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August 27, 2012 6:59 AM   Subscribe

Developing cultural taste/becoming an expert at new hobbies... are there general principles? (snowflakes inside)

I'm interested in starting some new hobbies and also generally raising my level of cultural awareness about the finer things in life.

I've never had hobbies before and didn't grow up with a lot of cultural awareness of beauty or wonder. I have spent a lot of my time reading about psychology and personal development and relationship issues and... I'm kind of tired of it. I want to refocus my mind on the outside world!

I'd love to find out how people get up to speed in new hobbies/how to develop "taste" in areas about which I don't know very much. If you know a lot about these fields, perhaps you can give me some pointers on where to start. If there are some general principles for "getting up to speed" on a new area, let me know!

Areas in which I'd like to raise my cultural awareness:
- Art history
- Current scientific developments
- Learning how to distinguish between good and bad in food (coffee, tea, wine, cheese)
- Good current literature

New hobbies:
- painting
- DIY electronics (Maker Faire type stuff)
- private pilot's license

* I'd love any podcasts/primers/Twitter feeds/blogs to read in these areas
* General tips on how to get started in learning new hobbies if you've never had hobbies before
* If you have made it a personal project to refocus on new and lovely things, please let me know!
posted by 3491again to Society & Culture (8 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
- DIY electronics (Maker Faire type stuff)

I asked this questions last year so hopefully there's some stuff in there that can help you out. If you've never worked with electronics before, I suggest you get a copy of Getting Started in Electronics and see if it starts making sense to you before dropping cash on equipment.
posted by griphus at 7:04 AM on August 27, 2012


I can mostly just speak to reading and music, but I think patience is a very good general principle to apply. Most of the things that I love the most are things that I didn't enjoy or understand at first. Some things need some time to marinate before you can see the light. For one extreme iexample, when I first read the first part 'The Sound and the Fury' I felt mostly bored and angry because I felt like I had just read 70 pages of gibberish cruelly inflicted on me by a smart and possibly drunk person. Only after cheating (reading cliffs notes or the equivalent, which I otherwise never do) did I realize I just wasn't patient (or maybe smart) enough the first time. When I read it again, and then finished the book, I was speechless because the total concept of the novel is so unique and the intellect required to create it so towering. AND it was highly enjoyable and moving once I figured out what the shit was going on.

High concept art is not (always) designed to blow your pants off in the first 20 pages or in the first 3 minutes of the first movement. But when you take in the whole piece you often find a grand vision that is electric and impossibly brilliant, or whatever breathless words you prefer.

You didn't ask, and I'm biased, but if you expand your 'current literature' to 20th-21st century literature you'll greatly increase the possibility of finding novels and authors you'll really enjoy. I haven't read everything, but I haven't read but a few things written after 2000 A.D. that stand up to the heaps and heaps of genius and brilliance, pants-pissing humor and hand-wringing tension, tears and quiet beauty to be found in Twentieth Century Literature proper.

And for coffee, wine and the like: side by side taste testing. If I am trying some particular coffee or Scotch or chocolate or something in isolation, I can certainly enjoy it but I feel a bit lost as to how to describe it other than 'pretty damned good!' But if you try two or more kinds of something side by side, the occasionally off-putting and over the top flavor notes you sometimes find with these items (dusty leather with a hint of bedspring and eau de toilette, etc.) start to make some sense.

Quickly you find out just how much there is to enjoy, and then you will find your own particular obsessions and chase them back in time (writing, music) or around the world (food), and then life got a little more fun.
posted by TheRedArmy at 8:05 AM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


For science, my favorite popular science magazine is New Scientist. It has its biases but it's generally very engaging. I also like Radiolab (the podcast), which also has its issues (sometimes it just feels so overproduced and hipsterish!) but has some great storytelling about science.

And also, on science: don't focus too much on "current" - a lot of what gets in the news (and even in the journals) doesn't stand the test of time. Try to use current science stories as a way to pique your interest and get yourself to look up the background and the history and the theoretical underpinnings of the work (there are lots of great popular science books out there).

If your goal is "getting up to speed"/"being an educated human" you probably will not want to read the original research.
posted by mskyle at 8:54 AM on August 27, 2012


For art history, pick a small place to start and then follow its history back. Find something that really interests you - this could really be anything, doesn't have to be traditional art, maybe it's a building or a style of clothes or hair or a poster or a quilt or a teapot or a paperclip, whatever - and learn everything you can about it. Who made it, when, where, why, who the item was intended for and to whom it actually went, what people used to think about it and what they think about it now, and so-on.

You'll very quickly find that everything is interconnected through influences and history. Instead of narrowing down your search, let yourself be led along branching paths. Be patient, and curious. There will be lots of references you don't understand at first, and that is entirely okay. The internet is of course invaluable. Look up artists and pieces that interest you and find related works. Art historians like to group things retroactively into movements, and sometimes artists themselves like to form groups and give themselves labels, and even write manifestos. But every movement is multifaceted and most are not nearly as clearcut as historians like to present them as. By watching a documentary on one artist, you'll end up learning things about lots of other artists, movements, aspects of world history, and of related crafts. Pick something from there and go. The same idea would apply to going to a museum or reading a book. Just keep following the related ideas.

