2017: An Unlikely World

Art & Music

Fragments of an Improbable Universe

How to Approach the Selections

For each work, consider how it and/or its creator might relate to this year’s theme. Has it been made in an unconventional way? Does it have an improbable meaning or depict an unlikely subject? Was it received in a surprising manner? Has the creator overcome unexpected obstacles in his or her career? Though the works have been categorized for your convenience, you will find that many relate to the theme in multiple ways. Later in this outline you will find some guided questions for some of the selections; you can use them as models as you explore the others.

Set I | Unexpected Forms and Inspirations


Set II | The Unlikely Days of Our Lives


Set III | Peering at a Strange Universe


Set IV | The Many Faces of Chance


Guided Questions (Samples)

    • Discuss with your team: can chess be used as a metaphor for anything in real life? If so, what might we learn from this version of a chessboard? If not, is its disconnectedness from reality the source of chess's enduring appeal?
    • Is the artist of Habitat implying something about the world we inhabit? Be sure to consider the larger sweep of her career, including works such as "Hairdo for a Silent Moment". What seems to most draw her artistic attention?
    • The Makoko School’s seemingly unlikely approach to building a school has been celebrated as a sensible architectural solution. What problem is it solving, and why might its innovative approach be even more relevant in the future? What is its current condition, and are other schools like it in the works? Be sure to bring your discussion home: how would you describe the design of your own school, and does it have an impact on your student experience?
    • Paintings of controversial events can themselves become objects of controversy. Consider why this might be as you examine Gerald Laing's "Convertible", which spent many years out of public view.
    • Discuss this vision of something far less unlikely than it might seem in retrospect, co-created by a cosmonaut who could have been the first man on the moon. Can a depiction of something that never happened still be authentic?
    • Consider this "retroactive" work by Robert Rauschenberg and the elements of his era that might have inspired it. If you had to make a similar retroactive of our own time, what would you include?
    • Consider Jakub Rozalski's painting "Into the Wild"—from a series in which he imagines an entirely alternate version of the 1920s in his native Poland. There are alternate histories based on one thing changing—all the way down to the death of a butterfly—and there are others that play freely with the laws of time and space. This work belongs to the latter category. Discuss as a team: what can we learn by juxtaposing reality and fantasy (or the past, present, and future) in such an improbable way? Is this painting a work of art or simply entertainment?
    • This well-known piece by the 20th century artist Hamed Nada is said to blend (perhaps uneasily) elements of superstition and modernity he encountered in his homeland of Egypt. With that in mind, consider: is fortune-telling a particularly Egyptian cultural tradition, or is it something more universal—and does it (and superstition more broadly) still have a role in the world today? Be sure to conspire with your team to analyze this work's finer details. For instance, why might it feature a cat instead of some other animal, and why might the cat be lounging on a chair while the fortune teller squats on the ground?
    • Discuss with your team: is it possible that a better understanding of risk could put you at greater risk?
    • Consider this French modernist composer's rhapsody on the beginning of the world itself. Is the biggest moonshot of all the making of a planet? How does the composer capture the feeling of such a moment?
    • Fame may have been unlikely in her lifetime - explore the reasons why as you listen to this remarkable piano quintet.
    • Consider the “sacred geometry of chance”. Does being unlikely make something more sacred?
    • Explore the story of Amélie and the ways in which she interacts with the lives of others in her community. How does it relate to the ideas of destiny and chance? Does this musical theme capture the heart of the storyline?
    • Children can predict the future too. Listen to this song from the musical Matilda, then discuss as a team: what common mistake in future forecasting are these children making as they predict what life will be like when they "grow up"? If you met these children, would you try to clear up their misconceptions - or is it possible that even "bad" predictions can be an important source of hope? What predictions do you have about your own future that might seem unlikely (or even naive) to someone older than you?

Concluding Questions

    • Can some stories only be told through unlikely genres?
    • To what extent does the medium of a work affect its message?
    • In art, is there a relationship between spontaneity and value?
    • How can unlikely stories be told in unlikely ways?
    • To what extent can artists utilize unlikely media and still have their work be considered art?
    • Can an unlikely artwork be the solution for a difficult problem?
    • What effect does music with lyrics have versus music without? Can these two types of music tell different stories?