The art of appreciating art when you know nothing about art

On any trip that I take, I usually try and fit in some sort of arts and culture activity into my itinerary beyond the usual tourist attractions, usually a museum visit or watching a show. Experiencing the arts and culture of a foreign country is an easy way to get a glimpse into their way of life. It often reveals something about that country’s history and lifestyle that can’t be expressed through factual figures or tourist information panels.

But art isn’t always something easy to consume. Most people think that proper art appreciation involves being in a musty old gallery and scrutinising obscure paintings, but it really isn’t the case. So I thought I’d talk a little bit about how I, this layperson without much artistic background at all, started to appreciate art a bit more thanks to my travels.

Jac Appreciating Art
Art isn’t as scary as you think

Am I an art expert?

Who am I to teach anyone about appreciating art, honestly? I worked in the Arts industry for a few years and you think it’d help me become more learned and knowledgeable about art, but the truth is I’m still pretty clueless.

My standard of an art critique usually ranges from “Oh that’s nice” to “I wouldn’t even put that in my hypothetical mansion” (Try it for yourself, it’s an entertaining way to look at contemporary art). My personal favourite jargon to get through intellectual conversations about art I don’t get usually include buzz words like “Abstract”, “Conceptual” and my latest favourite word “Meditative“.

Prague Kafka Museum Statue
This work is called Proudy and you can find it outside the Franz Kafka museum in Prague. Yes, it is a kinetic sculpture (see it in motion) that involves 2 guys peeing on a map of Czech. This is… meditative.

How a layman can start appreciating art

So now that I’ve revealed myself as a bit of a fraud when it comes to having any real art knowledge, the one thing I did learn through my exposure to art 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.

Through a combination of exposure and trial and error, I’ve discovered preferences for certain types of art forms, and notice that I tend towards certain styles of work. 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 :P

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 profess to know nothing about ‘art’.

Start small

Don’t be too ambitious. Start by 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. Don’t jump into the bizarre headfirst and commit too much time/money to some major exhibition you are unsure about or queuing to view something really obscure. You’re liable to be overwhelmed and turned off by the experience instead, which would be a huge pity if it ends up scarring you for life.

If you have no idea at all where to begin, go see the ‘famous thing’ that the country is known for – there’s usually a reason it’s become a tourist attraction. Sometimes you get tourist traps, other times you get true cultural experiences, but at least you can say that you’ve been there and done that.

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 in 2008, 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. I went back again in 2016 to see if going there on my own made a difference… nope, still no appeal. Art of that era looks entirely identical to me

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 could head to Shoreditch and walk the streets for lots of street art which is an entirely free experience as well.

Do your research – some places offer last-minute ticket options while others are much cheaper if you pre-purchase the tickets online, and some even have free museum hours or days for visiting. For the students, 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, my ability to appreciate art 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 I 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.


Picked something already? Now here’s what you do when you’re in the theatre or at the gallery. Art appreciation goes beyond just looking at something – for me the best sort of art makes you pause in your step, or makes you think about other things and consider it more thoroughly.

Have an open mind

Think about it as exposing yourself to new experiences rather than just viewing artwork – 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 that 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 and kinda trippy, so you honestly never really know until you try.

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. My tickets were also super cheap, hence the shitty obscured view but I didn’t mind it too much

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 and takes place in a fake ‘lake’ which acts at the stage. Was I bored? Sometimes yes, but did I learn something from it? Definitely.

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 else in the Louvre that actually catches your attention. Over time you’ll discover what your preferences really are when it comes to enjoying art, which makes it a lot easier for you to make a decision on whether or not to see something. This is also why 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 have now consumed art, congratulations! What next?

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 from the description in the brochure. Also, weird experiences make 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 do a quick google after your art experience 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. It’s true when they say that there’s something for everyone, you just need to find what that one is for you.

My art preferences

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 :P
  • 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 often lost on me.

Do you work the arts and culture into your trip itineraries? What are your favourite types of arts and culture activities to check out when you travel?

5 thoughts on “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…’

    1. Thanks Charlie! yeah I didn’t intentionally match the dress but it’s kinda an awesome coincidence :P

      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 :P his other sculpture in the Jewish quarter with the headless man is interesting though. Still a little bit odd, but less bizarre for me!

      1. 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.

    1. 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 :P

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