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The Ordinary Tourist's Guide to Appreciating Modern Art

kena from Montreal

Most big European cities boast a major modern or contemporary art museum among their "must sees". In some cities, like Spain's Bilbao, the modern art museum IS the main (and almost only) tourist attraction. Maybe you've avoided them, wondering why so much fuss was being made about modern art. Or maybe you've given modern art museums a try, only to find yourself lost and confused. If so, this guide is for you.

Just a few notes before we start. First, I am by no means an art expert. I have barely studied art history and I am only a lowly amateur when it comes to making art myself. I am just an ordinary person who happens to like modern art, and who was lucky to get exposed to it at a young age. I remember visiting the Picasso museum in Paris when I was five or six, carrying my own little sketchbook and sitting in the middle of the rooms, drawing, while my mom appreciated the art. I haven't lost that taste with age, and I still make it a point to visit modern art museums wherever I travel.

Second, art historians will explain to you that contemporary art and modern art are two very different things. For the sake of simplicity, since modern/contemporary art museums usually show both kinds of works and since I'm not really competent to determine where modern stops and where contemporary begins, I will use the more common term "modern" to refer to anything created after 1900. This is a gross simplification, but I hope "real" art experts will forgive me for making it.

Now, are you ready? Let's go!

Keep an open mind

It is easy to fall into cliches like "a kid could have painted that" when approaching modern artworks, especially very geometric ones like Mondrian's paintings, or abstract works like Pollock's paint splatters. In modern art, it is rarely the craftsmanship that matters, but rather all the things surrounding an artwork: the emotions it creates, the social or political message it is sending, the creative theories the artist is experimenting with. All those things are generally more important than creating a "beautiful" artwork. Also, try to remember that most modern artists are classically trained: they can paint or sculpt very polished, very realistic works of art. They just choose not to ... and in a certain sense, it's your job to discover why.

Do not confuse abstract with modern

A lot of modern artists still do figurative art, that is art where you can actually recognize some kind of scene with varying levels of realism. On the other hand, abstract art is art that does not seek to represent anything in particular; it is like music without lyrics. The goal of abstract art is to provoke thoughts or emotions without relying on known figures, which might make it a little bit harder to approach at first than figurative art. But don't let that keep you from appreciating them. Just open yourself up to whatever feelings the art provokes in you, and you might end up agreeably surprised.

Get a guide

A lot of modern works can only be fully appreciated in you know the context in which they were created. Is some artwork a political critique? A tongue-in-cheek satire of what is considered art? Was something going on in the artist's life or society at the time he or she created this work? Good guides, either audio, written or flesh ones, will help you answer those questions and give you the tools needed to appreciate the art they're presenting.

Do not overdo it

It is easy to get overwhelmed by too much art. I know that for me, one hour is generally more than enough. Don't feel guilty if you're not able to see all the works in a major museum. Take a break, come back another day, or simply concentrate on one small section. It is better to see a few pieces very well than to gloss over rooms and rooms of artwork and remembering nothing the next day.

Accept that you won't like everything

I love modern art, but some works leave me indifferent, like Yves Klein's uniformly blue canvasses (although I've recently discovered that I do like some of his lesser known works, like his fire paintings). Some works make me feel disgusted or ill-at-ease, which might very well be the artist's goal (after all, disgust is an emotion) but is not something I find pleasurable. It is OK. You don't have to love a painting or a sculpture just because it is done by a famous artist. You can even hate it passionately. As long as you don't put all modern art in the same basket because you happen to dislike one kind.

A word of caution: Modern art can at times be snobbish or pretentious, or give you a feeling of "not being in the club" because you don't understand the jargon. That's really unfortunate, but don't let a few sour apples ruin all your fun. With time, you'll learn to decipher the lingo. In the meantime, just concentrate on what you feel and what you like.

Bring a child with you

Children don't have our preconceived notions of what art should be, and can be very enthusiastic modern art fans. Guide them into discovering the works. Ask questions like "What do you think this represents?", "Do you think that the artist was sad when he painted this?", "What is your favorite color in that painting?". Better yet, make them create their own pastiches (art in the style of a given artist), either at organized workshops or on your own. You might find yourself catching your child's enthusiasm, and discovering things you had overlooked yourself.

Learn a few key concepts

On a more serious note, after a while it is worthwhile to learn a few key concepts. For instance, the ideas of Gestalt can help you understand why abstract compositions make you feel in a certain manner (for a five second introduction to gestalt, check David Seah's website. Similarly, learning about modern art movements like Dadaism or Cubism can help you see how artists influenced one another, and why certain works of art which we now consider mainstream truly were innovative when they were created.

Keep an open mind!

Finally, I'll conclude with the same recommendation I started with: keep an open mind. Like many good things, modern art is in great part an acquired taste, so even if you don't like it at first, try it again in small doses and let yourself be surprised. Your appreciation of modern art will change as you learn more about it, and about art in general (for instance, you might develop a different appreciation for Miró's later works as you realize how it was inspired by calligraphy, which you've been practicing yourself), and as you experience new things.


I fell in love with Europe when I was five years old, and I've been going as often as I can since then. In recent years, I went to Italy, France, England, and Spain. I'm the kind of traveller who likes to immerse herself in the culture, learn the language, and connect with locals, although I don't shun churches and museums either.

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