The Three Types of Knowledge You Need to be a Fan of the Arts


So… I have good news and bad news. The good news is that I’m so pumped to teach you how to love the fine arts more than you ever knew you could. The bad news is that you have to put in the work to get there.

Sorry! (And sorry for the “sorry” – I’m Canadian, I can’t help it.) The fine arts take time to understand. Sure, there are lots of effortless ways to start being a fan of the arts, and I love to share those here and through social media. That stuff is gold, for sure. But to get to the real juiciness that is loving the arts, you’re going to have to put in some effort.

To my mind, at least, that’s a good thing. A lot of things that are quick and easy to understand and derive pleasure from are shallow. They’re not the interests, hobbies, and passions that sustain you and colour your whole life; instead, they’re reality TV and snack food (which have their time and place, but man cannot live on Love Island and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos alone).

So, what exactly do you need to learn before you can truly appreciate the fine arts? Three things. For each of the fine arts – to be a true fan – you need to develop three areas of knowledge:

  1. Historical Context;

  2. Technical Understanding; and,

  3. The Current Landscape.

They’re not nearly as scary or difficult as they sound at first, so keep reading. You can do this! 

1.     To love the fine arts, you need to learn their evolving historical context.

For me, this is the big one. The reason musicians love classical music so much is because they know all the major composers, what order they lived in, who was influenced by whom, and what world events shaped their artistic voices. This allows you, as a listener, to understand the composer’s point of view, and hear what they meant for you to hear.

Let me give you an example. One of my favourite composers is Dmitri Shostakovich. He wrote a crapton of music, including some of the most famous symphonies, concerti, and string quartets of all time. What historical context would you need to understand his music? Well, he lived from 1906-1975 in the Soviet Union, and spent much of his career in and out of favour with Joseph Stalin (which was deeply terrifying to the composer, of course). At times, his works are Soviet propaganda – rah-rah patriotic melodies in “celebration” of the ruling party. At others, Shostakovich uses his compositional style in subversive ways to criticize fascism, anti-semitism, and war.

If you were about to listen to a Shostakovich symphony from during Joseph Stalin’s reign, wouldn’t you understand it so much more now? You can get in the composer’s head and see what he might have been trying to convey. You might hear suppressed self-expression in favour of pleasing those in power (who, at the time, were murdering artists left and right). Or, you might hear the work of a revolutionary cleverly weaving his true feelings around beautiful melodies and rousing rhythms. For example, have a listen to perhaps the most celebrated of Shostakovich’s symphonies, his Fifth (or, as musicians and music lovers say, “Shostakovich Five”). Listen to the whole thing, or jump ahead to the short but epic last movement at 37:10 – it’s a rousing celebration of the strength and glory of the state. Or is it?

So, do you see how context means more than just the dates a composer lived, or where they were born? It means everything.

2.     To love the fine arts, you need to have some technical understanding.

I get it: no one wants to be told that they need to have “technical understanding.” Heck, I’ll bet you just read the word “technical” and rolled up like a hedgehog. It’s okay! This is probably the easiest and funnest part (and yes, I’m gonna stick with “funnest”).

When I say “technical understanding,” what I mean is this: do you know enough terminology and enough about what the artists are physically doing/have done to actually appreciate and talk about the result? This is where you learn the lingo (like what a sonata is, or the difference between woodcut and linocut printmaking). It’s where you learn how artists do stuff (like how a pianist uses the pedals under the instrument, or how exactly a ballet dancer does an epic series of fouettés).

Here’s my personal current example. As many of you know, I’m getting really into ballet (as a fan). I’ve always adored watching it, and now I’m deep-diving into everything the art form has to teach me. But where did my love of ballet begin? With the movie Center Stage, obviously. In that absolute classic, one of the things they talk about a lot is how one character lacks “good feet.” Well, what the hell does that even mean? Well, someone saying a dancer has “good feet” means that the dancer has molded her feet (some of which is indeed genetics, but much of which is training) into making a beautiful curved shape when she dances, including transitioning through different foot positions and steps with elegant and charming rounded movements. Good feet are beautiful extensions of the long lines created by the legs, not clompy, awkward add-ons.

As an example, watch one of my favourite ballerinas, Natalia Osipova, dance Odile from Swan Lake, and look at the gorgeous, strong curve her feet make throughout the solo:

Do you know how great it is to watch “So You Think You Can Dance” and actually agree with Nigel when he says someone has “great feet”? And actually KNOW what you’re talking about? And appreciate the years of effort and care and natural gifts that lead to those gorgeous pieds? It’s so satisfying.

3.     To love the fine arts, you need to know the current landscape.

I’m not going to lie to you, this one is tricky. But it’s really, really important, especially now.

First, the fun side of this. To understand an art form, you should know what’s currently happening in it. Like, who are the most celebrated playwrights right now and why? What trends are happening in visual art, and do you like them? Who is the jazz saxophonist of the moment, and what do people love about their playing? This part is all about reading fun stuff on the internet, watching YouTube, and following people on Instagram, so… pretty easy.

Now the hard part. Art is complicated – and by that, I don’t just mean “difficult to understand.” I also mean, it’s wrapped up in a lot of social issues that are not cut and dry. From cultural appropriation to problematic subjects to outdated language we would never accept today, how do we deal with art created in different times with very different social norms and sensibilities?

Take, for example, perhaps the most famous opera on the planet: Carmen, by Georges Bizet. Like many, many operas, it’s a problematic tragedy where the main female character dies at the end. But rather than dying of madness or consumption, Carmen is brutally murdered by her scorned lover, Don José. Pretty much the entire history of opera is steeped in misogyny, but perhaps nowhere more viscerally than where an opera about objectification and the virgin-whore dichotomy culminates in the ultimate act of domestic violence. This has led some companies to change the ending (to Carmen killing Don José, for example), or to providing a violence against women trigger warning. But some say we should scrub Carmen from the repertoire entirely. Wouldn’t you rather know this and be part of the conversation than go in blind?

Knowing what’s “going on” around the art you take in makes you a better audience member/viewer/listener. It also makes you a better member of your community by being sensitive and open to the experiences other people might have from the same work of art. It’s not just a way to enhance your experience – it’s your responsibility (and, it makes your art-viewing experience way deeper).

Still pumped? You’re in the right place

Look. I know some people read half of this post and peaced out. I get it. They were like, “learn stuff? Like, school? I’m frickin’ outta here.” We don’t need them.

Hopefully if you’re still here you feel a lot like I do about learning new things. Frankly, I love to learn. I love to study. I love to read and watch documentaries and listen to podcasts and hear interesting people talk about stuff I previously knew nothing about. The arts are a goldmine of all that learning goodness, and now you know the three types of knowledge you’ll need to equip yourself with to be a life-long fan of the fine arts.

Ready to dive in? Subscribe to my weekly newsletter, where you’ll get a condensed package of information to build up all three areas of learning (plus, my favourite arts news, videos, and articles of the week so you don’t have to find them yourself).