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Understanding Art: From Appreciation to Criticism and Connoisseurship

Arthur Worsley
by Arthur Worsley
M.A. Psychology, Oxford. McKinsey Alum. Founder & Editor at TAoL.
The Black Square, Malevich

“The Black Square”, Kazimir Malevich

N.B., To keep things tight this guide is skewed heavily towards a single format: painting. It can, however, be applied to almost any art form. From dance to architecture to hardcore German rap – whatever floats your boat, you’ll hopefully find something here to help you think about art in new ways.

I like art. I grew up with the Tate, the V&A and the British Museum. In my travels, I’ve visited hundreds of galleries and museums across dozens of countries. I’ve even read a couple of books on the topic.

And yet, if I’m honest, I still don’t really have a clue what it’s all about. I can recognise a Hirst, a Banksy or an Emin. I can nod knowingly at a Warhol or a Weiwei. I know that Da Vinci, Rembrandt and Picasso were important. I’m aware that impressionist art fetches tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars at auction.

But could I tell you why? I mean really give you a good explanation? The short answer is No. No I can’t. I don’t have a clue. Despite decades of engaging with art I still walk in and out of galleries and museums feeling like a fraud. Despite hundreds of hours of exposure I’m still constantly troubled by the same two questions:

  1. What the hell am I supposed to think about this?
  2. Why is this piece of art more important/valuable than that one?

“Enough is enough,” I decided, “I’m going to solve this once and for all!” And here, mis amigos, are the fruits of my labour.

What I discovered is this: there are no easy answers.

Art is a language and fluency takes years of hard, purposeful practice.

At the top end of fluency are two disciplines: Art Criticism and Art Connoisseurship.

Art Criticism is about placing and evaluating art in the context of other works. Which are more influential? More beautiful? More powerful? Your opinion is part of a group effort. The degree to which you are “right” or “wrong” is judged against the most common currently accepted ideas of art theory and history.

Art Connoisseurship used to be a technical role. The kind of person who could spot a Caravaggio from 1,000 paces based on brush stroke and technique. That’s still true to some extent. These days though, connoisseurship is more about placing artworks within a contemporary hierarchy of taste. Unless you’re one of a handful of influencers your opinion means very little here. Instead, connoisseurship means understanding changing trends and tastes in society. The accuracy of your opinion is weighed in cash. You may not like a piece of art, that doesn’t mean someone else won’t buy it for $300m.

Whatever the art form, these hotshots pretty much dictate what is accepted today as important and unimportant art. And that power extends into the past, present and future. Their decisions have surprisingly far reaching consequences for the development of our society and culture as a whole. That’s important because their judgement hasn’t/doesn’t always live up to the standards of objectivity and inclusiveness that our societies look up to today.

Though it takes a lifetime of dedicated work (and a good measure of luck) to reach those lofty heights, there’s also some good news:

  1. Anyone who wants to can become more fluent in art; and
  2. You don’t need ninja levels to transform the way you engage with it.

In fact, with a little thought, you can make more progress in a few weeks of purposeful practice than in a lifetime of walking aimlessly around galleries and museums.

So how does one practise art purposefully? It all starts with learning…

How to Appreciate Art.

Art Appreciation is all about you. You and a single work of art. Everything starts here, without it neither criticism nor connoisseurship are possible.

There are no right or wrong answers in art appreciation. Just your personal perception of and response to the facts.

To appreciate art you must first learn to…

Step 1: Experience it.

The first step in art appreciation is to take at least a couple of minutes to experience an artwork as mindfully as possible.

Slow down and take your time. If you have 30 minutes, you will get far more from engaging six pieces of art than sixty.

If you’re in a museum or gallery try this on your own, before you read any accompanying information. This is your opportunity to engage with art on your own terms. Enjoy making the most of it before you consider the perspective of the curator or other external sources.

If it’s a painting, don’t simply look. Try to see. If it’s a piece of music, don’t use it as a backing track to your thoughts. Really listen.

Take the whole thing in. Then isolate the details. Then soften and expand your observation back out to the whole.

