The art of appreciating art when you know nothing about art

When I take a trip somewhere, besides the usual tourist sights and attractions, I usually try and fit in some sort of arts and culture activity into my itinerary, whether it’s a museum visit or watching a show. There’s always something educational about seeing the art and culture of a country you visit – it often reveals a part of that country’s history and culture that can’t be expressed purely by factual figures or tourist attraction information boards.

Jac Appreciating Art
Sometimes appreciating art can be… overwhelming


One might think that it’s not surprising that I do that, after all I’ve mentioned in past posts that I work in the arts industry, so people sometimes expect me to be all learned and knowledgeable about art appreciation. But the truth is… I’m still pretty clueless when it comes to being able to critique a piece or recognize its influences: My comments about art usually “That looks nice” and “Can you imagine that in your living room?!”; also, my favourite jargon to get through intellectual conversations about art I don’t get are “Abstract”, “Conceptual” and my latest favourite word “Meditative“…

(Yup, that’s ‘meditative’ for sure – it’s from the Kafka museum in Prague in case you’re wondering)

So now that I’ve revealed myself as a bit of a fraud when it comes to having any real art knowledge (sorry, boss, if you’re reading this), the one thing I’ve learned through my exposure to art through my work is that despite not being any sort of art expert, it is still possible to develop a certain appreciation for the arts, which has really helped make the arts and culture parts of recent trips a much more efficient and enjoyable experience. I’ve discovered preferences for certain types of art forms, and notice that I tend towards certain styles over others, and while I still get the occasional dud, I feel less like I’ve just ‘wasted a day’ cooped up in a boring gallery, which is a big downer if you have limited time on your holidays like I do.

London Work Trip - National Gallery
Let’s be honest – London’s National Gallery is probably quite awesome, but do you really want to go into the museum on such a beautiful sunny evening? For the record, I didn’t 😛

Of course you arty folk should go right ahead and keep appreciating the art that you love, but for those of you who have never really considered arts and culture an essential part of your travel itinerary, here are some thoughts on how you can learn to appreciate art to make your travels a much more enriching experience, even if you know nothing about ‘art’.




Start small…
Whether it’s picking just one cultural thing to do in your entire trip, or going for a genre you know you’re likely to be more receptive to. I suggest not jumping in headfirst or starting with stuff that’s too bizarre, or you’re liable to be turned off by the experience instead, which would be a huge pity.

If you have no idea at all where to begin, go see the ‘famous thing’ that the country is known for. Sometimes you get tourist traps, other times you get true cultural experiences, but at least you’ve been there and done that! There (usually) is a reason these things are as famous as they are!

Madrid 2008 - Goya Museo Del Prado
My family in general isn’t big on museums or artsy stuff, but when we visited Madrid on vacation some years back, we decided to check out the Museo del Prado and all the Goya works. I will admit that none of them stuck with me much, but my mum ended up buying a magnet of that work you see in the banner, so it must have stuck with her somehow!


or pick the free option
Many countries have great free options for the arts, so if you have budget concerns or are concerned about wasting money on something you might not enjoy, free stuff is a good way to get a taster. For example, London’s British Museum is massive and most of it is free, or you can head to Shoreditch and walk the streets for lots of street art. Do your research – some places offer last minute ticket options while others are much cheaper if you pre-purchase the tickets online. Many places especially in Europe also offer great student discounts – free/cheap things just need you to work a little bit harder to get them.

London Work Trip - British Museum Atrium
The British Museum is pretty impressive and free for most of its exhibits!


Have backup options
For me, arts appreciation is quite dependent on my mood for the day, which is usually linked to how packed my itinerary is. I try and watch a show in the evening on days when I’ve done a lot of afternoon walking, or plan my museum walks in the morning when I’m still a little more energetic. If I’m really just not in the mood for experimental stuff that day, I go do something a little more tried and tested instead.

London Street Art - Elmac
I can’t always go to another museum or watch another show, but I can always see a little more street art! an Elmac work in London’s Shoreditch




Have an open mind
Think about it more as exposing yourself to new experiences. My motto is to try anything at least once, which has made for some really interesting experiences. In Prague, I went to see two types of performances the Czechs are famous for: the traditional opera Don Giovanni and a blacklight theatre show by Laterna Magika called Wonderful Circus. I expected to be bored by the former and wowed by the latter, but was wrong on both counts – the opera was surprisingly engaging and I found blacklight theatre a snooze, so you honestly never know!

Don Giovanni Prague Estates Theatre
The opera is staged like a musical, just sung in Italian! somehow I always thought it involved heavily costumed people parading around on stage and belting out operatic songs – seeing the acting and dancing surprised me!


