It’s been fifteen years since Harvard professor Clayton M. Christensen’s much quoted The Innovator’s Dilemma was first published. Countless corporations, governments and technological organizations have applied his ideas in attempts to improve bottom lines and minimize failures. Disruptive innovation describes how steamships disrupted sailing ships, autos disrupted railways, mini-computers disrupted mainframes, Wikipedia disrupted paper encyclopedias, digital photography disrupted film photography, etc. To put it in the Christensen vernacular, “Start-ups often provide disruptive innovation and readily eat into the market share of older value networks.”
Disruption, it would appear, is one of the natural keys to invention and success. I’ve been curious how Christensen’s principles might apply to art.
Impressionism disrupted academicism, abstraction disrupted realism, etc. While there are many artists who work diligently to create the next “ism,” some among us think that realism is currently re-disrupting abstraction.
But let’s face it, many of us are happy to produce what we think are safe, middle of the road, non-disruptive art that thrives on the comforting repetition of traditional forms and sentiments. I’m not making a value judgment here, I’m just reporting. But I do invite artists to look at their work and try to measure just how disruptive it might be or become.
Works of art that vary from standard conservative norms tend to attract attention. Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde shark, sliced cow and diamond-studded skull come in high on the Richter Scale of “shock and awe.” At the same time, subtle variations and stylistic nuances also draw quiet attention. Evidence of newness and novelty intrigues, puzzles, amuses and motivates viewers. In a competitive world (of which the business of art is one) the conscious or unconscious attention to this phenomenon may be vital to both survival and thrival.
Here are a few questions worth asking: Are all disruptive art forms art? To be disruptive in your art, is it necessary to disrupt someone else’s? Why do humans crave novelty? Is “shock and awe” necessary? Why does Damien Hirst make so many folks upset and annoyed?
PS: “Breaking an old model is always going to require leaders to follow their instincts. There will always be persuasive reasons not to take a risk. But if you only do what worked in the past, you will wake up one day and find that you’ve been passed by.” (Clayton Christensen)
Esoterica: Cruise your work-in-progress and ask yourself a few further questions: How could this work be more imaginative? How could this work have a beguiling subplot? Where in this work have I sunk into normalcy and complacency? Is this work dull, boring, yawn-inducing? In what way is this work different from what I’ve previously seen or done? If I were a “start-up,” what would I do? Courageous, outrageous, audacious, bodacious–where art thou? Incidentally, if you’re interested in pursuing this subject, you might take a look at ” Innovation” in our own Resource of Art Quotations.
A Trojan Horse
by H Margret, Santa Fe, NM, USA
Damien Hirst’s work is insulting to the senses. He’s not an artist, but a showman. The art world is full of showmen, right now. People who make huge amounts of money for concepts that are not liberating, creative or satisfying suck all the air out at the top level, leaving no oxygen for the rest of the creative people and then make real art look vapid. He’s a set-up for the rest of us to fail. A Trojan Horse.
Warhol is the same type. There is so little creativity permitted now that the really creative interesting work is unseen. I live in a busy art market and the repetition element is pervasive.
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Thinking outside the box
by Bill Hogue, Dallas, TX, USA
I recently completed a series of abstract paintings on boxes. Some were designed as floor pieces, some to fit on lamp tables and some to sit on desks. I made one as a center piece for a table (illustrated). This mixed media painting was made from a box 12 x 24 x 4.12 inches, so the five exposed sides are the equivalent to a canvas 29 inches square. In some way these paintings are like a vase of flowers that can be moved about easily. In other ways they are like sculptures. The jury is still out on whether they will be a commercial success or not but I found satisfaction in doing them.
Artists today have so many choices of materials and I’m not recommending boxes as one of them. The prep time involved to use paper boxes is usually longer then it takes to do the painting, but I recently started using PVC sheets, which come in various sizes and thicknesses and colors and am working on a painting, with five exposed sides, that hangs on the wall and which wraps around a corner of the wall.
I’m not suggesting that any of these things fall into the “Disruptive Innovation” category of your recent article, but I do think we should all get out of our comfort zone occasionally, no matter how goofy it may feel.
