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Pablo Picasso and Steve Jobs: And Now for Something Completely Different

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Steve Jobs has maintained that creativity in technology and art are closely related. I believe that there is a common structure to the nature of creativity in technology and art, and that as a result our understanding of the achievement of Jobs throughout his career can be deepened by studying the career of a great artistic innovator.

Pablo Picasso was the most revolutionary painter of the 20th century. In 1907, at the age of 26, he executed Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, which now appears in more textbooks of art history than any other painting of the modern era. When the painting was completed, the young poet André Salmon described it as "the first appearance of the painting-equation." The analysis was prophetic, as the critic John Berger later explained that the Demoiselles initiated a new era of conceptual art, in which paintings would no longer mirror nature, but would instead function as diagrams-- symbolic representations of invisible forces and structures. The Demoiselles announced the beginning of Cubism, which Picasso developed during the next seven years with his friend Georges Braque, and which the scholar John Golding described as "perhaps the most important and certainly the most complete and radical revolution since the Renaissance." In the course of this process, in 1912 Picasso created the first collage by attaching a small piece of oil cloth to a painting titled Still Life with Chair Caning.

World War I ended Picasso's remarkable collaboration with Braque, but it did not stop his enormous creativity. By the early 1920s, Picasso was alternating between two completely different styles: in the account of the great scholar Meyer Schapiro, "In the morning he made Cubist paintings; in the afternoon he made Neoclassical paintings." There was no precedent for this practice. As Schapiro remarked, "There is no example in all of history of another painter who has been able to creative such a diversity of works and to give them the power of successful art."

It is difficult to comprehend the full extent of Picasso's impact on the visual art of the past century. Generations of painters were awed by his creativity. As early as 1912, Wassily Kandinsky wrote with wonder that "driven madly onward, Picasso throws himself from one external means to another. If a chasm lies between them, Picasso makes a wild leap, and there he is, standing on the other side, much to the horror of his incredibly numerous followers. They had just thought they had caught up with him; now they must begin the painful descent and start the climb again." Cubism spread rapidly throughout the world of advanced art, directly inspiring scores of artists, and providing the basis for the movements of Futurism, Suprematism, De Stijl, and Constructivism.

Collage diffused no less rapidly, quickly becoming a major new genre. It also inspired many painters to create their own new genres, that departed from painting in other ways. Thus before 1912 was out, Braque invented papier-colle'; in 1913 Vladimir Tatlin invented the counter-relief, and Marcel Duchamp made the first ready-made. And on and on: during the 20th century, more than four dozen new genres of visual art were invented, from Man Ray's rayograms in the '20s and Alexander Calder's mobiles in the '30s to Robert Rauschenberg's combines and Allan Kaprow's happenings in the '50s. All of these were indebted to Picasso's insight that violating traditional rules could give rise to new artistic forms. And collage itself became a basic building block for many subsequent developments in conceptual art. So for example Kaprow defined a happening as "a collage of events," and in the 1990s, Damien Hirst declared that "The greatest idea of the twentieth century was collage."

Picasso's abrupt shifts of style also had a profound impact on the art of the past century. John Berger observed that "In the life work of no other artist is each group of works so independent of those which have just gone before, or so irrelevant to those which are to follow," and in this Picasso became a model for Duchamp, Man Ray, Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Takashi Murakami, and many others. Duchamp described this as "Picasso's main contribution to art. To have been able to start from a new source, and to keep this freshness with regard to whatever new expressions mark the different epochs of his career."

Twentieth-century art had many great conceptual innovators, from Braque and Matisse to Hirst and Cindy Sherman. What distinguishes Picasso, however, is not only the magnitude of his innovations, but their number. Few artists have made a single great innovation, but Picasso produced a series. I believe the key to this was the independence of Picasso's innovations, for each was a fresh idea, unrelated to the others. Major conceptual innovations embody radical new ideas, that violate established practices decisively and conspicuously. Producing an important conceptual innovation requires a rare ability to approach familiar problems in entirely new ways. Few artists can do this once. Virtually none can do it more than once, for even the greatest conceptual innovators normally become wedded to their own innovations. Picasso was a unique case in 20th-century painting, who made no less than three fundamental, revolutionary innovations within the span of less than two decades. It is hardly surprising that he dominates his discipline: textbooks of art history contain twice as many illustrations of his work as of that of any other artist of the modern era.

The great concern over the recent announcement that Steve Jobs will take medical leave from his position as CEO of Apple reflects the widespread perception that Jobs is Silicon Valley's version of Picasso, a conceptual innovator who has made not a single great conceptual innovation, but a series. What is striking about the innovations Jobs has been associated with, from the Apple II and the Macintosh to the iPod and the iPhone, is how independent each is from the others. There are consistent principles that run through all of Jobs' projects, such as simplicity, elegance, and the conviction that form and function are not separable. But he has created a series of innovative products that serve very different purposes, and that have transformed markets that were not previously connected. It appears that he has been able, like Picasso, "to keep this freshness with regard to whatever new expressions mark the different epochs of his career."

Like artists who make radical innovations, entrepreneurs take great risks in creating genuinely innovative products. Instead of tinkering and revising to make incremental improvements in their established, successful innovations, a few great conceptual artists and entrepreneurs have switched to completely different problems, in spite of the possibility that they may fail completely in the new challenge. Jobs recognizes his kinship in this regard with revolutionary conceptual artists: he considers Bob Dylan an inspiration, because of his refusal ever to keep repeating himself, even though changing always carried the risk of failure. And he realizes Dylan was not the only example of this, as he told an interviewer that "Dylan and Picasso were always risking failure."

Even apart from Jobs' health, age is generally unkind to conceptual innovators. The problem is not physical deterioration, but the accumulation of experience. Radical conceptual innovations are typically the result of radically new approaches, and often involve great simplifications. Both of these elements tend to be the domain of brash young practitioners, who are not yet constrained by rigid habits of thought that almost inevitably result from long periods of study of a single problem, and who are not yet enmeshed in a discipline's details and complexities. When older practitioners make bold conceptual innovations, it is often because they have been jolted out of their normal routines. Although Picasso remained a prolific producer of paintings until his death at the age of 92, his last important innovation came in 1937, at the age of 56, when his outrage at the destruction of a Basque town by German bombers during the Spanish Civil War prompted him to produce the monumental Guernica. This became the first great demonstration that advanced modern art could be used to make a powerful public statement of political protest. But even the protean Picasso did not escape from his early stylistic innovation of Cubism in Guernica: as Ernst Gombrich remarked, "It is not the least moving aspect of the search for an expressive symbol to communicate his grief and anger that in the end Picasso reverted to his earlier invention."

Steve Jobs' uncertain health makes it premature to speculate about what he may be able to accomplish in future. But if he is able to overcome his physical problems, the intriguing question about his creativity will be whether he is able to make yet another conceptual leap, and once again to create Silicon Valley's next great thing.