Categorize This: A Test For Artists

Ken Kensinger, my anthropology professor in college, walked into the classroom carrying three bags of groceries, which he emptied on top of his desk. There were eggs, milk, stewing beef, aluminum foil, cat food, kitty litter, strawberry jell-o, lettuce, frozen peas, beets, dried beans, rice, Comet cleanser, coca-cola, and that was just one bag.

On this day, he asked us to take out a pen and paper. He wanted us to put the groceries into categories. A simple task.

The first item that caught my eye was the strawberry jell-o. It was in a red box. So, my first category was “red”.  But the box had writing on it, so the second category was “box with writing on it.” I could probably put the cereal and pasta in this category, although the Cheerios box is yellow and the Mueller’s pasta box is blue. The jell-o itself is a powder, so I need a powder category. Then you add hot water and it becomes a liquid, but when it sets it becomes gelatinous. OK — powder, liquid, gelatin. And, of course, the color changes from pink to red. My first item has five categories, six, if you count the change from  pink to red. I looked at the desk and dozens of items remained. How would I categorize all of them?

What next?  Comet. That could go in the same categories as the Jell-o. It starts as a powder, you add water and it changes color, but it doesn’t become gelatinous and it’s not in a box but a cylinder that is green and shiny.

“OK, stop,” said Kensinger. “Anyone want to share your list?” He called on a student in the back of the room. He read, “Edible items, non-edible items, edible by humans, edible by animals, meat, fish, dairy, vegetables, legumes.”

My face flushed and my hands began to sweat. In twenty minutes I took two items and expanded them into a dozen categories. If I continued I would expand three bags of groceries into a spinning vortex of chaos. But how can you categorize anything? Do you do it in its current form, in its potential form, evolving form? Do you categorize a plant by its seed or its fruit; gasoline by its source, its use, or by the extremes of its potential as liquid or fire?

I had not only failed the test, I came to feel that there was something desperately wrong with me, that I was incapable of divining order in these three bags. In page after page I listed colors and qualities, potentials and transitions. Fragmented items that have been powdered, diced, ground, minced — some wet, some dry. Maybe I could take the bag of groceries and explode it into a thousand post-it notes, one for each way that the item fits in the universe.

As student after student recited an equally simple pattern of categories, I thought what is wrong with me? Am I suffering from some sort of “category dyslexia”? It was especially surprising, as I like so much to put things in order. I arrange my books by category and alphabetically by author. I occasionally move my poetry books from the bottom of the shelf to the top because I change my mind that poetry is not the foundation of literature, but its apex. I have a refined sense of hierarchy: it just isn’t based on anything concrete.

After a few other students recited their orderly and logical responses, I timidly raised my hand. “Dr. Kensinger, I have a problem.”

“What is it?” He asked.

I read him my list of categories.

After a long pause he asked. “Are you an art major?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Then don’t worry about it.”

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