Making Art Enjoyable


To be honest, most of my experiences with art have been dull. When I was young, my parents occasionally dragged me to art exhibitions, which I found utterly boring. Later in life, when I decided to go to art galleries of my own free will, my main motivation was to do something for my “cultural education,” but without really enjoying it.

Things have begun to change recently. A bookseller in my neighbourhood offered discounts on several books, among them Andrew Graham-Dixon’s Art: The Definitive Visual Guide. Despite my previous experience with art, I decided to buy it, mainly driven by the cheap price and the sympathetically high picture-to-text ratio.

The book turned out to be very good and it showed me that art can be highly interesting and enjoyable, which was a new experience for me. Much as Schubert and Mendelssohn awoke my interest in classical music, Graham-Dixon’s book raised my interest in art considerably.

Reflecting on this experience, two questions came to my mind:

  1. Now that I know the arts can be enjoyable, what can I do to maximize this joy?
  2. How can people who believe art is boring be convinced that it can be enjoyable (and therefore “tap a new source of happiness”)?

To find the answers, I first analysed why art can be enjoyable (i.e., in what ways it can give us pleasure). Based on this, I will try to come up with practical suggestions.

What Makes Art Enjoyable?

Here are some dimensions which play a role when enjoying art:

         1.)    Recognition

When walking in London’s National Gallery a couple of days ago, I was delighted to see Georges Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières from 1884…


… which I recognized from the book mentioned above. It wasn’t the beauty of the painting (I don’t think it is very beautiful), nor the atmosphere it creates or any reason other than  the fact that I saw something which felt familiar. Maybe the feeling of “success” played a role here as well: finally not everything in the museum is new to me.  

The importance of recognition becomes clear when we consider two different types of visitors. What a difference there must be between the uninitiated museum visitor who is overwhelmed by the number and size of unfamiliar paintings, compared to one who knows them all and perceives a leisurely stroll through the rooms as a nostalgic opportunity to catch up with good old friends.1

2.)    Beauty

I used to think beauty was the only, or at least most important, criteria for evaluating works of art. Now I believe it is only one possible component (not even required to make art enjoyable) and the role it plays is far from the most important one.

That said, the beauty of some paintings is stunning and just looking at them brings joy that is reason enough to buy a copy and pin it up on a wall at home. Personally, I find paintings with a strong or interesting use of light beautiful (which is highly subjective, of course). For example, I perceive beauty in Bierstadt’s “Oregon Trail” from 1869:

 Albert Bierstadt Oregon Trail

I also enjoy Max Liebermann’s The Terrace at the Restaurant Jacob in Nienstedten on the Elbe from 1902 (sunlight filtering through leaves was one of Liebermanns’s favourite themes):

errace at the Restaurant Jacob in Nienstedten on the Elbe

(By the way, if you want to buy these pieces of art (copies, I mean, unless you are filthily rich), seems to be an interesting source, although I have not tested it yet).

Beyond this rather superficial definition of beauty, there are other ways in which we can find beauty in art. For example, Rodin’s sculpture and masterpiece, The Kiss is beautiful, too, although in a slightly different sense than the pieces cited above:2

rodin the kiss

Art is capable of triggering positive feelings, all of which may be described as “beauty” in a broader sense.

3.)    Understanding / Empathy

Understanding a piece of art (in terms of when it was created, what the artist intended to convey with it, etc.) plays a fundamental role in our enjoyment. Maybe this is the most important way to enjoy art. But why is that? Let me list some hypotheses:

·         Firstly, when we understand a piece, we don’t feel lost, but rather more educated and knowledgeable, which is a good feeling in itself. 

·         Secondly, we are able to develop a deeper relationship with the work and with the artist. This is especially true when we can identify with the work, maybe because we have had similar experiences in our life.3

For example, I believe a melancholic individual longing for the good old days is capable of finding a strong connection to Turner’s Fighting Temeraire (1838)…


…which depicts a once successful battleship (literally a ghost of her former noble and majestic self) getting towed by a steam tug to its final destination to be broken up for scrap. Several elements of the painting transform the ship’s final journey into a mournful hymn for the passing of the great days of sail:4

·         A trail of fiery smoke from the tug’s funnel cuts dramatically across the Temeraire, symbolising the end of sail and the future of the steam engine.

·         The hull of the boat and the missing sails (in contrast to the full sails of a number of sailing ships receding into the distance, reminiscent of the Temeraire’s glory days) give the Temeraire a strangely skeletal appearance.

·         The viewer’s eye is drawn across the canvas in a way that creates a sense of forward movement, suggesting the Temeraire’s final journey towards the ominous, dark buoy and the setting sun on the right.

·         Thirdly, understanding pieces of art enables us to compare them and appreciate their context with each other, which further increases our joy. In other words, the more we know about art, the more enjoyable it becomes.  

If understanding plays such a crucial role, how can we achieve a state of knowledge quickly which allows us to understand the piece, put it into context and analyse it?

