The concepts of “beauty” and “business” don’t seem to have much in common. Business is largely defined by quantitative measures such as profit and loss, while beauty is more qualitative and ambiguous. Yet the accomplished academic and artistic leaders who spoke at the Wisconsin School of Business’s Bolz Center for Arts Administration’s recent symposium “Approaching Beauty in a Business School” feel passionately that beauty and business should be taught together.
John Michael Schert, visiting artist and social entrepreneur at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business; John Dobson, professor of finance at California Polytechnic State University—San Luis Obispo; and Diane Ragsdale, Bolz Center visiting artist in residence, spoke to a crowd of more than 60 students, academics, and community leaders about the societal and individual benefits of teaching aesthetics in business schools, including innovative thinking, creative solutions to society’s problems, and even self-actualization.
John Surdyk, director of the UW-Madison Initiative for Studies in Transformational Entrepreneurship, led a panel discussion featuring (L to R) Dobson, Schert, and Ragsdale to discuss their presentations.
This intermingling of aesthetics and business is at the core of work of Schert’s work. The former professional ballet dancer, who describes himself as a dance artist and social change agent, says beauty and creativity are not the exclusive domain of artists, and that business students benefit greatly by learning the creative process.
When Schert talks with MBA students about their career goals, most describe the jobs they already have lined up along with a set of well-defined objectives. When Schert asks them what they want to do, they pause. “At a business school, students almost never get asked what they want to do,” Schert says. “They know what they should do. They know what they could do. They know what they have the skills, the training, the acumen for. They know what they should do because it will make them more money.”
John Michael Schert, Visiting Artist and Social Entrepreneur, University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
But this way of thinking ignores intrinsic motivation and the need for self-actualization and helping others realize their potential. “For a lot of MBA students I speak to, [making creative choices might mean] turning away from a highly lucrative path that is easy to recognize and claim in lieu of something that is so much more undefined, scary, and dangerous,” Schert says. “But I think it gets you so much closer to being that self-realized, self-actualized, creative person you can be.”
Dobson has a different perspective. “Business is no longer residing in the technical universe,” he says. Dobson sees a shift from modernism to postmodernism, which is changing the way people look at the world. Rather than operating primarily in the technical sphere of rationality, there is a movement toward giving equal weight to moral and aesthetic reasoning to address complex challenges.
Ragsdale believes that society’s persistent systemic problems—hunger, poverty, environmental degradation, economic instability, unemployment, chronic disease, drug addition, and war—may be better addressed by leaders who are grounded in aesthetics.
“Solving these problems requires different ways of seeing and thinking. … I’m trying to give students a different way of seeing and relating to the world, a different way of valuing people and objects, a different way of living,” Ragsdale says.
Ragsdale teaches a course at the Wisconsin School of Business called Aesthetics in Business, which consists of curated and self-directed aesthetic experiences in art, nature, and everyday life. Students document these experiences in beauty portfolios in the form of poetry, drawings, and reflections, some of which Ragsdale shared with symposium attendees.
Ragsdale’s course isn’t the only point in the School’s curriculum when students can study the relationship between aesthetics and business. The Bolz Center has partnered with the The Compass ProgramTM to incorporate developing a personal aesthetic as a learning outcome of the BBA program. The approach is similar to what Ragsdale has done in her course, but it’s not as intensive, says Sherry Wagner-Henry, Bolz Center director.
Wagner-Henry would like to see aesthetics infused throughout the School’s programs to better prepare students for a changing world.
“The lens of art and beauty helps people become more comfortable with ambiguity,” Wagner-Henry says. “Adaptability and flexibility are highly valued in today’s business market because we’re not sure what jobs students will have in five to 10 years and what they’ll need to know and be able to do as technology and society change.”