Yes, You Do Understand Art

Last night I gained some additional assurances that everyone has the capacity to comprehend art at a basic level when they encounter it.

Some recent university grads started a “creative cult” here in town. Every month they have some sort of activity at a different place. The specific activity is never announced in advance, only the basic theme. The first one was the “Induction Ceremony,” the second was “World Building” and last night was “The Definition of Art.” These are quick, fun group activities that run about an hour and attract 40-50 people each time.

Last night attendees were split into three groups, each which assembled near a table full of found objects. We were given a prompt and told not to reveal it to any of the other teams. We were told to brainstorm for 5-10 minutes and write and sketch what that meant to us on large sheets of butcher paper. Then we were set loose to construct something representing our prompt using the objects on the table.

Every table had different supplies. Among the things are on our table were card board, a watering can, a golf club, magazines, Christmas ornaments, bubble wrap, drone bumpers, string, birthday decorations, scissors, tape and glue.

After the assembling period was done, we were given another sheet and told to rotate counter clockwise to the other team tables at set intervals to discuss and write down what we thought their piece represented.

When that phase was done, the teams that didn’t create a piece talked about what they thought it was all about.

Let me just say, given the materials on hand and time available for construction by committee, there wasn’t much opportunity to create realistic depictions of the prompts.  In fact, at one point, we were told that all the materials we were provided needed to appear on our table in context of our piece which probably further muddied the waters.

Not only did the guesses for each piece have commonalities, but some of the options suggested either hit the target exactly or were close enough that game show judges would have accepted the answer.

Not every individual’s initial guess was correct, but as a group walking around and discussing each piece, a reasonable sense of the concept behind it emerged.  Looking at the pieces through the lens of the “wrong” answers often made them more interesting than the correct ones.

The guys who organized the event were really pleased because they weren’t sure that people would be able to accurately discern the source prompts when they created the activity.  I was excited by their excitement over achieving their goal.

Part of their goal was exactly as I suggested earlier — to show people that they had the capacity to comprehend some basic things about an abstract representation.

I would say they also wanted to show people they had the capacity to communicate concepts via abstract representations except the underlying goal of the whole creative cult effort is about empowering people in regard to their creativity.

While obviously not as good as having been there, here is a little bit of video taken of the pieces after the event. I was going to see if readers could guess what the prompts were, but the guys put them in the description.  In order of appearance, Batman, the Lincoln Memorial and Wendy’s 4×4 (we guessed Wendy’s)

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


Leave a Comment