#239 from R&D Innovator Volume 5, Number 10          October 1996

The Gallery of Innovation:  A Closer Look at Results
by Margaret J. King, Ph.D.

Dr. King is director of Cultural Studies & Analysis (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, phone 215-592-8544), identifying cultural values in products and marketing for business and institutions.

Too many times we celebrate the individual without respecting the activities that went into the contribution.  We then miss out on a valuable and intriguing learning experience.  Thinking about art as I toured the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Cezanne Retrospective, my thoughts were equally relevant to science and technology. 

This was the first major exhibit of Cezanne’s work since the mid-30’s.  Cezanne (1839-1906) is widely acknowledged as the artist who set the stage for what eventually turned out to be modernism.  He originated a patchwork of color planes to create a more solid, geometric vision of nature, focusing on the structure and volume of his subjects rather than on light effects or single impressions.  Cezanne’s work opened a new vista to the eyes of artists who would later give us the new image gallery of the mind:  green cows, multifaced people, melting watches, giant clothespins, and great wall-to-wall expanses of a single color.  Picasso called him "the father of us all."

What’s So Special?

But looking at the exhibit’s more than 100 paintings and 70 watercolors and drawings, it is difficult for the average viewer to appreciate Cezanne's contribution.  In fact, this important show would seem to be quite underwhelming.  The muted brilliance of landscapes and still lifes are inviting but unpresupposing.  Sketchy or thickly laid on, some are "understudies" for later works.  Others are curiously unfinished or off the mark, rendered in "raw" colors, or lighting undecided, with sources from every angle.  What we witness here is the small-scale working out of problems of form and color—an intimate, backstage exercise in trial and error, which is the “research” of expression in the arts.  Unfortunately, the typical museum-goer doesn’t notice—and isn’t especially interested in—this important evolutionary stage in art history.  Audiences thus miss out on the creative act that is being performed before our eyes.

What is most dramatic about this exhibit is, ironically, its low-key atmosphere.  Hardly anything stands out.  Cezanne's favorite subjects were familiar, accessible, and low-budget:  his family, his friends, himself, and still-lifes with food.  Only at the close of his career, at the end of the century, did he begin to paint monumental works that took on three-dimensional sculptural qualities.

The canvases in row after row (arranged in curator's favorite rank, by year) didn't seem to live up to the block-buster publicity for this show.  It certainly wasn't apparent just by looking how these works influenced Picasso, Van Gogh, and Matisse.  This collection struggles to meet Cezanne's textbook reputation.  Exhibit viewers find themselves on a perplexing journey, caught between dutifully trying to be appreciative of high culture, while harboring the slightly depressed thought of having missed some elusive, but important, experience.  It is the experience of intellectual insight, the glimpse of innovation about to happen.

Making Connections

This Cezanne show is bigger than just a collection of a master's paintings; it's the meshing of mind with matter.  It is a show of an artist's artist, setting out the rudiments of a liberating new vision.  The glimmerings of his genius are here, but clear only to those who are trained to discern them.  That is the genius of this show, but the point is quite mute:  the most subtle shifts of perception can lead to full-scale innovations.

And isn't it true that many technical innovations arise through subtle shifts of perception?  For instance, just looking at a problem in a slightly different way, or bringing in a traditional perspective from an "outside" discipline, can lead to a breakthrough.  While the final technical innovation may attract attention, the researcher's stepwise contributions are mostly lost in the shuffle of background sketches.  Rarely is there any "show" of the stages that led to the breakthrough.  Most people just want to celebrate the “big achievement;” they therefore ignore the value of a retrospective analysis of the subtle, cumulative, mental shifts that led to the achievement itself.  Thus, rich opportunities to better appreciate themes that lead to breakthroughs are missed, and we all waste an important research management experience.

But even the Cezanne show makes it difficult to see exactly how the artist encouraged Picasso to achieve his bold, flaring statements.  The exhibition would have been far more valuable if we could see the connections made through Cezanne.  For example, what about linking the ties to previous movements, the "before" vision of the world, to project those connections through Cezanne's work to the "after" vision?  What did Cezanne's apples look like before, and after, Cezanne's brush took to them?  How did Picasso, the high-profile artist of our century, turn Cezanne’s view of a bather into Modern Art?  The astonishing conclusion from such an education is how subtle and undramatic innovation can be.

Great Artists and Scientists

Venerating the Great Artist is still something museums do well.  A perfect monument is erected to style and genius in a sealed aesthetic, a pure world constructed in the mind with images.  The spell cast by these images can enchant so completely that we lose track of why we are being enchanted:  that the artist's vision is taken over and evolves into an entirely new “lines of sight.

Again, the parallel with researchers--the Great Scientist (within a department, an organization, or within the scope of the world) is put on a pedestal, but with little acknowledgment of the trials leading to the Great Discovery—or to the small discoveries by others whose work helped set the foundation.

I think it is clear that we would all better appreciate art and science if we would concentrate less on the result and more on how the result came about.  This awareness would also make us more creative researchers. 

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