What can Cubism Teach Us About Radical Innovation?

What can Cubism Teach Us About Radical Innovation?

Radical innovation is about breaking with tradition and embracing experimentation to create something distinctly new. From Thomas Edison and the electric light to Steve Jobs and the iPod, history’s radical innovators have boldly forged ahead into unknown territory to create new markets as well as entirely new social and business realities. But bold new ideas are born every day while only a few flourish. Are there factors beyond the control of the innovator that decide the success or failure of his or her idea? ESSEC Management Professor Stoyan Sgourev believes that art can offer us valuable clues in this regard.

His latest research, “How Paris Gave Rise to Cubism (and Picasso): Ambiguity and Fragmentation in Radical Innovation”, published this month in Organization Science, looks to Cubism, the avant-garde artistic movement that forged an entirely new visual language over a century ago, to better understand the multiple forces that must come together to push a radically innovative idea from the niche to mainstream.

“The Paris art scene at the turn of the 20th century was a hotbed for radical thinkers. Yet, they enjoyed very limited commercial success. What is remarkable about Cubism is its sudden emergence and rapid diffusion” he explains. “If Impressionism developed over several decades in the 19-th century, Cubism exploded from avant-garde niches onto the forefront of the art world, with huge repercussions for the development of the art market as a whole.”

How can we explain this accelerated rate of diffusion? Research has tended to see innovation through the lens of collective action – the organizing force of an institutional entrepreneurship ‘movement’. But what Professor Sgourev finds intriguing about Cubism is its lack of a coherent movement and a clear leader –Braque and Picasso shied away from public attention and refused to assume authority over the movement.

Looking beyond collective action, Professor Sgourev’s analysis of Cubism brings to light three key factors: the personality/psychology of the innovator, the networks of supporters, and the market structure. It is in the interaction between these factors in a multi-level framework that we can find the explanation for Cubism’s accelerated rate of diffusion, locally and internationally.

As Professor Sgourev explains radical discoveries are often the product of stochastic experimentation. Picasso is a good example – behind the visual cacophony of some of his most famous works are hundreds of sketches that chart a meandering trajectory with no clear endpoint. But there are more factors involved.

“What’s particularly interesting about the rise of Cubism is that it reflected structural changes in the art market,” he adds. “All of a sudden, opportunities for radical experimenters like Picasso were popping up, making innovation of this kind more visible and easier to sell.”

In other words, the growth of what would be called “modern art’ was driven by a new kind of buyer who embraced experimentation. In the years leading up to the birth of Cubism, a small number of buyers with a pronounced taste for risk had started investing in radically new art and given rise to self-sustaining niches in Montmartre where artists no longer had to depend on the approval of the mass buyer or the critics. The niches and the network of early supporters created an environment where the innovators could experiment without any artistic compromise.

“We used to think that, in cases of radical innovation,    peripheral actors had to move towards the center… This research shows that it also needs to go the other way.”

“The big question though is: how did Cubism go beyond the niches? We tend to think that, in cases of radical innovation, peripheral actors move towards the center or mainstream and that this movement is largely dependent on the entrepreneurial skills of the innovator. What this research shows is that it also needs to go the other way: that the center needs to become more receptive to an innovation or at least, less resistant to it”.

At the turn of the century, the art world experienced important structural changes: the industrial revolution had contributed to a growing middle class; a broader spectrum of the population could afford to buy art; and the number of artists working in Paris increased dramatically in a short period of time. The traditional channels through which to show and sell art were becoming increasingly saturated and new market niches appeared. This market fragmentation made it increasingly difficult for the centre to control the periphery.

“As the mainstream became more open to the innovative ideas of peripheral actors, Cubism came along   at the right time,” says Professor Sgourev. “Picasso’s timing was impeccable. When you combine his stochastic search for new ideas, his network of early supporters and the structural changes nudging the mainstream towards the periphery, it becomes easier to understand why he became successful so quickly.”

“Most importantly, the radical innovation that was Cubism helped change the art market forever. Buyers had the opportunity to make money by speculating on cheap, experimental art. Where in previous times the salon had made the stars, prominence in the art world was now defined by the interest and purchasing decisions of a handful of predominantly foreign buyers, and the resultant increase in the price of paintings.

“The lasting legacy of cubism is its constant search for the new, this idea that anything is possible… the trajectory of cubism can teach us a lot about innovation today.”

To this day, market factors dominate the art world. The prices fetched at auction stand as an indicator of an artist’s influence. But for Professor Sgourev, the lasting legacy of Cubism is its constant search for the new, the idea that anything is possible and that the principles whereby markets operate can be redefined.

“With its explosiveness and mutability, Cubism is the epitome of modern markets,” concludes Professor Sgourev. “It created an industry, accelerated the social acceptance of modern art and paved the way for subsequent breakthroughs, such as abstract art. But its success was as much about the ideas behind it as about the opportunities to realize them. And its accelerated diffusion speaks to contemporary times and   to the reality in which entrepreneurs exist today. Ideas and innovations spread like wildfire, with much ambiguity over which one of them would get to successfully anticipate market evolutions.”  

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