The Shock of the New: The Paris Art World of 1916—and the U.S. Healthcare Landscape of 2018

Sept. 13, 2018
What does a revolution in art from a century ago say about the present moment in U.S. healthcare?

I’m currently absorbed in a very compelling book, Picasso and the Painting That Shocked the World, by Miles J. Unger, and published this year by Simon & Schuster. This book traces the trajectory of one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, Pablo Picasso, as he moved towards creating a painting that shattered all the artistic conventions of the time: “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” a cubist rendering of several women in erotic poses, but with a jagged, savage, pseudo-primitivist artistic treatment that sent shockwaves through the European art world. In choosing an implicitly controversial subject, and moving towards a revolutionary treatment, influenced very strongly by exhibits of indigenous African art that he had recently seen, Picasso relished the opportunity to shock the middle classes—as they say in France, épater les bourgeois. But he also faced a complex set of artistic challenges and dilemmas.

As Unger notes, “By taking up [poet Charles] Baudelaire’s challenge, he was setting up a deliberate contrast, proposing an alternate version of modernism that would not simply substitute a cramped naturalism for the tired formulas of the Academy.” This revolutionary painting, Unger writes, “would have all the metaphysical ambition of a Salon set piece while delivering its message in a language that was completely new: iconoclastic rather than conventional; radical rather than conservative; subversive rather than reassuring.”

Working on and off from late 1906 through late summer 1907, the Spanish artist endured self-doubt, recrimination, and stumbles; work on the painting “consumed him for more than eight months, months of unremitting labor, personal hardship, and spiritual anguish,” Unger reports. And then, when it was finally publicly exhibited in Paris in 1916, “Les Demoiselles” caused shock and furor, before it ultimately became one of the touchstone works of the 20th century. As art critic Hilton Kramer wrote in 1992, “Whereas [Pierre] Matisse had drawn upon a long tradition of European painting—from Giorgione, Poussin, and Watteau to Ingres, Cézanne, and Gauguin—to create a modern version of a pastoral paradise… Picasso had turned to an alien tradition of primitive art to create in Les Demoiselles a netherworld of strange gods and violent emotions.”

And while healthcare industry innovations emerge out of a completely different context from modernist paintings, there is something of the “shock of the new” (to reference art critic Robert Hughes) about some of the new partnerships and delivery and payment innovations taking place these days in U.S. healthcare. Even as the leaders of hospitals, medical groups, and health systems evolve forward into newfangled accountable care organizations and other value-based contracts, unprecedented new business combinations like the planned CVS-Aetna merger and the Amazon/Berkshire Hathaway/JP Morgan Chase initiative, as well as forays by technology giants like Google (Alphabet), Apple, and Microsoft, threaten to shatter l ong-held assumptions about how the healthcare industry will be organized and operated.

This year’s “Top Ten Tech Trends” cover story package looks at the emergence of new disruptors to the industry, as well as a host of other issues facing the industry right now, from the sprint forward towards true interoperability, to the need for patient-generated data to support value-based care delivery, to the question of how industry consolidation will impact physicians in practice. As we’ve done for years now, we editors at Healthcare Informatics bring you the bold, the innovative, the shocking, and the speculative, in a stimulating package of articles that will help you consider some of the top trends impacting the entire industry right now.

No cubist paintings here; but, like the art galleries of Paris in the first decade of the 20th century, a chance to peer into the future of our world.

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