,” as Leslie puts it, “our instinct is to hail their creators as godlike visionaries, and their success as somehow inevitable.” But there is more to the equation than genius. For ideas to catch fire, there must be a synergy of the idea, its creator, and its environment.
In a recently published paper that examined radical innovation through the lens of art history, French professor Stoyan Sgrouev searched for the reason that “Cubism burst out of its niche and into the mainstream, and did so with extraordinary force and velocity.” Understanding why, says Sgrouev, requires “looking beyond the individual, however gifted, and beyond even the idea itself. Innovators always operate in a market of some kind,” he points out, and therein lies the key to their success or failure.
Leslie sums up Sgrouev’s take on Cubism: “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... This was the environment in which Picasso made his leap into the unknown.” The analysis shows that Picasso’s brilliance alone wasn’t enough; instead, his talents and energy meshed perfectly with “the movement of the market... At a time when it was cool to bend the rules of art, Picasso smashed every one.”
“For radical innovation to succeed,” Leslie concludes, “the moment has to be moving towards the innovator. But the innovator must still reach out and seize the moment.” Or, to paraphrase Sgrouev, the periphery must move toward the core just at the moment the core is moving toward the periphery.