Innovation in Technology & Art

My intellectual path for well over five decades has been dominated by science and technology, influenced along the way by behavioral and social sciences, and more recently economics, politics and history.  Thus, I have become increasingly interdisciplinary.  However, the epistemological threads have all been dominated by the idea of evidence-based reasoning.

What about the musical and visual arts, and other forms of artistic expression?  As a baseline for comparison, consider innovation in technology.  Trends in technology change shape as the technology matures to enables market innovations.  Gartner’s hype cycle model exhibits an interesting shape change in terms of expectations rather than adoptions. Clearly, there is not always a linear path from idea to R&D to innovation.  Of course, hype cycles are recent formulations.  Looking back to the mid 1800s, I could find no published hype cycles for electricity or indoor plumbing.

Let’s move from technology to art.  Are there hype cycles for visual arts (painting, photography, sculpture), literature (fiction, non-fiction), performing arts (dance, improv, opera, symphony, theatre), and culinary arts?  It is difficult to imagine anticipating the conceptual innovations of Picasso, Matisse or Warhol, or the experimental innovations of Mondrian, Kandinsky, or Pollack (Galenson, 2006).  It is extremely unlikely that the usually prescient projections of The Economist would have heralded these innovations, or that Gartner would publish hype cycles for art.

Innovation in art differs from innovation in technology (Borstlap, 2016).  Only occasionally do these innovations involve technology adoption, e.g., materials or techniques. Further, adoption does not mean that eventually everybody embraces it. For instance, after Cubism emerged in 1907-11, all the other artists did not become Cubists.

Orchestras that focused on Baroque music, e.g., Bach, in the 17th century did not anticipate subsequent Classical music, e.g., Mozart, and later yet Romantic music, e.g., Chopin.  There were no European fan magazines heralding the possibilities of these innovations. Yet, all three musical forms have endured as has indoor plumbing and air conditioning.

Innovation metrics for art might be adoption by art museums and orchestras. Once almost all orchestras included saxophones, invented by Adolphe Sax in 1841, one could argue this instrument was a genuine innovation. Similarly, once almost all major museums included exhibitions of Cubist art, you could say it had arrived.

I hasten to note that this is not how art historians view innovation. Instead, they would assess how the invention affected the artistic community. If other artists extolled the invention, despite not necessarily adopting it themselves, it would over time be seen as an innovation.

There are several significant differences between innovation in art and technology.  Aesthetic innovation can involve creative adoption and extensions of old paradigms, sometimes abetted by technological innovations. Some artistic innovations involve leveraging technological innovations, e.g., robots, to the purposes and intentions of these domains. However, technology is inherently different because of constant progress – few people want an innovative new outhouse.

A fascinating crossing of borders between technology and art involves the impact of Poincare’s famous book on geometry, Science and Hypothesis, which led to Einstein’s relativity theory and Picassos’ cubism (Miller, 2008).  Science and art drew on the same intellectual roots to invent new conceptualizations of space and time.  It would be quite difficult to imagine anyone having predicted these outcomes – unlikely that there would have been a hype cycle for geometry.

Creativity can be important to inventing something new, and also be central to facilitating its adoption to become an innovation.  In a review of studies of creativity, I found that people judged to be creative had three common tendencies.  They were broad information seekers across a wide range of sources.  They mixed multiple approaches to processing information.  Finally, they perceived connections and distinctions that others did not.  Einstein, Picasso and their colleagues reading Poincare’s geometry treatise seems like a good example.


Borstlap, J. (2016). Is innovation in the arts a good thing? The Imaginative Conservative, March 15.

Galenson, D.W. (2006). Analyzing Artistic Innovation: The Greatest Breakthroughs of the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Miller, A.J.  (2008). Einstein, Picasso: Space, Time and the Beauty that Causes Havoc. New York: Basic Books.

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