Step out of your shoes
Some things may seem really obscure to you, but try thinking about it from the context of the locals, and how that country’s culture shaped the art into its current form. I saw Vietnamese water puppetry in Hanoi, and learned that it evolved because the shows were often held in paddy fields out in the countryside, and while the stories told revolve around daily life and may seem rather simple and boring to a foreigner, I think it does give context to what life for a typical Vietnamese person might have been like in the past.

Vietnam - Water Puppet Theatre Hanoi
Ok this is a terrible picture of the water puppet show in Hanoi’s Thang Long theatre. This scene depicts a typical Vietnamese wedding procession


Go with what catches your eye
Just because you came to see the Mona Lisa doesn’t mean that’s the only thing you should see. Go walk around and find something that catches your attention. Read more about it. You’ll realize over time that you’ll discover what your preferences are, which makes it a lot easier for you to make a decision on something. I tend to get through museums quite quickly because I just skip the stuff that bores me!

Prague Mucha postcards
Mucha‘s style caught my eye while I was checking out Kafka – I hadn’t heard about his work previously but I was glad to follow up on this, even if it meant a mad dash in the rain to get to the museum before closing!




You don’t have to love it
Don’t feel bad if you end up hating what you watched – at least now you know what you don’t want to catch in future! Artist statements and descriptions of artwork in my opinion can be quite misleading, so it’s not uncommon to find yourself watching something that’s not what you expected. Also, it makes for great travel anecdotes!

Prague Blacklight
I really wanted to like Prague’s Blacklight Theatre show – it sounds interesting and quirky enough, but man I was kinda bored by the whole show…


A little research helps
Sometimes things only make sense after you have taken the time to find out a bit more about it. Do yourself a favour and just do a quick google after your trip and see what turns up, it could give you quite a different perspective from your actual experience. I do a lot of research and fact checking for my blog posts, and I’m actually quite happy to do it because I really do come away with a better, more in-depth understanding at the end. Take down some key names or pointers if you can so you’ll know what to look for later on.

London Work Trip - Matisse Cut Outs
I knew Matisse was showing at London’s Tate Modern from doing a little research prior to the trip, which I thought was quite helpful in making me appreciate his work at the museum. I might not have gone in if I just happened to chance upon this exhibition!


So, the next time you visit a place, don’t automatically skip all the museums and galleries, and remember that art often exists beyond these spaces as well!

Anyway if you’re curious, here’s a little of what I’ve discovered about my arts and culture preferences through my travels:

  • I like museums and galleries, especially if they are free or have interesting architecture, but I have to space it out and I need a lot of sitting down in between 😛
  • I tend towards certain themes when it comes to the visual arts – very vibrant colours or graphic monochromatic styles. Nature and very intricate stuff also tends to catch my attention. Some favourite artists for example are Dali, Mucha, Gaudi and I do love me a good piece of street art.
  • I don’t do historical stuff and dates very well, moving images and contemporary dance and music tends to make me sleepy as well. I like stuff that’s large and that I can understand – abstract and conceptual works are lost on me!

Do you work the arts and culture into your trip itineraries? What are your favourite types of arts and culture activities?


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5 comments to The art of appreciating art when you know nothing about art

  1. Great points and I think you’re totally right. I love how your dress in the first picture matches the artwork! Was that a coincidence? Also, I remember seeing the Kafka sculpture in Prague and being like – ‘I’m not sure I get it…’

    • Thanks Charlie! yeah I didn’t intentionally match the dress but it’s kinda an awesome coincidence 😛

      The Kafka sculpture/installation thing in this post is just… odd. I feel like there’s meaning behind all that which I don’t fully understand 😛 his other sculpture in the Jewish quarter with the headless man is interesting though. Still a little bit odd, but less bizarre for me!

      • I feel there’s a meaning behind a lot of Kafka related works that I don’t fully comprehend (perhaps because I haven’t read enough of his work). I like like the sculpture though, in a strange way, it’s certainly quirky and memorable.

  2. I can attest to your “I need a lot of sitting down in between” Jac! ;p
    My tip for visiting museums and galleries is to not pack them or rush through them. Take the time and space to explore on that visit, and just walk away with whatever much you could, instead of trying to accomplish or cover it all! The least expectations, the more amazing the experience; and if you look at something and it doesn’t speak to you, then let it be – don’t try to force yourself to understand it, it might come later, or not come at all.

    • Heh I concentrate better when my legs are not tired #lame(hurhur)excuses

      I think that’s a good point though, not trying to do too much or having too high expectations. Often for travellers there always seems to be some sort of imaginary tickbox and checklist we try to achieve in a short period of time, whereas with art sometimes it just doesn’t work that way, and takes time to speak to you.

      But yeah, there is art that i’m pretty sure i’m never going to get no matter how long I spend on it, not in this lifetime at least 😛

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