When reading the aforementioned book, it became clear to me that reaching such a state does not require as much effort as we may think (the book is not the answer, even though it does go very much in the right direction). If the information is presented well, reading it is fun and memorable. What might such a guide look like?

One important element, I believe, is a structured approach to show the dimensions in which art can be understood or analysed, and which different shapes exist within each of those dimensions. For example, the dimensions for paintings could be:  

·         What the painting shows/depicts (portraits, landscapes, stories, etc.)

·         How the object or scene is depicted (e.g., for portraits: frontal view, 3/4-view, etc.) and why

·         The “background” of the picture/story

·         Perspective of the viewer (from above/below) and why

·         What conclusions can be drawn about the artist based on how he or she presents the characters, etc.

·         Which colours are used, and how

·         Which materials were used to create the piece

·         What “atmosphere” is created

·         How the eye is led into the painting

·         Which epoch the piece belongs to

·         Etc.

With a bit of basic knowledge in each of those dimensions, even beginners can try to analyse formerly unfamiliar paintings, which should increase their joy considerably.  

In conclusion, recognition, beauty and understanding of a piece of art seem to be three important reasons why art can be enjoyable. They are not the only ones (for example, art can also provide inspiration), but for me they are on top of the list. Or have I missed other key points?

Practical Suggestions

1.)    Get a good teacher (or good books)

As with any other discipline, getting a good introduction is key. You can start with the book I mentioned above. If you find other books (or videos or other materials) of similar quality, please share that information below!

Even better, of course, is a real teacher who is an expert on the subject and can convey that expertise in an interesting way.

2.)    Don’t go unprepared to an art gallery or museum

Unless you are sure you’ll find a good teacher there (or a good audio guide, which is rare – see below), I would be careful about going to an art gallery and expecting to enjoy it right away.5 Most of the time, the way the art is explained is not sufficient to make it fully enjoyable for newcomers. At least, this has been my experience.  

It may be better to learn some basics about art (see above) and learn what pieces are on display before you go. Get some background information on the specific works and their context (e.g., epoch). With this preparation, you’ll almost certainly get more out of the experience.

3.)    Suggestion for museum directors: upgrade your audio guides

This is very important: If you, the museum director, want more people to enjoy art and visit galleries, help them find their path to it. Based on my experience, today’s audio guides are not as good as they could be, for two main reasons:

·         The content is too academic

Very often the audio guides aim to be academically correct, instead of raise passion in the listener. Consequently, the joy factor falls short most of the time. Many interesting or funny background details which a real guide would mention are often not mentioned on the audio guides.

·         The content is not conveyed passionately enough  

Also, the way in which the content is conveyed affects the listeners’ enjoyment. Often the monotonous voices on the audio guides lack passion. It appears as if a speaker reads the information off a piece of paper. This does not make the tour exciting.

Please, invest some money in making a really good audio guide. Collect all the interesting facts about the pieces which listeners would enjoy. Then record a compassionate and authentically excited (funny?) person delivering those facts. The money invested will almost certainly pay off in the long run.

4.)    Focus on specific epochs / types of art first

Art spans a very wide field, and any attempt to try to understanding all pieces at once is doomed to fail. Start with one specific episode or genre. Learn about it and, when going to an art gallery or museum, focus on that episode or genre first until you know it really well. Your interest in exploring other areas will grow naturally from there.

Where should you start? I suggest opening an art book (with a lot of pictures covering all epochs, if possible, such as the one recommended above) and browse it to identify the works that are most interesting to you. The works that first interested me were created during the epoch which is named romanticism, but everybody is different.

5.)    Try to analyse the work

After having prepared a little, try to analyse the art along the dimensions listed above. It can be exciting to discover things on your own and then compare then to the artist’s ideas when revealed.

6.)    Adapt the right mindset

Remember that art appreciation will get better and better over time (understanding breeds understanding). As with everything in life, it takes some investment at the start. Most of the time, however, you are more than compensated for your efforts.

If you enjoyed reading this post, please subscribe to my RSS feed or email newsletterThis post is part of the series “Tapping New Sources of Happiness” in which one other topic has been discussed so far: A Guide to Enjoying Classical Music.

1) Inquisitive readers may go one step further and ask why familiarity is capable of creating a positive feeling at all. My hypothesis is that this may have its roots in humans’ core need for security. (Security is fundamental in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, although I believe this pyramid needs to be updated based on our advances in the past 70 years – the subject of a future post).

2) This is a different sense of beauty as it requires more interpretation than the instant, more superficial beauty described above. Perhaps it can be called “secondary beauty” (without prioritizing it).

3) This may also be the reason why experienced (i.e., elderly) people are more capable of enjoying art. The probability that a painting conveys emotions they have experienced is higher, because they have presumably experienced more. Does an empathic viewer find access to art easier for that reason?

4) The following description of the painting is quoted from the aforementioned book by Andrew Graham-Dixon.

5) Keep your expectations low: The Role of Expectations in Being Happy


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