For nearly fifty years, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso pushed each other, goaded each other, drew from each other, and tried to best each other. It may not be too much to say that, over the course of their careers, they made each other — and shaped the standards for modern art in the twentieth century. In the midst of the landmark international exhibition Matisse Picasso in 2003, many observers set the artists against each other, casting their rivalry as a “chess game” (Smithsonian) or a “duel” (New York Times). “Each time I visited the show at the Tate,” wrote the art historian John Richardson in Vanity Fair, “acquaintances would come up and ask me whether I thought Matisse or Picasso was the winner. ‘You idiot — you are missing the point,’ I told one of them. ‘The show is not a boxing match.’ ”
But what, then, to call it? “According to most of the contributors to the catalogue,” Richardson wrote, “it is more of a dialogue, although, considering the number of sparks these two artists strike off of each other — sparks that illuminate so much in the work of both — the word ‘dialogue’ seems too tame.” He finally suggested calling them “secret sharers,” after the short story by Joseph Conrad.
The trouble here isn’t merely semantic. It actually represents a real conceptual challenge. To understand competition as a creative force, we can first look to its potential to spur us on and lead us to strange attachments with those we oppose, as with the sports rivalries between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, or Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert. Basketball and tennis here serve as useful metaphors and reliable illustrations of finite games -- discrete, measurable encounters, like elections or fights for market share. These contests articulate something essential about how people go toe to toe.
Yet, just as students must master algebra to take on calculus, we must grasp competition to look beyond it. Most creative work does not post to a scoreboard. Encounters that end with a winner and a loser are rarely the most interesting — even in sports. Any fan who has ever muttered, with a broken heart, “We’ll get them next year,” knows that any one matchup — no matter how much it matters — is embedded in an ongoing narrative.
The critical distinction, as developed by the philosopher James Carse, is between the finite game and the infinite game. “A finite game is played for the purpose of winning,” Carse wrote, “an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.” Where finite games follow predetermined rules, intended to eliminate players until one stands on top alone, infinite games are constantly adjusted so that both players can remain standing. Where finite games are impersonal and hew to established forms, infinite games are peculiar to their players and grow increasingly distinct. Finite games are like formal debate, where artificial constraints impose order. Infinite games are like the grammar of a living language, where organic growth magnifies complexity. Where finite games hinge on competition, infinite games operate at the intersection of competition and cooperation.
Motivated as we are to spot enemies and define ourselves against them, these intersecting qualities can be hard to see. Consider the moment in 1997 when Steve Jobs returned to Apple and announced at Macworld Expo that he had negotiated a $150 million investment from Microsoft, settled lawsuits between the two tech giants, and pledged to make Microsoft’s Internet Explorer the default web browser on Macintosh computers. Along with scant applause, boos and hisses rolled through the crowd; in one video, we see a man cover his face with his hands in amazed dismay. Microsoft had become, in the eyes of many Mac loyalists, the Evil Empire. To Apple’s faithful, Jobs’s announcement felt like Luke Skywalker kneeling before Darth Vader.
But Microsoft and Apple had long been more like Luke Skywalker and Han Solo — compatriots in an uneasy alliance. They were actually allies first. In 1978 the Apple II shipped with a version of BASIC software developed by Microsoft, tweaked by Apple, and given the mash-up name Apple-soft BAS IC. In 1983, Gates played along with a mock version of The Dating Game that Jobs hosted to celebrate the Macintosh, and Gates noted onstage that the next year he expected half of Microsoft’s revenue to come from Macintosh applications.
Only later did their central competition emerge, over the market share for their distinct operating systems. Then, just as Microsoft seemed poised for a triumph, it stepped in to aid Apple, eschewing victory in one arena for broader benefits that included ongoing profits from its Mac software and a critical boost Apple could give it in its war against Netscape. (The browser wars appear quaint now but seemed critical at the time.)
Coopetition in business — which the Financial Times defines as “combining the advantages of” cooperation and competition to create “a bigger market in complementary areas”— is common. Think of multiple gas stations at the same intersection — the customers each station loses are more than offset by increased awareness of the product — or rival movie studios jointly financing a picture. Toyota and PSA Peugeot CitroeÅNn made a minicar together and marketed it under different names. Philips and Sony ran the R&D together to create the compact disc.
But the coexistence of cooperation and competition is more than institutional. It’s basic to human relations and the human psyche. Everyone, the psychologist Elaine Aron explains, has two primary relational impulses: to link, or find common ground, and to rank, or establish hierarchical positions.
