Duke Divinity Call & Response Blog | Faith & Leadership | 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. 10. 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.