Art & Design

At the So-Called Apple University, They Teach Art History, Kind Of

Art & Design

At the So-Called Apple University, They Teach Art History, Kind Of

Steve Jobs was not one to stray from hyperbole. In an interview for the 1996 PBS TV special Triumph of the Nerds: The Rise of Accidental Empires, he relates Apple’s business strategy to Pablo Picasso’s saying, Good artists copy. Great artists steal.

Ill-considered comparisons to historic creative breakthroughs are common in Silicon Valley. Humility is not always a virtue a culture that prizes innovation can foster. Yet, the extent that Apple’s internal training curriculum integrates Picasso’s work is striking.

Investigating the secretive “Apple University” training program for the Times, Brian Chen discovered that Picasso’s bull lithographs are frequently used to explain the company’s design concept. Randy Nelson of Pixar displays the lithograph series when he teaches “Communicating at Apple,the course that instills the ideology behind minimalist design. Chen reports that the lessons are excessively straightforward, Apple designers strive for simplicity just as Picasso eliminated details to create a great work of art.”

Given the tendency to disparage art and the rarefied world that comes with it, Steve Jobs and Apple employees make for unlikely allies. Assuming they are uninterested in aura, these tech pioneers see utility the bull lithographs are just instructional diagrams.

Jobs’ endorsement of the Picasso aphorism is also cursory. In the book Composition and Copyright: Perspectives on Teaching, Text-making, and Fair Use Steve Westbrook writes, “For Picasso, of course, this was much more than a generalized statement regarding artistic behavior. It was also an expression of the specifics of some of his artistic practices. Picasso’s collage technique was grounded in his directly appropriating scraps of others’ works (newspaper clippings, for example) and embedding them into his own paintings.”

Appropriation happens to be a practice that set Jobs and Picasso along parallel paths to greatness. Jobs’ transformative visit to Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center in 1979, where he encountered a rudimentary computer mouse and the foundations of the graphical user interface, recalls Picasso’s definitive trip to the Musée d’Ethnographie in Paris. Picasso later recounted the excitement of the visit, “All alone in that awful museum, with masks, dolls made by the redskins, dusty manikins. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon must have come to me that very day, but not at all because of the forms; because it was my first exorcism-painting — yes absolutely!”

At best, these narratives are affiliated story lines that shed light on the creative process and the affinity between inspiration and imitation. At worst, the inclusion of Picasso’s works in the Apple Ministry of Truth is arrogant posturing. I shouldn’t jump to conclusions — the majority of the Apple University curriculum remains behind closed doors. Still, the glimpse we do catch reveals a teleological worldview at odds with the image of the progressive tech creative. Who knows? Maybe Apple employees are not the custodians of modern art and design after all.