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The Importance of Seeing Beauty

by Marguerite Darlington Wednesday, February 25, 2015

How a visiting artist at the Wisconsin School of Business wants to change the way executives solve problems

This semester, the Wisconsin School of Business is encouraging its students to see problems from a new perspective.

The WSB’s Bolz Center for Arts Administration has asked Diane Ragsdale, a visiting artist in residence and guest lecturer from Erasmus University in the Netherlands, to teach a course called “Aesthetics and Business” designed to help students see business challenges—and solutions—in a different way.

diane ragsdale visiting artist uw-madison wisconsin school of business

Diane Ragsdale, visiting artist in residence at the Wisconsin School of Business.

In this interview, Ragsdale shares the inspiration for the WSB course, what beauty means to business, and what she hopes that students will learn.

What brought you from the Netherlands to the Wisconsin School of Business?

I have always been passionate about making the arts matter more and matter to more people. There’s this idea, especially regarding the fine arts, that they only matter to a very small demographic, and a lot of people feel excluded from either appreciating or participating in them.

After several discussions with Sherry Wagner-Henry, director of the Bolz Center for Arts Administration, I began to flesh out a business school course focused on beauty and aesthetics. It’s very different from my dissertation research, which focuses on the relationship between nonprofit and commercial theaters in the U.S., but I’m really enthused to be exploring it because I do believe that approaching art and beauty brings you something as a human, as an individual that improves a person’s quality of leadership.

How do beauty and aesthetics help leaders solve problems more effectively?

There’s a way that artists go about solving problems, a certain way of thinking. A scholar named Nancy Adler says that both great artists and great leaders must have courage, a courage to see reality as it is and then imagine new possibilities—solutions that aren’t tethered to the status quo.

diane ragsdale visiting artist uw-madison wisconsin school of business

Students participate in a classroom exercise that develops the skill of "seeing."

Let’s talk about the idea of seeing. Can you talk about it as a concept and describe what it is?

The term ‘seeing’ is the idea of seeing all the possibilities, seeing the entire system, seeing all of the parts related to the whole. On one level, it is about the ability to recognize excellence for its own sake, on another level it also has to do with the ability to use intuition, a non-observable, non-rational kind of seeing or sensing.

Seeing in this way can help leaders balance conflicting elements while keeping the greater good in mind, thinking about long term consequences while looking past self-interest.

Your dissertation focuses on arts administration. Can you talk about the connections between beauty and how you run an organization?

A scholar named John Dobson, who will be speaking at a symposium the Bolz Center is holding on campus on April 10, talks about three different types of managers: the technical manager, who cares about efficiency and bottom line; the moral manager, who makes judgments based on a code of ethics; and the aesthetic manager, who has character and ability to discern “the right thing.” He asserts that in business, you need to be able to distinguish between excellence and its by-product, material wealth; in other words, we can’t just value doing the right thing because it’s good for the bottom line; we need to value doing what’s right for its own sake.

I study nonprofit theaters, and I think we sometimes assume in the nonprofit realm that everything we’re doing must be true and good, but nonprofits are just as likely as any business to fall into traps of making decisions based on the bottom line or following an empty moral code. Many groups following the letter of the IRS code are doing what’s necessary to stay nonprofit, but how many are doing right by their communities?

Aesthetic managers are probably missing from arts institutions as much as they’re missing from other types of businesses. Why is that?

What do you hope the class will accomplish?

We can’t assume what the final outcome will be but at the end of the term, but I hope the students feel inspired to keep seeking out aesthetic experiences, and that such experiences give them a new way of seeing the world and the possibilities for their work in it. In the longer term, it would be terrific to develop a toolkit with some exercises and methods that lecturers across disciplines could use to incorporate discussions and experiences of beauty into their courses.

Learn more about the Bolz Center for Arts Administration and its offerings for Wisconsin School of Business students.