As you do so, keep a gentle eye on your immediate and changing sensations, emotions and thoughts:

  • What physical sensations are you aware of?
    Scan down your body: what is your first impulse / instant reaction?
    Did your shoulders tighten? Did you cross your arms? Are you frowning or smiling?
  • What emotions do you feel?
    Confusion? Joy? Sadness? Repulsion? Frustration? Anger?
    Is the emotion strong or weak? How does it change?
  • What thoughts come and go?
    Are they pleasant or unpleasant? Related or unrelated?
    Don’t analyse or intellectualise at this stage, there’s plenty of time for that later.

Stay curious and open minded towards your own reactions. There are no right or wrong answers. Isn’t it interesting what does/doesn’t come up?

It is totally O.K. if you catch your mind wandering off. Simply make a note of what you were thinking about and bring it gently back to the artwork.

Mindfully experiencing a piece of art like this is emotional rather than analytical. It is surprisingly difficult to do without getting lost in internal narratives or judgements.

Stick with it, it does gets easier with practice. Learning to find that balance of focus is the first step to getting more from art than you ever imagined.

Step 2: Place it.

The second step in art appreciation is to place the artwork in your mental art map.

Read the accompanying placard (or ask someone else) to get a sense of “What”, “Who” and “When”.

Whatever the art form, this taxonomical information will sound something like:

  • This is a [Movement/style] [Sub-format] [Format] called [Name] created by [Creator] in/on [Date]
  • e.g., This is Fauvist oil painting called “Dance” created by Henri Matisse in 1910

This information is only a tiny part of the puzzle but it’s a useful way to organise art in your head.

If you’re serious about learning the language of art, write this information down and make a conscious effort to memorise it (there’s more on this in the tips you can send yourself at the top of the page).

Over time you’ll begin building up a sizeable mental art library that is essential for understanding art in its wider context.

Step 3: Understand it.

The final step in appreciating art is to try and understand it.

“Textual details” are those you can’t get from simply experiencing a piece of art. Instead you’ll need prior knowledge or external sources.

Don’t be afraid to look up more details on the spot. This one tip alone will totally change the way you experience your next gallery or museum visit.

You would be amazed at the scandal and gossip behind even the most forgettable portrait of a 17th Century noble. And the life of many artists or your average Greek myth contains more violence, sex and betrayal than an entire season of Game of Thrones.

In the case of much contemporary art, textual detail is often not just a bonus, it is essential. The experienceable artwork itself can be more like evidence at a crime scene: irrelevant and meaningless except in the context of the action or thought that created it.

When trying to get to the “Why” of an artwork there are thee questions you must ask:

  1. What?
  2. Who?; and
  3. What for?

Even if the message of a piece seems straightforward, you’ll soon discover that the full story is “rarely pure and never simple”.

Depending on the work / your levels of interest, you may also find it interesting to ask:

  1. Where?; and
  2. How?

Let’s cover each of these questions in more detail now.

i. What?

The first question to try and understand is “What?”

An artist’s intentions for any given work can range from stunningly simple to bewilderingly complex.

Consider the whole work and also its details. Ask yourself to what extent they are:

  • Representational/figurative
    Who/what/where are the subjects? What are their stories? Why were they included? Common figures in Western art range from characters in popular Greek and Roman myths to Biblical and political figures.
  • Abstract
    What elements of the photo are partly or totally devoid of references to the physical world? Why has the artist chosen abstraction? To express or elicit an emotion? To test an idea? To challenge the viewer’s preconceptions of art?
  • Metaphorical
    What obvious/hidden metaphors is the artist employing? Are the metaphors common or unique? How have they used the specific to comment on the general? Have they subverted the metaphor in some way?
  • Symbolic
    What traditional/subverted symbols has the artist included/omitted? What animals? What plants? What objects? Why? See Living Arts Originals and this Dictionary of Symbolism for  great introductions to symbolism in art.

Read the placard. Look it up on your phone. Ask a guide or gallery attendant. Contact the artist if they’re still alive!

Stay patient and curious. You can’t solve every puzzle in a single sitting.

Especially since many of the pieces are likely to be tied up in…

ii. Who?

In today’s art world, the artist almost always takes centre stage.