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Finding a new vocabulary
by Nicole Lavoie, Pontiac, QC, Canada
I am of the older generation but seeking something new in art. I started like most with the realism but after being in contact with the art of ’60s to ’80s I could not refrain from wanting more and looking for excitement in my own work. Of course I got hard comments but mostly silence from family and friends. I was alone and doubting. However my need for the different and the unexpected lingered and I travelled from my old accepted style to the new alien one. Finally, not long ago, I decided I didn`t want to end my life staying on the diving board. I jumped and, although it is difficult, I am truly happy researching and discovering new ways and vocabulary. I may not be recognized internationally before my death but I am happy doing what I do and I think that is important, and some people like what I do.
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True ‘disruptive innovation’
by Jeffrey Hessing, Nice, France
There is a big difference between “shock and awe” and disruptive innovation. Shock and awe is a superficial and short-lived gut response. True disruptive innovation changes the course of the way we see, think or do things.
I am skeptical of art that stakes its value on newness. Anything that’s main interest is its newness will get old quickly. This is the heart and soul of the fashion industry. Not art.
The core of all art is expression of the deep self. If, in following your deepest instincts, you wind up doing something that is disruptively innovative, that is fine. If you consciously set out to do something that is innovative or to shock, it is likely to be contrived and short-lived.
Damian Hirst had an exhibition at the Jacques Cousteau Museum in Monaco. His shark was the centerpiece. In the next room there were tens cases of fish that Cousteau had been collecting and putting in formaldehyde years before. It is only the context of the contemporary art museum that makes Damian’s shark interesting. It is easy to be shocking. Go to any B rated horror film. I don’t go because I would be deeply disturbed. That doesn’t make it great art. Hirst’s work is not innovative. It does not change your perception of life or the world as great art does. On the other hand, in marketing, Damian Hirst is a modern master.
Recently, I met a seventy five year old Japanese potter. He is the fifteenth generation in a family of potters. He offered me a small bowl when we said goodbye. It sits on my table and gives me a profound sense of joy and beauty each time I look at it.
We still listen to the radio, we still take trains and we still have desktop computers. Things of real value outlive the disruptions. Humans have been painting for 30,000 years. I don’t mind disruptions.
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by Nigel Konstam, Casole d’Elsa, Sienna, Tuscany, Italy
Christensen’s ‘disruptive innovation’ may have little to do with the activity of artists, which I see as the refinement of perception. Newness in art may be so subtle that it goes unnoticed.
Vermeer is a case in point. His art was forgotten for 200 years. His originality consisted in turning from the description of nature as subject matter, to the quality of light as his focus. Light is what interested him; not the objects that reflected the light. It needed the invention of the camera for people to realize what he was on about. Even now critics believe he used the camera obscura to fix the objects rather than to study unfocused light. Some are even worried by the bourgeois nature of the objects that Vermeer used to reflect the light in his pictures.
We are deep in the same perceptive quagmire with Rembrandt. Several generations of scholars have so focused on his supposed stylistic evolution that they have entirely lost sight of his mind-blowing originality: His ability to convey feelings. He transformed the rhetoric of expression by observing body language, which had always been there but not successfully conveyed in two dimensions. Body language is fundamental to our understanding of each other. The scholars’ view is not only absurdly mistaken, it has actively submerged Rembrandt’s great contribution.
Perception needs to be not only refined but diligently guarded. I believe this has become the artist’s most pressing responsibility.
Public art is another thing
by Karen R. Phinney, Halifax, NS, Canada
We are constantly re-evaluating things and reinventing them. Flux is the order of the day. We are seeing the flux with RIM Blackberries being disrupted by Apple.
But as regards art, which is still something a lot of people react to viscerally, do you think a cherished heirloom passed on lovingly from older to younger generation, would be a piece of some “found scrap” pasted on a board? Do you think that sort of thing (a shark in a tank, a meat dress, a skull with or without diamonds) is going to still resonate in the future? I wonder… the cherished personal art is that of something that stirs us, be it a Rembrandt or Picasso, a Titian or a Thomson. Of course, public art is another thing, but most of us who paint aren’t looking to be in a public space, at least not immediately! So I think that whether it’s abstract or figurative, it has got to make a connection with the viewer emotionally (other than repugnance or dismay). So disruption of the “now” forms, but with perhaps a revisiting of older styles in a cyclical way. It is the way of the world for many things. Nostalgia plays a part too!
Weeding out individuality
by Celeste McCall, Southlake, TX, USA
In porcelain artistry, the factories used to hire people to paint the porcelain by hand. They would execute a watercolor freehand then transfer that watercolor to the porcelain. It was very expensive and usually one person painted the whole set so that it matched in brush stroke, style, expression, etc. But the factory eventually ‘weeded out’ individuality by making the porcelain artists paint so smooth that they lost their individual mark. Later the factories used decals and hired people to paint each part separately to eliminate MORE individuality and increase MORE uniformity. Finally, with the industrial revolution, machines are used instead of artists.
