I began my professional life as an arts management educator just over 20 years ago, in Fall 1995. My focus, since then, has been rather specific: effective management of (mostly) professional (mostly) nonprofit organizations that produce, preserve, present, and support creative human expression. After so many years, it’s embarrassing to admit that I’ve missed a dramatic blind spot in teaching, management, and organizational theory until now:
Humans have bodies.
And yes, I know that I have a body. This isn’t news to me. But what has become suddenly obvious is that the founding logics of both the academic and business world assume that we don’t have bodies, or that bodies are inconsequential to personal, professional, or civic life.
Sir Ken Robinson has remarked on this aspect of academia, and particularly the professors therein:
There’s something curious about professors in my experience — not all of them, but typically, they live in their heads…. They’re disembodied, you know, in a kind of literal way. They look upon their body as a form of transport for their heads…. It’s a way of getting their head to meetings.
And sure, when you choose to be a university professor, you’re selecting a life of the mind…where you spend extra attention and bring focused intention to the intellect. I’m cool with that. Again, this isn’t news to me. Professors have long been accused of detachment from reality.
But the news to me is how pervasive this detachment is, not only in academia, but also in business.
On the business side, scholar Antonio Strati observes this bias throughout the history of organizational theory and management studies. And I know I’m talking about theory again, but I’ve worked with enough businesses and professionals to know that these assumptions are commonly held. Strati makes his point by describing the kind of insane working world these shared theories imply:
…as soon as a human person crosses the virtual or physical threshold of an organization, s/he is purged of corporeality, so that only his or her mind remains. Once a person has crossed this threshold, therefore, s/he is stripped of both clothing and body and consists of pure thought, which the organization equips with work instruments and thus reclothes. When the person leaves the organization, the mind sheds these work instruments and resumes its corporeality, and with it the perceptive faculties and aesthetic judgement that yield aesthetic understanding of reality, but only in the society lying outside the physical or virtual walls of the organization. (Strati, Antonio. Organization and Aesthetics. London ; Thousand Oaks, Calif: SAGE, 1999, p.3)
Even in academia, that doesn’t sound like my institution, nor my job. And thank goodness for that. In my work, I’m informed and deeply affected by my physical environment, by all of my senses and how they make sense with each other, by the muscle memories of my external life, by the sense of myself and my peers occupying space together.
This brain-but-not-body bias is not just bizarre, it can be insidious. Imagine, for example, you decided that a primary goal of public school education, or university education, was to prepare individuals for the work force, to be productive citizens through employment or entrepreneurship or the like. You would draw on your assumptions about work, organizations, and industry (or ask industry for their assumptions, which would carry this bias too), and design a system that prepares them for that impossible world.
Pure intellect, with participants transported by bodies but unaffected by them, working in systems of pure intellect (sure, complicated by politics and power and such, but all described in rational/cognitive terms).
You’d emphasize the skills of reason — like reading, writing, math — and discount anything sensuous or aesthetic. You might keep the arts, but mostly those elements that appeared to build practical skills, or elements that facilitated learning of the ‘important’ cognitive capacities. But you’d discount anything, including art, that strayed too far into the senses or the physical self. Even further, you might flag those things as contrary to intellect or reason, distractions perhaps, and want them out entirely.
Now, imagine you did this for generations.
As an alternative, let’s suppose you believed public school and university education to be intended for something MORE than employment…for whole and purposeful people, with civic vision, global understanding, deep curiosity, and the agency to integrate those things into their lives and societies.
Even then, your deep-seated theories of the world might tilt toward intellect. And you would design an intervention to prepare students for a disconnected and disembodied universe that doesn’t actually exist.
Now, imagine you wanted to design and lead an arts organization, a durable collective effort committed to creative human expression, not only of the mind (although sure), but of the whole person or the whole community. As passionate radicals, you might even admit that the artists and audiences you serve have bodies and complex aesthetic selves. But you likely wouldn’t extend that admission to yourself or your team, your board or your business partners. When doing business, you would want to behave ‘like a business.’ And people in businesses don’t have bodies.
Imagine an organization that disregarded this rather essential bit of human reality. Or perhaps you don’t have to imagine it. Perhaps you already work there.
The first step in addressing a bias is to acknowledge you have one. I’ve glimpsed it in myself. I’m admitting I have a problem. I’m stumbling to correct it. And now that I’m looking, I’m sensing it all around me.