And yet, the truth is you will always find five important stakeholders behind any work:

  • The Patron commissions and pays for the artwork.
  • The Artist (and/or their workshop) creates the artwork.
  • The Collector owns the artwork.
  • The Exhibitor makes the artwork available to the viewer.
  • The Viewer experiences the artwork.

What do you know about these stakeholders today/historically?

  • Who are/were they?
  • What sort of time did they exist in?
  • What are/were their wider goals/motives?
  • If they’re an institution; who funds or owns them?
  • How and why have they changed over time?

Don’t underestimate the importance of this piece of the puzzle.

Without it you’ll find it much harder to fully understand…

iii. What for?

“What for?” ties together “What?” and “Who?”. It is the critical piece of the puzzle.

The two most immediately relevant “What for?”s to think about are:

  • Why was this artwork originally created? and;
  • What is the exhibitor trying to achieve by showing me this artwork today?

You might be surprised at how different the answers to these two questions are. What does this tell you?

Put yourself in the shoes of each stakeholder. Keep asking Why? – Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?

  • Why did the patron commission this work? Why from this artist? Why in this format?
  • Why did the artist take on the work? Why did they choose to realise their idea in this way?
  • Why did the collector acquire this piece work? Why have they lent it to the exhibitor?
  • Why is the exhibitor displaying this work? Why now? Why in this collection? Why in this way?
  • Why are you here? Why are other viewers here? Why was this work important to the original viewers?

Remember: Artworks are tools. They serve different purposes for different people at different times.

They record and tell stories. They express and elicit emotions. They communicate or comment on the balance of power and authority. They attract money, fame and prestige.

Understanding these purposes will uncover new levels of meaning within an artwork. They will reveal hidden as well as public motives.

Perhaps most importantly, they will prompt you to challenge, rather than simply accept, the work as it’s being shown to you today.

iv. Where

Many artworks are commissioned and created with a final exhibition point already in mind. This spatial context has probably influenced the artist’s choice of content, format and technical approach.

This is important because exhibiting an artwork outside of its intended context can deeply impact its meaning. The power and authority of a work can disappear or even be reversed entirely by simply changing where and how it is presented. This is especially true for religious and political art.

Some things to consider include:

  • Location
    Was the artwork originally destined for a gallery? a church? a palace? a house? outdoors?
    Was it meant for a specific location? Was intended to be public/private?
  • Space
    What kind of space was the artwork destined for? Was it prominent? Or supporting another work?
    Was it meant for a stairwell or a corridor? On a wall? Above a door?
  • Lighting
    What kind of lighting was the artwork designed for? Were the levels of light high or low?
    Was the source natural? candles? an electric bulb?

Take a moment to think about the artwork in its original space.

Ask yourself:

  • Why has the exhibitor chosen this new context?
  • How could this have changed the way I relate to the work?
  • Is/how has the meaning of the artwork changed with the context?

You may learn things about both the artwork and the exhibitor that surprise you.

v. How

As of writing, Wikipedia lists the following formats under its article “The Arts“:

Some items may seem strange to you. You may feel outraged that others haven’t featured at all.

Where are calligraphy? Or metallurgy? Or textiles? Or gastronomy? Or any other number of creative forms of expression?

It is worth noting that the formats we traditionally consider as artistic vary considerably between individuals, societies and time periods.

One thing though is certain: whatever the format of a piece of art, learning more about that format will give you new meaning and perspective on the artwork.

If you’re interested in a specific format: start by reading or watching a good video on it (e.g., this superb video on sculpting in stone).

Even better, do a basic course in it. Nothing will give you more appreciation for oil paintings than learning the basics of the craft. Or for a killer guitar solo than learning to play the guitar.

Ask yourself:

  • Why the artist may have chosen this format?
  • What were the benefits? And the tradeoffs?
  • How has this work been influenced by their skill or experience in other formats?
  • How could/have others presented the same idea in different formats?

Do this and you may find the insights you reveal both surprising and rewarding.

How to Criticise Art.

Art criticism is the process of evaluating a work of art in the context of art theory and art history.

The most important word in this definition is “context”.