Even this language may understate the universality of the phenomenon, because it suggests extremes of connection or opposition. But each quality may manifest in far more subtle ways. At bottom, cooperation is a tendency, wrote the author V. Frank Asaro, to “unite, bind, attract, or be orderly or collective.” Cooperation is often implicit, as when two people agree to play by the rules of a game or when people obey laws or customs. Competition, meanwhile, is any action contrary to others — any move to “separate, break apart, disunite, be chaotic, or become individualistic.” Considered in this broad way, competition doesn’t need to be a knockout punch or a lacerating attack. It could be a mischievous shove or a pointed criticism.
Most members of pairs are in coopetition most of the time — though they may not know it. When I asked the novelist Sheila Heti if she felt competition with her creative partner, the painter and filmmaker Margaux Williamson, she wrote me: “I don’t think so. Because we have different mediums. How does a writer compete with a painter?”
She went on: “But I can be urged on to doing better work when I see that she’s moving quickly in her work, or if her paintings are really great that week, then I can feel like I’m falling behind or slacking off, and I want to do better in my work. I guess they call that ‘healthy competition.’ I don’t want to ‘beat’ her but I don’t want to fall behind.”
Two things struck me in this response. First, comparison is a species of competition, insofar as it emerges from a sense of distinction and difference — the feeling of being stirred, provoked, swept along by a recognition of the other’s separateness. William James calls this — I love the phrase —“the emulous passion,” and in an 1892 lecture to teachers, he enjoined them to take it seriously. “The feeling of rivalry,” he said, “lies at the very basis of our being, all social improvement being largely due to it . . . The deepest spring of action in us is the sight of action in another.
The spectacle of effort is what awakens and sustains our own effort.” Of course, he recognized that just as “imitation slides into emulation, so emulation slides into Ambition; and ambition connects itself closely with Pugnacity and Pride.” These five instinctive tendencies (“the ambitious impulses”) can be hard to separate, he said, and he understood how pride and pugnacity ought be tempered. But even still, the potency of the feelings couldn’t be ignored. “Pugnacity need not be thought of merely in the form of physical combativeness,” James said.
It can be taken in the sense of a general unwillingness to be beaten by any kind of difficulty. It is what makes us feel “stumped” and challenged by arduous achievements, and is essential to a spirited and enterprising character. We have of late been hearing much of the philosophy of tenderness in education; “interest” must be assiduously awakened in everything, difficulties must be smoothed away. Soft pedagogics have taken the place of the old steep and rocky path to learning. But from this lukewarm air the bracing oxygen of effort is left out. It is nonsense to suppose that every step in education can be interesting. The fighting impulse must often be appealed to. Make the pupil feel ashamed of being scared at fractions, of being “downed” by the law of falling bodies; rouse his pugnacity and pride, and he will rush at the difficult places with a sort of inner wrath at himself that is one of his best moral faculties. A victory scored under such conditions becomes a turning-point and crisis of his character. It represents the high-water mark of his powers, and serves thereafter as an ideal pattern for his self-imitation. The teacher who never rouses this sort of pugnacious excitement in his pupils falls short of one of his best forms of usefulness.
Sheila Heti’s description of “healthy competition” resonates with what James described here as a salutary pugnacity: “I’m not going to be left behind.” But the critical point is that this sense of being roused and stimulated, this incitement of the “fighting impulse” that surely belongs in the category of ranking (“I must not be left on the bottom”) is also intricately entwined with the tendency of linking. My impression is that Heti’s desire is not to get on top and stay there but to join her partner on a higher plane — or perhaps to go even higher, which would only spur on Margaux’s emulous passions. This is the key play in the infinite game.
* * *
In the fall of 1966, during a stretch of nine weeks away from the Beatles, John Lennon wrote a song on acoustic guitar. He was in rural Spain on the set of a movie called How I Won the War. He recorded his first demo there and a second in his home studio several weeks later. On November 24, he played it for the band and its engineers at the EMI Studios on Abbey Road in London. Four weeks later, after scores of hours of studio time, they had a final cut of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” and that’s when Paul McCartney brought in the song that would become “Penny Lane.”
It was a practice, Paul said, of he and John “answering each other’s songs.” “He’d write ‘Strawberry Fields,’ ” Paul said, “I’d go away and write ‘Penny Lane’ . . . to compete with each other. But it was very friendly competition because we were both going to share in the rewards anyway . . . But it was this”— Paul stretched his hands out so the fingers faced each other and put one above the other until both were over his head. “We’d get better and better all the time.”
