BA Art History and English Literature

Year of entry: 2020

Course unit details:
The Neo-Avant-Garde and the Crisis of Medium, 1945-1974

Unit code AHCP22811
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 2
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Offered by School of Arts, Languages and Cultures
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


This lecture-based course examines major developments in artistic practice and theory from the mid-1940s until the mid-1970s, situating them in their social, political and economic context. In particular, it treats the challenge to painting and sculpture mounted by the neo-avant-garde and, most comprehensively, by Conceptual art. In the 1960s an explosion of artistic innovations contested the idea that art was medium-specific and sought to overturn the dominant discourse of formalist modernism. This challenge to medium-specificity continues to present a challenge for the definition of art up to the present day. The course focuses on the highly-influential North American art of the period while also exploring the wider global artistic context.


  • The course enables students to understand the practice and theory of late modernism and the neo-avant-garde as well as to appreciate contested debates about the legitimacy of medium-specificity in art of the period 1945–1974.

Learning outcomes

By the end of this course students will be able to:

  • Distinguish and analyse the major artistic developments of late modernism.
  • Appraise the contribution of individual artists to the overall artistic developments in question.
  • Critically evaluate the notion of late modernism, the neo-avant-garde and medium-specificity in relation to the art of the period 1945-1974.
  • Appreciate the ongoing implications of the ontological reorientation of art effected by the neo-avant-garde (especially Minimalism and Conceptual art).


Indicative course syllabus (final topics may differ):

1: Introduction: Modernism(s)

2: Abstraction, Expressionist and Otherwise

3: Painting as Action

4: Pop Art as (Cynical?) Realism

5: Art and/as Business

6: A Survey of Some Minimalist Tendencies

7: Beyond Specific Objects

8: Conceptual Art's Multiple Modes

9: All Systems Go

10: The Critique of Institutions

11: Alter-Institutionality

12: The Aging of the New

Teaching and learning methods

  • Lecture-based course
  • Directed reading
  • Small-group discussion of core artistic practices and texts
  • Core reading and slide presentations made available on Blackboard

Knowledge and understanding

By the end of this course students will be able to:

  • Define late modernism as an art historical periodisation.
  • Evaluate the neo-avant-garde as a concept and discuss artistic practices that exemplify it.
  • Evaluate the discourse of medium-specificity and appraise formalist modernism as a theoretical approach.
  • Assess to what degree artistic practice of the period accords with its art historical schematisation.

Intellectual skills

By the end of this course students will be able to:

  • Analyse artworks critically and form reasoned, comparative judgments about them.
  • Critically evaluate a diverse range of texts including art history, art theory, art criticism and artists’ own writings.
  • Analyse and synthesise a series of secondary texts on a given topic.
  • Define a viable research topic.
  • Produce a compelling, well-reasoned argument expressing their own viewpoint on a given issue.
  • Think independently and imaginatively about issues and debates in the discipline.
  • Situate late modernist art in its broader social, economic and political context.

Practical skills

By the end of this course students will be able to:

  • Undertake independent research in academic libraries (using both print and digital resources) and online.
  • Devise and execute a structured research and writing plan.
  • Work constructively and collaboratively in a team to produce high-level discursive presentations.
  • Comment on and evaluate the work of peers; accept and incorporate peer feedback on their own work.

Transferable skills and personal qualities

By the end of this course students will be able to:

  • Evaluate, synthesise and deploy material from diverse sources.
  • Present in public in a clear and compelling manner.
  • Produce a clear, sustained and engaging written exposition of a given topic.
  • Manage time effectively to deliver work to a deadline.
  • Improve performance self-reflexively in light of feedback.
  • Use IT resources and software for effective research and communication.

Employability skills

Oral communication
Problem solving
Written communication
time management

Assessment methods

Method Weight
Written exam 50%
Written assignment (inc essay) 35%
Oral assessment/presentation 15%

Feedback methods

  • Oral and written feedback on presentation
  • Written feedback on essay
  • Additional one-to-one feedback (during consultation hour or by making an appointment)

Recommended reading

Indicative general reading:


Bois, Yves-Alain, Benjamin Buchloh, Hal Foster and Rosalind Krauss, eds. Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism. London: Thames and Hudson, 2005.

Bürger, Peter. Theory of the Avant Garde. Translated by Michael Shaw. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

–––––––––. “Avant-Garde and Neo-Avant-Garde: An Attempt to Answer Certain Critics of Theory of the Avant-Garde.” New Literary History, no. 41 (2010): 695–715.

Calinescu, Matei. Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1987.

Greenberg, Clement. The Collected Essays and Criticism (4 vols.). Edited by John O’Brian. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Harrison, Charles, and Paul J. Wood, eds. Art in Theory 1900 - 2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.

Jameson, Fredric. “Periodizing the 60s.” Social Text, no. 9/10 (Spring/Summer 1984):

Stiles, Kristine, and Peter Selz, eds. Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996.

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Assessment written exam 2
Fieldwork 8
Lectures 22
Seminars 11
Independent study hours
Independent study 157

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Luke Skrebowski Unit coordinator

Additional notes

Semester 1

Monday 1pm to 4pm

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