In December of last year as part of our ongoing Art of Change initiative, we brought together a small group of experts and thinkers in a range of fields—psychology, economics, art, philosophy, public policy–to discuss the topic of beauty. The goal was to ask how we might more effectively articulate, value, and nurture beauty as a basic need and right. 

The conversation had two parts:

  • Making the case for why beauty is essential to the health of human beings and society, and how it can be a catalyst for justice.
  • Expanding the space for beauty in our contemporary discourse and policymaking, and understanding the role of art and artists in that shift.

For the next few weeks we will be sharing contributions on the topic by some of the participants in the convening, including Steven Tepper, Krista Tippett, and Trajal Harrell. Here, Diane Ragsdale shares two types of errors people make when identifying and relating to beauty, and how recognizing beauty can deepen empathy and understanding. 

Diane Ragsdale, Visiting Artist and Lecturer, University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Business

I recently taught a course at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for business school students, called Approaching Beauty. Essentially this was a course aimed at helping business majors approach beauty—as an idea and also as an experience—and cultivate what one might call an “aesthetic sensibility,” while learning to see the world through something other than an economic lens. I think of it as a response to Michael Sandel’s notion in What Money Can’t Buy, that the ethos of the culture has been replaced by the ethos of the market.

One of the texts I assigned for the course was Elaine Scarry’s Tanner Lectures, published as a monograph called On Beauty and Being Just. Scarry makes a direct link between beauty and justice beginning with an etymological reflection on how the two words both share a synonym: the word fairness.  Relatedly, she argues that the opposite of beauty is not ugliness—but rather injury. And I think right there she gives us a really interesting idea about how beauty relates to justice.

Scarry also talks about making two types of errors with beauty. The first type of error is one in which something first appears beautiful, but we later come to realize that it is not so. The aesthetics of politics these days is an example of this. Gentrification is another example. There as an initial appearance of beauty but if we begin to ask questions about what happened to the people who lived in this place before it became such a coveted neighborhood we come to realize that the gentrification process has been anything but beautiful for them. We can see the injuries to some for the sake of others.

In the arts—the sector that I have worked in most of my life—I relate this type of error to the large institutions that are often heralded and held up as models, pinnacles of achievement and glory. And yet some of these large institutions are exploitative of artists; are exclusive even while espousing inclusivity; or are increasingly transactional in the way that they relate to their communities. On the surface they appear beautiful, but if we look beyond the buildings and the works themselves, we can often identify processes or policies or practices that one might characterize as injurious.

The second type of error is one in which we initially discount something as not beautiful, but later—often because of a shift in context or new information—we are able to see the beauty in the thing we once rejected. For Scarry, this was palm trees. And this type of error also relates to justice. It draws our attention to the idea that we may be rejecting, ignoring, or discounting certain people, places, objects, ideas, and experiences simply because we are lacking the cultural context necessary to perceive their beauty. It teaches us to be cautious about such dismissals. In the professional nonprofit arts, I think our lack of interest in, and in some cases the outright disdain for, grassroots, community-based arts initiatives is an example of this.

Under_the_palm_tree_(5889915132)

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

When I asked the students to write to me and tell me how, if at all, the course was changing them, one student wrote: “This course is transforming us into people who care.” By the end of the term, I began to call it a course in human development.

Something that I find beautiful is the theatrical work The Provenance of Beauty, a piece that Claudia Rankine created with The Foundry Theatre. It was an extraordinary site-specific theater work in which participants boarded a bus in East Harlem that took them on a ride through the South Bronx. Claudia wrote the text for the piece, which was, essentially, an incredibly moving dialogue with the South Bronx, which demonstrated quite purely the link between beauty and justice. It made me aware not only of my type II error in relationship to the South Bronx, but of my many type II errors (to use Scarry’s diagnosis). It gave me pause and made me think about the people and places—in New York alone—that I had inadvertently dismissed and that I had never taken the time to know.

Of course, this is something that art does.

About Diane: Diane Ragsdale holds an MFA in theater and is an independent arts researcher, lecturer, and blogger at artsjournal.com/jumper. In the spring of 2015, she was a visiting guest artist and lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Business, where she designed and taught an experimental course on beauty and aesthetics to undergraduate business majors. She is particularly interested in the relationship between aesthetics, ethics, and economics. She is currently writing a doctoral dissertation on how the relationship between the nonpro t and commercial theater sectors in the United States has evolved since the 1940s. Since moving to the Netherlands in 2010, in addition to working toward a PhD, Diane has also lectured within the Cultural Economics and Cultural Sociology departments at Erasmus University in Rotterdam. She worked for more than 20 years in the arts and culture sector in the US before returning to the academy. In the decade prior to moving to the Netherlands, she was a program of cer for theater and dance at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in New York City and, before that, managing director of On the Boards, a contemporary performing arts center in Seattle.

We’ll be posting responses to this discussion triweekly here on the site. Follow us on Twitter at @ArtofChangeIs to share your own ideas.