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I had a conversation with Ron Martinez of Invention Arts following his thoughtful comment on my post (thank you, Ron). As we both share a background in technology and the arts, I was eager to delve deeper on the topic with him. Specifically, since winning products need a combination of internal inspiration and external validation, how do we reconcile our creative vision with the needs of others? Does validating products with customers mean doing everything customers ask? What are the boundaries we should consider?

Let’s take a look at successful artists to explore those far-reaching questions. In many ways visionary technologists are like modern art painters: they have a strong subjective self that enables them to see beyond the mundane, give shape to their inner dreams, and create a vision for a new product, or a great piece of art. They could not achieve those results by surrendering their subjective selves to others.

This being said, if we seek to build winning products, or art that can sell during our lifetime, how do we find resonance with others, be it prospective customers or gallery owners, without surrendering our original creative vision? This is a vexing dilemma faced by technologists and artists alike.

Jean Michel Basquiat: the Art of Innovation

One artist who did this exceptionally well is the late American painter Jean Michel Basquiat. Born in NYC in 1960, he soon rose to fame to become an international art star. His paintings fetched multi-million dollar price tags (in his twenties!), and his art was shown in premier galleries and museums around the US and Europe. I learned from Ron (who had the privilege to be his friend), that Basquiat started working from sketches, and showed his sketches around to get people’s reactions. Here is was he told me:

Basquiat was famous for walking up to Andy Warhol and others at restaurants and showing them his sketchbook. He showed me his book at any random time. The work was for sale if you wanted it, or just to let people know what he was doing and get their reactions. No question, anyone who was privileged enough to have been shown his notebooks was a potential collector, on the spot.

Fascinating! If we make the parallelism with customer development in technology, Basquiat was an adept practitioner in many ways. He engaged in customer discovery and validation, showing his sketches (minimum viable product) to get feedback on his work, and find visionary early adopters. Interesting note: Basquiat and Warhol became great collaborators following the restaurant encounter.

Here is a prime example of a person with a strong subjective self, balanced with superior inter-subjectivity skills. Basquiat was able to keep a pulse on the outside world, and take input from others, while keeping grounded in his creative vision. His paintings are utterly distinctive, his style fiercely original. He was a true visionary, who led the neo-expressionist movement of the 1980s together with other contemporary artists. Basquiat achieved world recognition during his lifetime, and financial success (rumor has it that he wore Armani suits as overalls). One of his paintings fetched a record $14.6 m at Sotheby’s in 2007.

This example illustrates that listening to customers does not mean doing what customers ask, but is about finding what resonates and being able to innovate within those realms. Steve Jobs is another master practitioner at this.

At the Other Extreme: Thomas Kinkade

At the other end of the spectrum we have Thomas Kinkade, who was (interestingly) born around the same year as Basquiat. His paintings have nothing fresh or innovative about them. Kinkade’s claim to fame was to bring mass marketing to the arts. His work (or reproductions) can be found in 1 out of 20 American homes today. He built a fortune understanding what has mass appeal – bucolic paintings and idyllic settings such as gardens, streams, stone cottages –  and that’s what he set to paint. Kinkade said it best:

There’ve been million-seller books and million-seller CDs. But there hasn’t been, until now, million-seller art. We have found a way to bring to millions of people, an art that they can understand.

Lessons Learned

Basquiat defined new category in modern art, while Kinkade brought watered down art to the mass market. Both made a fortune. Whether you follow the Basquiat path or the Kinkade path to richness, validating that your subjective vision touches others in meaningful ways remains essential to the success of your venture.

One thought on “Basquiat and the Art of Innovation

  1. Your article is very interesting to me since I explore these questions quite often, including last month when I had to do a presentation on related issues to MOMA design curators. My take is that DESIGN (about adaptation; compromise) exists between TECHNOLOGY (about innovation) and ART (about revelation; non-compromise)

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