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BA Art History and English Literature

Year of entry: 2020

Course unit details:
Art in Theory

Unit code AHCP20432
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 2
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Offered by Art History and Cultural Practices
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


In order to reach these learning outcomes, the lectures and seminars have been thematically rather than chronologically ordered. The themes are devised to cover fundamental and ongoing problems in the interpretation of art; they are organised as discrete units but there will be a broad progression from the relatively familiar and simple towards the more complex and demanding.
Unlike most of the other courses that you take, Perspectives focuses on texts primarily and art objects only secondarily. Texts are subjected to close scrutiny and discussion in the seminars, while the lectures provide larger contexts and suggest how the interpretation and history of art might be interrogated through certain key thinkers and their writings. Perspectives requires students to show initiative and flexibility in applying and testing ideas across conventional boundaries between periods, media and academic disciplines.

This discussion of texts and ideas will mean that we draw from an eclectic range of writers and thinkers, thus reflecting the complex origins and continuing vicissitudes of the history of art as a discipline. The range includes works by philosophers, historians, critics and modern 'critical theorists' as well as influential art historians.

In the first semester (AHVS 20431) the course's four themes focus on debates and disputes in the history of modern art: forms of visual authority and expression; issues of visual attention and communication; techniques of representation and technologies of power; constructions of subjectivity and social being.


Art Historians have adopted a range of approaches to seek to understand, interpret, and 'decipher' works of art of their own and other cultures. While some have focused on the art works themselves, seeing form as central to meaning, others have argued that interpreting form depends on cultural context and they have tended to foreground historical processes as key; some seek explanation in the figure of the artist; others in the audience or market. Some regard art as inherently problematic or misleading, while implicit in the approaches of many is a notion that art must somehow be beneficial and 'good'. The principal underlying aim of Perspectives is to raise students' awareness of some of the key concepts and theoretical models which have shaped the interpretation of the visual arts in the past or which inform current debates. Perspectives does this by focusing on the texts of some particularly influential thinkers within and beyond the discipline of art history.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the course students will be able to identify some of the principle ideas about how art and its history can be understood. Through exposing, questioning and following through some of these ideas, students will gain a critical awareness of the nature of the discipline, and its relationships with other disciplines and modes of thought. They will be able to apply ideas from the thinkers whose works are considered in the course unit to problems within art history and to specific art objects.

Teaching and learning methods

2 x 1 hour weekly lecture 1 x 2 hour fortnightly seminar

Assessment methods

Essay 40%
Presentation 10%
Exam 50%

Feedback methods

Feedback in accordance to SALC policy.

Recommended reading

In addition to the books and articles recommended for each lecture you should consult recent publications concerned with art history as a discipline and its history (* especially recommended):

M. Baxandall. Patterns of Intention. On the Historical Interpretation of Pictures, 1985.

M. Cheetham, M. Holly, and K. Moxey (eds), The Subjects of Art History, 1998

*Eric Fernie. Art History and its Methods. A Critical Anthology, 1995.

*Jonathan Harris, The New Art History - A Critical Introduction, 2001

Jonathan Harris. Writing Back to Modern Art, 2005

C. Harrison et al (eds.), Art in Theory (3 vols.) 1648-1815, 1800-1900, 1900-1990

M. Hatt and C. Klonk, Art History, 2006

W. J. T. Mitchell, Picture Theory, 1994

W. J. T. Mitchell, What do Pictures Want?, 2005

K. Moxey. The Practice of Theory, 1994.

* R. Nelson and R. Shiff (eds). Critical Terms for Art History, 1996.

F. Orton and G. Pollock. Avant-gardes and Partisans Reviewed. The Social History of Art, 1996

R. Parker and G. Pollock. Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology, 1981.

M. Podro. The Critical Historians of Art, 1982.

M. Pointon. History of Art: A Students' Handbook, 1994.

D. Preziosi. Rethinking Art History. Meditations on a Coy Science, 1989.

*D. Preziosi, The Art of Art History. A Critical Anthology, 1998.

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Assessment practical exam 1
Assessment written exam 2
Lectures 22
Seminars 11
Tutorials 11
Independent study hours
Independent study 153

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Samuel Smith Unit coordinator

Additional notes

Semester 2

Lecture: Wednesday 10am to 11am

Seminars: Friday 9am to 11am or  Friday 11am to 1pm or Friday 2pm to 4pm

You may not choose your seminar group.

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