The Aesthetic Advantage: Q+A With Faculty Diane Ragsdale

Diane Ragsdale, lead faculty for The Aesthetic Advantage. 

“As a professional, a heightened aesthetic awareness can give you a new vantage point from which to make better decisions in work and life. Beauty is disruptive; it widens our focus beyond return on investment (ROI), allowing us to distinguish the ‘good’ from the ‘profitable’.” That’s the basis for a new course from Leadership at Banff Centre called The Aesthetic Advantage. The course encourages new experiences and new ways of seeing as a means to open up minds towards finding innovative, and helpful solutions. 

Diane Ragsdale is lead faculty for the program. She designed a similar course for the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Business called Aesthetics in Business. She comes from a theatre background, has worked in philanthropy, and is currently completing her doctorate in Cultural Economics in the Netherlands. 

We caught up with her to learn more about the course she’s created for Banff Centre, and how beauty and business can intersect to create something new. 

What is the course The Aesthetic Advantage about?

It’s basically a course in beauty and aesthetics, but the goal of it is to foster wiser, more responsible leadership. If these are students who have spent most of their lives looking at the world through an economic lens—to value people, and objects and experiences based on economic valuation—what happens if you then shift to looking at the world through an aesthetic lens? Do you start to see people, and experiences, and objects differently? 

What would you say constitutes an aesthetic lens?

To sense, rather than to think rationally. The way you experience the world through your senses. The philosophical underpinning is that beauty is important for human cognitive, spiritual, and social development—that beautiful experiences, beauty in art, beauty in nature, can lead us to pursue truth and advance justice. 

How can people apply what they learn from their senses to the business world? 

It’s first that we don’t spend time having these aesthetic experiences. So partly it’s about making time for this sort of thing in your life so that you begin to see in a different way. 

I think the notion is, once you begin this process, you see that if you take time throughout the week to spend time in nature, to spend time with artworks, you notice that this cultivates in you another way of being in the world. If you continue that practice, that will, over time, also influence your skills as a leader. You begin to bring that into your work life as well as your personal life.

The Aesthetic Advantage at Banff Centre

Elisheva Biernoff, installation view “Without, within” (2015). Walter Phillips Gallery, Banff Centre. Photo by Donald Lee.

Who will benefit from this kind of learning? 

I think we’re looking for the people who actually want to improve the world. 

There are some big, systemic problems in the world: hunger, environmental degradation, wars, inequality. Big, big, economic, social, environmental, geopolitical issues. And they seem to be intractable. And we’ve had some of the best minds trying to solve some of these things, and clearly we’re not getting there. We need people with imagination, and people with the vision, and also the moral character to say ‘we believe that we have to do better than just try to modestly fix the problems out there.’ 

We actually need radical, beautiful solutions to some of these problems. 

And for that, we need a new way of looking at them, and a new way of seeing them, and a new way of envisioning what’s possible. I don’t think you get there with standard business thinking. 

Is this kind of thinking becoming more popular? 

I think there are people out there who are basically saying, ‘I want to do well by doing good. I want to make the world better. I want to make a living, but I care about the values that are embedded in my company. I care about whether or not I’m helping to make the world a better place while I’m making a living.’ And I think that’s more and more in the minds of people coming out of school now. 

What can people in the business world learn from, say, an artistic practice more obviously rooted in aesthetics?

I think there are a lot of ways that hearing how artists approach their work can help business leaders or other professionals get in touch with what it means to care about the craft of what you do, and the beauty in the work that you do. 

Why take this course at Banff Centre?

I can’t think of a better place for a course like this. Banff has always been a centre dedicated to leadership training. A course like this is really aimed at professional development and leadership development, but it uses the very resources that are so rich here—the natural resources and the artistic resources. I think it’s actually right on mission.