Duke Divinity Call & Response Blog

Read. Discuss. Imagine.

  • Print
November 24, 2009

Jason Byassee: Innovate (non) violently

“Innovate violently”: That’s the advice the great Pablo Picasso heard from and shared with his fellow groundbreaking artists in France in the early 20th century. The phrase also highlights “Picasso and the Allure of Language,” an exhibit at Duke’s Nasher Museum of Art through Jan. 3. Who could argue Picasso and company did anything but innovate violently? He and Georges Braques and others entirely reshaped how artists create -- and how the rest of us contemplate -- art. Why shouldn’t a viewer be able to look at a figure from multiple vantages at the same time? Why can’t text be part of a painting? Why shouldn’t a bicycle handle be the head of a bull? Countless more innovations led Picasso into Cubism and helped him give inspiration to the surrealism pioneered by his fellow Spaniard, Salvador Dali.

“Innovate violently” contrasts nicely with “traditioned innovation,” a practice in which the church does a new thing, but always by reaching back into the treasure trove of our past. This difference came clear to me thinking back on an interview with Andy Crouch of “Christianity Today.” I asked him what he would do if he got to be a seminary president all of a sudden. “You can break everything,” I said. “How would you start over?” He paused and squirmed a little. “Well, I wouldn’t want to break everything. I might not want to break anything. A lot of how the church trains seminarians is something we should treasure.” Crouch wouldn’t innovate violently. He would do so cautiously if anything, especially at first.

The concept of traditioned innovation holds that entrepreneurial advance in the church for a new day is never a start from scratch. We need always to be innovating boldly -- and truth be told the church is entirely too reticent to change too much of the time. But when we change we don’t do so just for change’s sake, or to attract more people, or from scratch. Instead, we always reach back into the depths of Christian tradition to recover something we’d neglected there and reframe it for a new day. For example, look at the various “new” movements, like the “new monastics” and the “new friars.” The former move back into abandoned places of empire and set up outposts of the kingdom of God in intentional community. They are like ancient monks, only they’re evangelicals, and so marry and have children, and often pursue secular careers outside the monastery (or, that is, community). The new friars are like their medieval forebears Clare and Frances in that they vow poverty, chastity and obedience (filtered through their evangelical commitments), but they are not cloistered in one spot. They go around preaching to anyone who’ll hear. As these evangelicals do new things they also do old things, and their genius lies in holding in tension both the old and the new. They are not practicing “violent innovation;” if anything traditioned innovation is peaceful innovation.

But what interested me about the Picasso exhibit was how Picasso himself practiced something much like traditioned innovation. He could no more break everything than Andy Crouch could. All he had to work with were the same things artists had been working with forever: paint, canvas, clay, pencil and paper, words, models and so on. Of course he did spectacularly new things with those old materials, as any cursory glance at Cubism will attest. But even so he reached back into the deep history of art to do his new thing. He began with learning about the art of African masks -- long present in his native Spain but disdained as “barbaric art” at best. Those cubist images came from somewhere: namely, from generations of nameless African artists and the deep artistic and religious meaning they gave those masks. Picasso’s innovation was reaching back not just into European but also African history -- but it was still traditioned innovation of a sort.

Picasso also went through a classical stage (among many other stages) about mid-career. In this phase, Greek statuary and stories came to occupy his mind, and he came to integrate classical forms into his startling new work. The exhibit includes a series of illustrations that make up the only commissioned work for a book Picasso ever did in America. He drew images for Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, the famous comedy in which the women of Greece and Sparta ban together to end the Pelopennesian War by refusing sex to their warrior husbands. The images are spectacular -- and they are based on a play that’s two and a half millennia old.

The exhibit also includes manuscripts that a friend asked Picasso to illustrate. He chose to do so in a way inspired by medieval manuscripts. Rather than draw images, Picasso illumined the pages with abstract designs evoking medieval scribes, bringing a medieval tradition into the 20th century. Even Picasso’s most daring innovations are not necessarily violent, as one poem he wrote makes clear. He wrote it as a tribute to El Greco, the Greek Baroque painter who spent his career in Spain, lyrically praising his forerunner in innovation on the Iberian peninsula. One look at El Greco’s long, haunting, explicitly unrealistic images confirms that Picasso did not start from scratch. Even this “violent innovator” stood on the shoulders of giants, as he knew full well.

This is not to downplay one man’s genius, far from it. It may just mean a redefinition of genius. A great pioneer, in art or leadership or elsewhere, is one who takes existing materials and puts them together in a new way, as Picasso did so often. In short, genius is not about innovation that is violent, but traditioned.

Jason Byassee is an executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.


Naming the Violence

Wonderful post, Jason.

I do not know the context of the statement/imperative "Innovate Violently" so I hesitate to offer an in depth response here. However, in light of your observations and comparison to "traditioned innovation" what seems most important to ask is, what did Picasso understand himself to be enacting violence upon? Violence implies infliction. If, as you point out, it's likely not a blanket rejection of traditional approaches to art, what might it be? My guess is that it implies a critique not so much of the traditional forms and methods themselves, but rather the ideologies that came to be associated with certain forms and methods.

I think what you have pointed out here is very important, both for artists and the church as both can become captivated by modern notions of "innovation" and "progress"--not to mention "genius". As artists and members of traditioned communities, we would do well to ask when and where (to whom) our innovations do violence. Conversely, we would be wise to ask what violence do we inflict when we uncritically resist all forms of "innovation"? Either way, the question requires an engagement with history and tradition, not avoidance of or breaking away from. In fact, as you have shown in your references to the "new monastics" and "new friars", recovering the traditions of the past can be helpful innovations/correctives as the contemporary church deals with the current malaise brought on by years of unencumbered momentum driven by modernity's fascination with innovation.

It would be very interesting to see what kind of work Picasso would produce today after seeing the subsequent effects of his "violent innovation." For, it is my conjecture, the violence done in modern art was violence against the very criteria by which we come to understand "art" as "art." That's not to suggest I don't have a deep appreciation and admiration of many modern artists. I certainly do. But I also recognize that in some sense, post-modern art has become post-art art. We are faced now with two primary questions: where do we go from here? and how do we go on when there is no longer any criteria for "we"?

The church would do well to pay attention to this insightful distinction you've made between "violent" and "non-violent" innovation. Otherwise, if we fail to recognize this distinction I fear we'll not avoid becoming unintelligible to ourselves. When "everything goes" everything goes...

The challenge...

This is fantastic, Jason. Thanks for the food for thought. I think the church faces the inherent challenge of keeping something current and contemporary that is rooted in something thousands and thousands of years old. Circumstances have changed, politics have changed, the position of Hebrews and Christians in the world has changed...so how does the church fit in tandem with those changes? I personally feel (and am not trying to start a debate) that the Bible, while holy and important and certainly inspired by God, needs to be taken in the context in which it was written. So then, is the church left trying to take what's at the *heart* of Christianity and make that relevant, or do we end up losing too much of what it's built upon? Is it the church's "responsibility" to maintain a certain amount of tie to tradition?

But, of course, everything I say should be taken with a grain of salt because I am a far left borderline socialist who is about as open and liberal as it gets. :)

Post new comment

Comment Policy

* required field