  • Art Appreciation requires no knowledge of art beyond the work being examined.
  • Art Criticism demands it.

There are many different ways to approach art criticism. All of them rely on building a deep and wide base of knowledge.

The good news is that the longer and more diligently you appreciate art, the richer and more meaningful your criticism will become.

Here are a few steps you can use to get started:

  1. Make the work part of a wider collection.
    If you’re in a gallery or museum, why not start with the collection the work is currently being presented in.
  2. Take a moment to consider this collection as a whole.
    What story is it telling? Not telling? What else could be included? What omitted?
  3. Now come back to the piece of art. How does it compare to the other works?
    In its ability to fulfil its function? In its influence? Aesthetically?

When art is displayed in galleries/museums, collections are commonly filtered and ordered in one of four ways:

  • By format – e.g., painting, sculpture
  • By/through time – e.g., Roman, 16th – 18th Century
  • By movement/style – e.g., impressionism, fauvism
  • By artist – e.g., as a biographical retrospective

Challenge this presentation and ask yourself: “If I could wave a magic wand, what other works might I compare this one to?”

You can create an infinite number of imaginary collections using any one or more of the following lenses:

  • Who – remember the patron, artist, collector, exhibitor and viewer.
  • When – what other works were being created at this time?
  • What for – how does this work compare to other e.g., political works across any other lenses?
  • Format – how does this work compare within its format? how about with works in other formats?
  • Movement / style – what explicit/implicit broader cultural movement was this work part of?

Go crazy. Consider works of the same size, shape or colour. Compare works that are similar or at different extremes of a spectrum.

As you go through this process it should hopefully become clear how deeply subjective and infinitely varied the field of art criticism is.

The stories commonly told in galleries, museums or text books are not “the” way art should be collected and interpreted. They are simply “a” way.

The fact of the matter is that there is no single best lens or right answer. There may be a number of “most currently accepted” answers but like all inter-subjective realities these too change over time. Don’t be afraid to challenge the assumptions and choices behind the collections you’re being presented.

In the meantime though, the idea of a “most currently accepted answer” brings us neatly to…

How to Become an Art Connoisseur.

What is an Art Connoisseur?

An art connoisseur is someone with excellent judgement in placing artwork within a hierarchy of taste.

In English, that means they’ll tell you not about how good or bad an artwork is but about how good or bad other people will think it is.

In particular, art connoisseurs busy themselves with the tastes, trends and theories of elite and educated segments of appreciators and influencers.

Art connoisseurs come in many forms and with a variety of different motives:

  • Advisors, auction houses, agents, brokers, fairs/festivals, galleries and the like are mostly financially driven; meanwhile
  • Artists, collectors, curators, museums and publications have motives than can be more complex and opaque.

An artist or collector might be driven to create or collect by money, prestige, aesthetics or even some political or social motive.

A curator might be driven by fashion, theory or the desire to make a name for themselves.

The Danger of Museums and Public Galleries

Museums and public galleries are an especially important type of connoisseur for two reasons:

  1. They are how most of us experience the majority of traditional art forms.
  2. Their claims of greater objectivity can create a dangerously false sense of security.

Though museums and public galleries may genuinely aspire to educate objectively, the truth is more complex. For example:

  • Many (e.g., most national) museums were set up specifically to promote artists of a particular nationality or format.
  • Most museums simply do not have the resources to collect and display the best of the best.
  • Every museum is curated by individuals with their own opinions and biases.
  • Every museum needs visitors and prestige to attract funding.

The result is that museums tend to display artworks:

  • That are similar to things we already know and like,
  • In ways that we feel comfortable with; or
  • That overhype the value and importance of their own collections.

This can, in turn, perpetuate a status quo which feeds back into narrow acquisition and exhibition policies.

Don’t get me wrong, museums and public galleries are great – many work extremely hard to do the best they can under conflicting pressures.

Just always remember: no matter where you are, you are never experiencing fact, you are experiencing someone else’s judgement of value.

The Path to Connoisseurship

People say you’re either born with “good taste” or you aren’t: that’s a load of rubbish. Like anything, “good taste” is a learned skill.