Expanding your repertoire
by Bela Fidel, Scottsdale, AZ, USA
Know what you currently do
Detach from the idea of doing things “one way”
Investigate your dislikes
Investigate your fears
Articulate your possibilities
Make a strong choice
Stretch in a new direction
Accept being a beginner
Accept the reality of learning curves
Parlay what you already know
As in the 12 lessons in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, I will take up his challenge and study myself and my creative process along these lines. I expect to come out on the other side with more genuine ideas, more courage and self-confidence, less of the same old and safe.
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Some questions answered
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
Q. To be disruptive in your art is it necessary to disrupt someone else’s? A. After reading The Painter’s Keys for years it is obvious that no matter what you do, say or create, chances are that you will disrupt someone. It would be extremely difficult (and purposeless) to create something that would not disrupt anyone else’s art. In the context of your question, the more novel you are, the more you disrupt the conventional and vice versa.
Q. Why do humans crave novelty? A. Because their purpose in life is to get ahead. Being novel is the most progressive, peaceful way of getting ahead.
Q. Is “shock and awe” necessary? A. No, but “shock and awe” produces a bigger amount of energy than any other emotion. So it’s the most powerful fuel for getting ahead. You could argue that it’s the most aggressive peaceful method. It’s sometimes used by people craving authority and who don’t have the time or aptitude to build trust, respect, admiration, etc.
Q. Why does Damien Hirst make so many folks upset and annoyed? A. Because one of the widely accepted social conventions is that only skill and hard work shall be rewarded. Shock art is a prime example that it is not so. As a result, people who believe in that convention feel cheated. People who do not believe in that convention are either inspired to do something even more novel or to be copycats. There are also those who just like to philosophize, like some people that I know. Interestingly, the word “talent” can be conveniently used or abused in any of those scenarios. Just like quality, it can’t be defined but you know it when you see it if it’s in your realm sort of like a real case of emperor’s new clothes.
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Define and confine
by Mary Moquin, Sandwich, MA, USA
To define Art is to confine Art. I wish we would all just give up on that and let it be the elusive amazing omnipotent thing that it is. The beauty of Art is its ability to be so many different things for some many different people. It can be healing recreation or it can stimulate our curiosity, or it can enflame us and provoke action. If you want the attention of the Contemporary Art world, you have to create work that is relevant to contemporary life. If you want to be “part of the conversation” today you have to have something to say that reflects or attempts to interpret the world we live in today. Artists do not exist in a vacuum; we are influenced by our society and culture. Of course, we always have the option not to be part of the conversation. Recapitulating the past is fine if you want, but don’t get in a huff when contemporary audiences say, “ho hum,”–they are looking for something intellectually stimulating that reflects something about today’s world as well or in spite of its visual appeal. We can paint our joy and our admiration of past styles, and some of it is downright amazing. But let’s not limit Art to any definition. Giving people what they want to see all the time can quickly degrade to the lowest common denominator and become like calendar art, visual muzak, happy paintings to decorate the wall and add some color to the room. Let Art be all of it, passive and decorative; provoke social change and outrage, and all the myriad of nuances in between.
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Irritations from oils
by Dr. Diane Howard, Calgary, AB, Canada
I have been painting in oils for the past seven years. It appears that once a year I come down with a continually dripping nose, sore throat and even more terrifying a burning sensation throughout my chest and lungs. This normally disappears within 24 hours and especially if I stop painting. I have several studios and some are better ventilated than others. But lately my resistance and tolerance to my oil paints, walnut oil and solvents have diminished to a point where just walking into the studio or touching the tubes of paint make my symptoms reappear. I use M. Graham oils but I am seriously considering switching to acrylics. Is this why you switched over from oils to acrylics?
(RG note) Thanks, Diane. When I switched from oils to acrylics in 1974 I was having similar symptoms to yours. I think a lot of it had to do with poor work habits in the studio. Also, I was a bit neurotic. After 40 years with acrylic I still get skin irritations, runny nose, etc. My chest is much better since I stopped smoking cigars. I am still a bit neurotic. I haven’t stopped painting, however.
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watercolour painting 14.5 x 20.5 inches
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