On May 29, 1913, Igor Stravinsky’s ballet, Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring), premiered in Paris. The public hissed and laughed, and a riot ensued. Critics called it “the work of a madman.”
Less than one year later, on April 5, 1914, The Rite of Spring was performed again in Paris. It was a rousing success. After the performance, Stravinsky was carried from the theater in triumph on the shoulders of his admirers.
What happened? Here’s what I think happened. And how I think it relates to creative, cultural disruption today.
Today, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring is considered a modern masterpiece that redefined 20th-century music and transformed culture. Note for a moment the dual meaning of the word culture:
- a set of ideas, beliefs, and ways of behaving of a particular society
- a group of bacteria or other cells that have been grown in a scientific experiment
We are, all of us, participants in our culture, part of a vast, group experiment in our orbiting petri dish earth. The Rite of Spring, when it was first performed, was a hostile bacteria invading the culture of the day. Parisian society was mentally sickened by the performance the first time around, like a novel coronavirus. It was so new, so different from anything anyone had ever seen or heard before. It literally drove people crazy.
After hearing a few performances, the audience adapted to this threat by developing cultural antibodies to prevent them from getting sick again. So, the next time they heard The Rite of Spring, in 1914, they no longer got sick in the head. They were now able to appreciate the music.
By 1940, The Rite of Spring was so safe for consumption that it accompanied a large section of Disney’s animated film Fantasia. The work of a “madman” had become the work of a genius, then a work of pop culture, similar to the fate of Van Gogh and countless other artists.
“The Riot of Spring”
Here’s an additional viewpoint to the standard telling of the tale. In her excellent article, The Riot of Spring, Madison Mainwaring notes that it was the ballet aspect of the work — choreographed for forty-six dancers by Vaslav Nijinsky and performed by the Ballets Russes under impresario Sergei Diaghilev — that really drove the audience insane (aided and abetted, of course, by Stravinsky’s radical score):
The riot is often discussed in relation to the ballet’s modernist score by Stravinsky. Its dissident chords went against every precedent of melodic harmony, while a beat captured the inchoate rhythms of the “scratching, gnawing, and wiggling birds and beasts.” Stravinsky upended tradition so completely that The Rite almost exceeded the limits of musical notation— when he first conceived of the sounds for the finale, the “Sacrificial Dance,” he did not know how to write them on paper.
At the time of the ballet’s premiere, critics didn’t pay so much attention to the music, giving it brief treatment (“deformed,” “demented”) before moving on to the first offense of the evening: the dancing. This was likely due to the frenzy of the audience noise, which reached such a pitch that it probably drowned out the ninety-instrument orchestra. The forty-six dancers on stage, deafened by the mass chaos in front of them, had the impossible beats of the score shouted to them from the wings.
In any event, this “musical-choreographic work,” as Stravinsky described it, had succeeded in exploding the culture, then making its journey into the classical canon only a year later.
100 years later…
Mulling this over today, over a hundred years removed, prompts an interesting question: Does this sort of thing still happen in our contemporary world? Does art, literature, music, poetry, theater, or dance still have the power to be new and strange enough to turn our world upside down with confusion and make us sick in the head?
I want it to be true, and I keep an open mind that it’s still possible, but I don’t see many examples of it. No riots at the ballet, or at art galleries, or at poetry readings. Most of our riots these days are political it seems, and few are aesthetic, which is a shame. Art riots sound so fun!
Science & technology
Unlike art, science and technology dramatically affect the lives of nearly everyone alive today. The primary result of true disruption is change. For after such an event, you can never go back to how things were before.
In today’s culture, then, art is rarely disruptive, because it isn’t a primary driver of change. It can be a disturber, influencer, annoyer, irritant, motivator, gadfly, or provocateur, but rarely does it cause a fundamental shift in the culture.
Science and technology disrupt the culture, causing irreversible change. Art and marketing do not. Can you name a single contemporary artist who has impacted the world as much as the Internet, smartphones, or social media?
When we hear companies claim to be disruptors, we need to know: are they unleashing the next truly disruptive scientific or technological breakthrough? Or are they merely a cultural ripple aided and abetted by PR, marketing, clever branding — even, alas, naming?
This makes all the difference where adaptation is concerned. Adaptation to true disruption is necessary for survival, and leads, through evolution, to the advancement and improvement of the organism or culture.
To that end, I believe that naming does play an important role in building a strong, memorable brand. Does a great name mean a brand will be a game-changing creative and cultural disruptor, like Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring? You never know; a great name can evoke powerful emotions. Ultimately, companies have to embrace uncertainty. The rest is at the mercy of the audience — fickle, riotous, excitable, and fabulous!