The School of Athens

The School of Athens, from

For as many years as I’ve owned a laptop I’ve had this image as my screensaver. It’s a fresco by the Italian Renaissance artist Raphael in the Stanze di Raffaello within the Vatican. It is one in a series of four images representing branches of knowledge. The School of Athens, as it’s called, is described as a representation of philosophy. The Greek Philosophers Plato and Aristotle are featured at its centre, pointing to the earth and the sky, and other ancient philosophers are said to be represented throughout the painting. 

As a seeker of knowledge and humanity, I’ve long admired this painting. The School of Athens is often described as one of the best examples of the spirit of the Renaissance. A period of ‘rebirth’ within the Italian art world, where the unearthing of ancient greek statues heavily influenced the norms and forms of depicting human beings. But also where scientific explorations rippled significant changes in how the world was characterised and captured. It was a period where the imposing grandeur of religious iconography, with its heavy use of gold leaf, gave way to secular depictions of day-to-day life; where dark, foreboding colour was replaced with light and bright hues; where imaginations of the world were transposed with scientific and mathematical interpretations of scale and perspective; and, where abstract interpretations of the human form where reconstructed with attention to skin, muscle, tendon, bone, to weightily enflesh the body. You could say that, during the renaissance, life in art was represented with closer attention to humanity.  

I’ve used my understanding of this painting before, as a metaphor to illustrate a movement, within people and culture professions and organisations, to pay greater attention to, and allow for, ‘real’ human beings. If we could design and develop opportunities for greater humanity within work, people would be happier and therefore more productive. We could ‘rebirth’ our organisational constructs from bureaucratic, hierarchical, industrialised and highly controlled, to organic, free-flowing, spacious, autonomous, emotive, purpose-led, values driven, customer-led, ‘experiences’ of work. This is a prominent theme through many contemporary narratives of work and organisation and one which I’ve added my voice to; how can we make our workplaces more humane?

But as I read more around my PhD topic and have my ideas about the world challenged, I am re-interpreting this painting. It is emerging to me now as symbolic of blockages for representing humans at work. This painting tells a lot by what it is, but it also tells much by what it is missing. 

There are no women. Those who are perceived as the greatest philosophers of our time are all male. Even when we don’t know which males they are, because not all the characters in Raphael’s painting have been definitively identified. They’re just all male. When we think of experts, or even leaders, we more often than not think of men. I’ve blogged before about the male ‘ideal’ worker, the disembodied and male manifestations of leadership and the lack of representation of women. Let’s face it, this painting is the historical equivalent of today’s board room photo. 

Bodies are modelled off of men. In 15th century Europe the models that the, mostly male, artists had access to were often also male. Consequently, even where women were depicted, their likenesses were often based on male physiques. Michelangelo, who painted the Sistine Ceiling almost next door to this painting, was well known for painting beefy muscular women. 

In modern organisational culture, appropriate standards of bodily representation modelled around men govern acceptance into the halls of power. The ‘female suit’; blazer, shirt, skirt is an adaptation of the male suit. The ‘right’ body weight and grooming is indicative of an ability to demonstrate control over oneself, play the right game, and project competence and commitment. All characteristics exampled by the ideal worker / ideal man. We make automatic judgments about people based on their bodies and their adherence to these codes.

Women, or for that matter anyone whose body does not fit these standardised characteristics, are excluded from automatic representation. Pregnant, or embodied mothers, further push the boundaries of accepted norms. 

The mind is more valuable than the body. The Renaissance was known for its re-interpretation of the human body, particularly the exploration of the ‘natural’ body. Leonardo Da Vinci was most famous for this, with some of the first anatomical studies using cadavers. But the study of the human body has long been one of rigour, classification, control and, most importantly here, of delineation between corporeal body and sentient mind. A split that is based on a scientific methodology, rooted in Aristotelian philosophy, that values the mind as a source of knowledge, and bodily sensations and perceptions of reality, as untruths and illusions that cannot be validated through the rigours of science.

Therefore we value knowledge and we devalue bodies. For example, we value the ‘knowledge’ economy and ‘knowledge’ workers more highly than say a production worker or a carer, who uses their physical self to do their work. The simple order is that control and rational reasoning are the operating systems of modern organisations. Our modes of organising are predicated on the delineation and classification of functions, on having structure and boundaries. Emotive bodily sensations, insights and identities are unpredictable and uncontrollable. They are allowed as long as they are consistent with the organisation’s framework of values.

The types of bodies represented, and how they are valued, are concepts I am exploring as a way to make sense of a question asked when I presented my research proposal at the beginning of this year; why do bodies matter to my research? 

I thought the answer was obvious. We all have bodies. Having more women in senior leadership positions means having more women’s bodies in senior leadership. So bodies matter. But obviously it’s not that simple. Bodies are still kept at an arms length. Both in research surrounding gender dynamics and within interventions addressing gender diversity and inclusion within organisations. Rationality trumps and tramples bodies every time.

There has to be a better way to include embodied women within the picture we paint in the future.

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