The metaphor “answering each other” is apt, because John and Paul worked together — and opposed each other — like a great piece of dialogue. John’s song was set in one of the most memorable spots of his childhood, the Strawberry Field orphanage, whose sprawling grounds he’d often visited with his aunt Mimi or other kids in his gang. The song placed a narrator in situ, not just singing about a place but taking us there, singing from there, asking questions that had preoccupied him since he was five years old: whether life is real or a dream; whether he was alone in the world in his own “tree”; whether he was “high or low”— above others or below them.
“Penny Lane” reflects the same structure as though through a funhouse mirror. For his Liverpool mother lode, Paul chose the junction where the 46 and 99 buses terminated. “John and I would often meet at Penny Lane,” Paul said. The song itself is an effort at meeting. Like John, Paul not only puts his narrator in the scene but has him self-consciously enter it.
McCartney’s song, too, used a landmark to explore something psychological. It was typical that Lennon made his own questions pretty clear in the song — and then, when reflecting on it later, put his finger directly on them, or tried to anyway. (“Am I crazy or am I a genius?” he said was the question of “Strawberry Fields Forever.”) It was typical that Paul’s meaning was harder to penetrate, and he never really explicated the song. On top of picture-book images in “Penny Lane” of a barber and a fireman going about their orderly way, he overlaid this reflection: “Very strange.” It is strange. The skies are alternately blue and bursting with rain. And the song is set simultaneously “in summer” and (with a nurse selling poppies, as was done for Remembrance Day) in November.
Rooted in a common exploration, the songs sharply expose the distinctions between John and Paul. Where “Strawberry Fields Forever” is, musically, “lazily horizontal,” wrote Ian MacDonald, “Penny Lane” is “breezily vertical in tune and harmony.” Where John seemed to want to use art to explore life, Paul’s conception of art and life were deeply blurred. Where Lennon looked on the world and asked if it was real or a dream, McCartney looked on reality as a playwright would his characters.
One finite game between John and Paul had to do with singles. “There was a little competition between Paul and I,” John said, “as to who got the A-side”— the cut intended for DJs to play and critics to review, the contender for the charts. Over and over again, John and Paul each threw in his most powerful hand; both wanted to trump the other; both knew that they would pretty much share the pot — at least when it came to public appreciation and financial gain.
With “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane,” the consensus emerged that they were both so promising that the label should present them as a “double A side.” This is a precise illustration of James Carse’s point that in infinite games, the rules change as needed so the players can keep playing.
“Imagine two people pulling on a rope,” said George Martin, “smiling at each other and pulling all the time with all their might. The tension between the two of them made for the bond.”
* * *
The coexistence of ranking and linking goes beyond human relationships. It’s a basic part of nature, as in the uniting and dividing of atoms or the alliances and enmities that make up the food chain. From afar, we see an optimal point of tension between cooperation and competition — and we can easily see where one impulse gets out of hand, as when a parasite kills its host.
With humans, too, power alone is rarely satisfying and can actually be dispiriting if it isolates one from others. The magic mix is to have both power (command over resources) and authority or status (the respect that leads to affection, loyalty, and solidarity). Certainly, the most effective leaders have both: a strong CEO will have the power to hire and fire and the authority to inspire and direct.
Whether they see it or not, all competitors depend on the ecosystem around them — and pushing too hard against it will bring them down. Lance Armstrong took performance-enhancing drugs to ride better, rank higher, break away from the pack. But he ended up breaking the compact that made him legitimate — and lost everything.
It’s also possible to be too cooperative. A 2012 study found that men seen as “agreeable”— trustworthy, straightforward, altruistic, compliant, modest, and tender-minded — made about 18 percent less than men who were seen as less agreeable. A smaller but still significant gap existed for women —“agreeable” females made about 5 1/2 percent less than those who were not as agreeable. Another study suggests that excessive generosity is regarded as poorly as excessive selfishness.
Optimal tension between competition and cooperation is not the same as balance. “Balance,” writes V. Frank Asaro, “equals motionlessness, equilibrium, steadiness; that is, lack of change.” Similarly, the creativity researcher Alfonso Montuori writes, “Any system that focuses on order at the exclusion of disorder soon becomes a rigid, homogeneous equilibrium system where no change is likely or even possible.”
* * *
For creative advancement, change is essential. And while all creative exchange will have a cooperative element, competition on the whole takes a slight edge. This may seem counterintuitive, since we generally yearn for order, unity, and connection. But progress depends on disorder and fluidity. Sometimes the best aids to our work are people who knock us most off balance.