At some point you'll form a general base of art history knowledge, with gaps here and there and areas of expertise. Because this is just for your own enjoyment and not anything academic, that's absolutely fine. If it bugs you, you can start to fill it in by way of more general books and essays. Visiting a really big art museum and taking an audio tour can also orient you a bit in terms of basic art terms. Try to acknowledge and consciously challenge any assumptions you may have due to your upbringing and the culture of the art you're learning about - for example, if you're a white American, the chances of most of the art history you first learn about being extremely eurocentric is very high. Try to remember that much of the time this is not a conscious choice on the part of the art historian. Give other cultures from your own a bigger chance to inspire you.

Primarily, you'll pick things up as you go along. Since you said you're interested in painting as a hobby, you'll certainly have resources for that which will help give you a basic art history glossary as well. Learning about your materials will give you great starting points for areas you can investigate, too.

I suggest this inward to outward style of learning because art history can be really overwhelmingly huge. It's basically all of human history as told through a particular lens. You need to find a tiny little slice of it that really grabs you. Always keep in mind that nothing anybody has ever made is truly original. There will always be influences that you can learn about.
posted by Mizu at 9:09 AM on August 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


I would say with both your cultural awareness goals and your hobbies, staying open, curiosity, and the willingness to get more information (books, internet, friends who know more) will serve you well. It takes time, so patience is important.

It'll also probably be more realistic to tackle these things one at a time. Become well-versed in one thing before you dive into another. If you try to pick up three things at the same time you won't have enough time to devote to any one of them.

For the art/music/fine food/general finer things in the life:
The first step is to just get exposed. No amount of reading or instruction can substitute the real experience. Go to a bunch of museums, even if you have not read about anything in art history, and just let curiosity take you. Then go home and look up the pieces or the artists that really struck you. Go again after a little while, and this time, perhaps a different piece will make you want to scream "holy crap!!!" so on and so forth. There are things in art that require acquired taste, but you are not going to acquire it by reading, and you need an entry point anyway.

The same with music. Go to the symphony or opera. If the latter, read up on the plot before hand. Afterwards, think about what you liked the most, and look it up. Next time, see what else struck you. Talk to friends about it.

The most important thing is to have fun and trust your instinct. Never "like" something just because it's supposed to be really good-- like what you really like, and make a good case for it.
posted by atetrachordofthree at 9:13 AM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


If you're looking for a friendly entry into wine, you might try either Gary Vaynerchuk's video blog (cherry-pick some early episodes to see if you like it, not everyone does) or a copy of Wine for Dummies (no kidding, it's great).

I would not recommend Wine Spectator or others like it.

Also, drink what you learn about. Wine has the benefit of being (relatively) low-entry to try. If you want to learn more about Spanish reds, say, you can go to a wine store and have them help you put together a mixed case of decent bottles for about $200. Or you can find a wine bar that does flights. There may also be one-night classes in your area that will walk you through tasting a particular region or style. Makes for a good date.

As far as taste goes, I think it's less about being able to pick the "good" wines from the bad and more about knowing what's out there and understanding how a given bottle meets, fails, exceeds, or subverts expectations. Someone who can tell you that a particular wine is well made even when they personally don't care for it has better taste than someone who's memorized which of the past ten years were best for red Rhones.
posted by postcommunism at 11:49 AM on August 27, 2012


Are you doing these things because you are truly interested in them? Then just do them. If you are doing them just for the street-cred you imagine they will afford you, then join a club.
posted by gjc at 4:50 PM on August 27, 2012


I'll try to address the reading and art history elements with practical advice, though I also have caveats about calling them finer things where experts know what's good and what's bad.

Experts do know what's out there and what's generally said about it all, and I take sampling that as your goal. But once you know what's out there, decide for yourself what's good and then, mainly, praise the good. Snarky critics are fun, but useful critics show other people what they missed.

Some suggestions for cultivating taste in that sense include ...

Borrow someone else's. Ideally, find a friend or group who'll be delighted to show you what they like and why, but there are countless books and blogs where people try to inform the reader's tastes either by suggesting what's current and well-received or by teaching in a way that is actually very opinionated.

Plow through a broad-spectrum list and form your own opinions. For current literature, searching for "best novels of the decade" will turn up a zillion possibilities, and it doesn't really matter which one you plow through--just sample the first few pages at Amazon from a few dozen until you've built up your own reading list. For art, if you don't have good museums around you, get a couple of books that reproduce tons of art with just enough context to count as art history but not so much that you're bogged down in details. (But do keep getting bogged down in details about things you respond to, because that's what turns a cultural education into an awesome personal hobby.)

Make a habit of noting your feelings somehow. It helps to be able to look over what you've responded to and build up connections between those things. That's partly what Goodreads is for, and it's something Pinterest does fairly well with art. See paintings you're interested in, google them, categorize them on Pinterest, and repeat until your art boards are worth browsing on their own every few months.

And finally, tell people what you think--not obnoxiously, but when they ask what you've been up to lately, share something you found delightful and accept any suggestions they have along the same lines.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 10:23 PM on August 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


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