The 100 Classical favourites promoted by ABC-FM and 24 Hours offer an abundance of fine listening but the list would need rearranging to establish any appreciation of Western Musical traditions. Most of the time, we encounter works of art in no particular order, not even that of a popularity poll.

Our enjoyment from any of the arts is enriched through a quest for covert designs. Our discernment of what the novelist Henry James called “the figure in the carpet” comes from both flashes and hard looking. If many lifelong pleasures are sparked by chance encounters, we need help from programmers to structure our perceptions.

We cannot have it all, certainly not all at once, despite what the credit card commercials claim. To concentrate one’s listening on Chopin and Bruckner to the exclusion of Liszt and Mahler is a loss, but not so great a one as to achieve no more than a nodding-off acquaintance with all four.

The Rodin exhibition that started its Australian tour in Perth provided some context for the Rodins that are held in nearly every State Gallery. Yet none of our institutions collect sculpture in order to track the pathways of European sculpture, as they do for painting. Indeed, sculptures are deposited as decorative touches in rooms devoted to the two-dimensional. To appreciate Rodin’s achievement we need the patterns of his predecessors, contemporaries and successors.

The Buddhas recently shown at the Art Gallery of New South Wales traced a comparable line of development, making sense visually even to someone holding the slenderest acquaintance with Asian imagery or beliefs. The transitions from the Middle East across to the Japanese were clear. The display could tell its own story, supplying a pattern of how the image-making had altered across time and place.

By contrast, the Treasures from the World’s Great Libraries at the National Library in Canberra were a random selection that went nowhere. The viewers had to insert each item into a pattern external to the display. Hence, the open score of Mozart’s Requiem could slip between memories of performances, scenes from Amadeus and biographical snippets. Instead of assembling a cabinet of curiosities, our National Library should have relied on the coherence provided at the Guttenberg Museum of the history of writing and printing in Mainz. Adopting its approach, the Mozart page would have concluded the development of musical notation.

During the past twelve years, Bell Shakespeare has offered us the chance to see how Shakespeare learnt his stagecraft. Similarly, our understanding of Hamlet has been deepened by recent productions of revenger tragedies, The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi.

Opera companies must juggle box-office favourites (The Pearl Fishers, Gawdelpus) with the less familiar. Festivals are a chance to introduce work that will become accepted, as Janacek has been into the Opera Australia repertoire where his name no longer alarms subscribers. Yet Janacek’s achievements will remain less well understood than they deserve for as long as most Central European operas are hardly even names.

An easier task is to bring forward  neglected works from the periods with which subscribers feel comfortable. Why mount a new production of Cav & Pag in Melbourne in March rather than introduce Charpentier’s Louise to follow Giordarno’s Andrea Chenier last year. That latter pair would provide a context for those who wish to argue that Puccini should have topped the ABC poll.

Pattern-making by audiences would be helped by co-ordination between the programmers for the musical series. On 31st August, Weber’s Der Freischutz premieres in Sydney, four weeks after Sabine Meyer’s clarinet concert with the Sydney Symphony, where she is to perform the “Number One” on the 24 Hours list, the Mozart clarinet concerto. An airing of Weber’s inventive writing for that instrument would have deepened appreciation of its use in establishing the sinister colouring that, as he explained, “gives this opera its principal character”. ABC-FM could help out by broadcasting recordings and discussions of works in time to encourage listeners to subscribe, not weeks later.

By contrast, the Sydney Symphony’s Shostakovich Project on 5-7 April offers three concerts and a lecture by Andrew Ford. This weekend will consolidate the programming of Shostakovich during the last decade. The Opera House audience will not be as shocked as Stalin by the pornophony from flatulent trombones when The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District opens on 11 June.

Der Freischutz is not only a pleasure in its own right, but is a bridge, musically and dramatically, between Mozart’s German operas and Wagner’s. Since 1998, Australian audiences have had the chance to make better sense of Wagner with a new production of Tannhauser and a complete The Ring cycle; 2001 revived Tristan and Lohengrin, and brought our first ever Parsifal. Not only do we hear better from this consolidation but performers also improve, as is evident with the Adelaide orchestra and chorus.

Local and visiting contemporary movement ensembles have taken dance audiences a long way since the first visit of Pina Bausch twenty years ago. Yet the pattern of expectation did not prevent Melbourne mothers who chaperoned their aspiring cygnets to the Frankfurt Ballet last October from surprise at glimpsing genitals where they had expected tutus.

Art-lovers rarely advance lockstep through the Great Traditions. We hear, read and see in no particular order. As teenagers we revel in Tchaikovsky and Dali before we have heard of Josquin or van der Weyden. We spend our lives sorting those encounters into patterns which deepen our delight through a broader understanding. Meeting E. M. Forster’s injunction “Only connect” demands more weaving than implied by “only”. We need to work at perceiving figures into the magic carpet of art.