* * *
For Pablo Picasso, some of the biggest jolts of his life came from Henri Matisse. When the two men first encountered each other, in early-twentieth-century Paris, Matisse was leading a movement of artists dubbed Les Fauves —“the Wild Beasts”— but he didn’t look the part of a radical. A Frenchman from the north, he wore three-piece suits and had a trimmed reddish beard. His friends called him “the professor.” “Tell the American people that I am a normal man,” he told the New York Times in 1912, “that I am a devoted husband and father, that I have three fine children, that I go to the theater, ride horseback, have a comfortable home, a fine garden that I love, flowers, etc., just like any man.”
Twelve years younger than Matisse, the Spaniard Picasso had another style entirely — mercurial rather than steady, impetuous rather than mannered. They presented a perfect contrast in many respects: While Matisse worked during the day, needing natural light and still lifes or models, Picasso worked at night, often from his imagination. While Matisse slowly and methodically developed an aesthetic, Picasso was quick and virtuosic and ravenous for new influences. Matisse was more socially adept, a natural charismatic in galleries and salons; Picasso assumed the air of a disaffected bohemian — and, with his awkward French, he genuinely struggled in high society. But he had a star’s instinct for attention, starting with an unerring sense of what — and whom — he should take on.
From 1905 to 1907, Matisse painted and exhibited a series of pieces that quickly became the talk of the town — La Femme au Chapeau (Woman with a Hat), Le Bonheur de Vivre (The Joy of Life), and then Nu Bleu (Blue Nude). With his bright, jarring colors and strange human forms, Matisse introduced a startling roughness, even savagery, into the art scene, picking up where van Gogh and Gauguin and CeÅLzanne had left off — and drawing fierce objections: when Blue Nude traveled to America, students at the Art Institute of Chicago held a mock trial charging Matisse with “artistic murder,” “total degeneracy of color,” and “general aesthetic aberration,” and then burned the painting in effigy.
“Before Blue Nude,” writes the art critic Tyler Green, “Picasso was aware of Matisse and his work, but he wasn’t driven to respond to it (nor was Matisse paying that much attention to Picasso). Blue Nude changed all that . . . Picasso retired to his studio, wasn’t seen for weeks, and only emerged when he’d finished a painting of five whores ready for the male gaze.” The large canvas (eight feet high and seven feet eight inches wide) came after hundreds of sketches and studies. It was called Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (The Young Ladies of Avignon). Five naked prostitutes loom in the foreground looking at us even as we look at them — two with faces like African masks.
The painting was explosive even to the avant-garde. Picasso’s dealer called it the “work of a madman.” But it came to be seen widely as the single most significant work of twentieth-century art — the initiation of a style known as cubism and the first step toward disrupting the basic expectations of what art could do. Scholars consider Picasso’s engagement with Matisse to be unmistakable. “By Picasso’s desire to best the roughness and savagery of the Blue Nude,” said the scholar Kirk Varnedoe, a curator of the international Matisse-Picasso exhibition in 2003, “he reached further than he might otherwise have reached for something even doubly savage and more aggressive and more transgressive than what Matisse had done.”
However he had contributed to Picasso’s Demoiselles, when Matisse saw it he was stunned. “What it did,” Varnedoe said, “was push him back deeper into the western tradition, back to Giotto — back to the so-called Italian primitives . . . So that in a sense Matisse pushed Picasso in that direction and Picasso pushed Matisse in this direction, and they became more themselves by virtue of the challenge with the other.”
Of course, as we zoom in on Picasso and Matisse, we shouldn’t forget the big picture around them. Both were responding to many influences, chief among them Paul CeÅLzanne’s. And both had circles surrounding them. The Demoiselles, in fact, initiated an epic collaboration between Picasso and the painter Georges Braque, who was initially horrified by the image but soon began working side by side with Picasso (often literally) developing cubism. They became so bound up that Braque said they were “like mountain climbers roped together.” Both Matisse and Picasso depended on collectors like Gertrude and Leo Stein, who arranged their first face-to-face meeting and invited both to their Saturday-evening salons.
The worlds of Picasso and Matisse grew bigger and bigger, but the unique place each man had for the other did not diminish; rather, it became magnified. “All things considered,” Picasso said, “there is only Matisse.” Matisse said, “Only one person has the right to criticize me, that is Picasso.”
The story here is not of enemies turned friends but of enmity and comity intertwined, as in a double helix. When we see the mutual respect, and need, and opposition, we understand John Richardson’s sneering response to the question of who “won” the Matisse-Picasso exhibition. In this kind of relationship, the last thing in the world you want is the other guy on the floor, unable to get up. The last thing you want is for the game to end.
Excerpted from "Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs" by Joshua Wolf Shenk. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Copyright 2014 by Joshua Wolf Shenk. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.