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Torrey Armstrong

Approaching Beauty in a Business School: A Reflection on the ‘Beauty Symposium’

by Torrey Armstrong Wednesday, April 15, 2015

On Friday, April 10, passersby in the Grainger Hall atrium peered through the windows of the Plenary Room as they would at any gathering held in the space. Had they decided to walk in, however, their curiosity would have been tantalized in a way they may not have expected. The morning’s event, called the Beauty Symposium, convened members of business and arts communities around the country for a lively, unorthodox discussion of the role beauty plays in our lives. The thesis, as it were, was that exploration of beauty can be fruitful when applied to environments nominally uncongenial to it—including and especially business.

The morning’s first speaker, Diane Ragsdale, teaches a course in the Wisconsin School of Business called “Aesthetics & Business”, which examines this question. Ragsdale is an accomplished academic, consultant, and non-profit professional currently pursuing a Ph. D. in cultural economics at Erasmus University, and as such possesses an unequaled vantage point from which to teach the class. Through regular discussions, intentional experiences with art and beauty, and the composition of a personal beauty portfolio documenting these experiences, her students clarify for themselves the implicit links between aesthetic considerations, the practical matters of their own careers and the firms they’ll enter, and larger questions of human flourishing facing the world today.

Next, John Dobson, Professor of Finance at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, elaborated on the philosophical underpinnings of such links. Diving into basic ontology, he distinguished between three types of rationality that guide human principle: the moral, the aesthetic, and the technological (which perhaps most closely aligns with the business world). Many thinkers have argued for a justification of aesthetics based in aesthetics itself—a self-affirming argument—because to do otherwise means competing with other moral or technological theories. But Dobson noted that a realignment of values in business is gradually taking place, in which aesthetics increasingly “provide[s] a paradigm for the ongoing work of ethics”, as poet and critic Susan Stewart has stated. He posited that outcomes in business and in our personal lives can be improved when we allow a sustained collision of the three rationalities, which Martin Heidegger called “dwelling poetically”: a mind occupying the space where the margins of each ontological area overlap is one that is constantly in flux, but precisely where it should be, because it is meditative and never given over completely to one way of thinking or another.

Pushing future business and arts leaders into this state of flux is what the day’s final speaker, dancer John Michael Schert, does as Visiting Artist and Social Entrepreneur at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. A co-founder and former executive director of renowned dance company the Trey McIntyre Project  and a student trained rigorously in both technical and interpretive aspects of the ballet, Schert is uniquely equipped to assist students as they lay the foundations of their career and develop modes of thinking they’ll carry into the workplace. In advising students at Booth to think like artists—perhaps dancers such as himself, or jazz musicians—he invites them to create whole new possibilities for themselves. In art, there is no such thing as failure except as an opportunity: often the greatest breakthroughs occur from improvisation in reaction to a mistake or deviation from a plan. Applying this way of thinking to their careers, he argues, is how they can liberate themselves professionally and create new possibilities for their organizations.

Schert thus emphasized the day’s central motif, the shifting of perspective. Art and beauty’s greatest value to business is its ability to upend the traditional and take viewpoints to the margins, where new ideas and perspectives lurk. It’s the propensity of leading a life concerned with beauty to drive us toward discomfort and unfamiliarity out of habit.

Of course, I don’t think we were identifying anything new by holding the conversation with fellow adherents of this belief, but merely hearing it more forcefully clarified. The task of entering the business world and actually applying is ongoing and far from complete. This constitutes the responsibility of my classmates and me as business practitioners, as Dean François Ortalo-Magné explained in the day’s opening remarks: If someone unexpected makes the argument for aesthetics in business, it’s memorable, and it sticks. And this is a goal integral to our desire to work in the arts.