That’s not to say it’s easy. Good luck and “Who” as well as “What” you know play an even more important part in connoisseurship than in art criticism. If you work out a reliable formula for either of these then come back and tell me.

For now; here are two things that you can do to set off in the right direction:

First: Learn as much about the art market as possible.

  • Learn the mechanics: From artist and agent through to high-street gallery, art fair/biennale, major gallery and auction house. A superb book for this is Don Thompson’s “$12m Stuffed Shark”.
  • Stay up to date: Stay on top of latest art news. Follow auction schedules and results at major houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s. These will all help you develop an understanding and intuition of “Who” is buying “What” and maybe even “Why”.
  • Get to know the people: Meet as many other fledgling and experienced connoisseurs as possible. Visit galleries and shows with them. Ask them for tips. Ask them for insights. The most rewarding and enlightening sources for learning about art are the people who think, live and breathe it every moment of every day.

Second: Make art and art appreciation as full time as you can. 

  • Appreciate as much art as possible. When it comes to connoisseurship, a working fluency of art is a given. Getting there will mean appreciating as wide a range of art, exhibited in as many ways a possible, as often as you can. Don’t let geography limit you. Do this online or through books and catalogues as well as in person.
  • Read around the topic. Read. Read. Read. Try to understand current theories of Art History. Try to understand the History of Art History. Develop an extensive database of textual details that you can call on whenever required.
  • Learn continuously. Take courses in art theory. Take courses in art practice. Ideally both. Take up drawing, or ceramics or photography. Join a dance school or improv class. Understanding the struggles and limitations of your own creativity will give you new found respect for the works of others. You might even make some new friends!

I know this list sounds intimidating. The good news is that it’s not an all or nothing deal. Start somewhere and keep chugging along. As long as you’re motivated and excited by the world of art, your growth will come steadily and naturally.

And remember, with art, as with pretty much anything in life, the more you put in, the more you’ll get out.


I wrote this guide as a way to help me engage more thoughtfully with art when I encounter it. I hope that it’s encouraged you to do the same.

There’s a tendency to view continuously investing in art literacy as an indulgence that’s only accessible and relevant to a select few.

In reality, I don’t think this can be much further from the truth.

Art – be it painting, sculpture and architecture or music, film and dance – permeates and shapes every aspect of our culture and society. It impacts every moment of our day to day lives through the beliefs and attitudes that it reinforces.

What art is harmful and what art is helpful? What art is good and what art is evil? These are the questions that art literacy helps us to answer.

When we engage actively with art we begin recognising and challenging “truths” as they are presented to us rather than just accepting them.

  • What kind of message does it send our children that the Western Canon (the list of artworks recognised as influential for all art) is almost exclusively White, Western and Male?
  • What impact does it have to listen to music that continues to objectify women in way that no other part of our culture will accept?
  • What does it imply to perpetuate art theories that label anything pre-16th century or non-European as “primitive”?

If we don’t make those decisions ourselves then someone else will make them for us. History is full of examples where the few have dictated an unquestioned truth and that path is not one littered with inclusive or benevolent outcomes.

What’s at stake here is not just a nice afternoon wandering around a gallery or museum.

  • It’s our say on what kind of art outlasts us and becomes part of our past.
  • It’s our choice about what kind of art, society and culture we want in our present.
  • It’s our decision as to what kind of step we choose to lay on the path towards the future.

Perhaps you agree. Perhaps you think that’s all a bit melodramatic. In either case, that’s what inspires me to keep going back to art, even if I continue to have very little idea about what’s really going on.

In any case, I hope you’ll agree that with a little bit of work and thought, the world of art can, at least, become a much more interesting and meaningful place.

Thanks for reading. Good luck, enjoy and have fun!

P.s., There’s a very good chance I’ve missed things out and got other things totally wrong. Wherever that’s the case, please tell me! I love being corrected.

Further Reading

“The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art”

“The Value of Art: Money, Power, Beauty”, Michael Findlay

“A Very Short Introduction to Art History”, Dana Arnold

“The Story of Art”, Ernst Gombrich

“Art: Over 2,500 Works from Cave to Contemporary”, Iain Zaczek, Mary Acton

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