BASS Social Anthropology and Philosophy / Course details

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
Art and Society

Course unit fact file
Unit code SOCY30731
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


The course unit aims to:

  • Investigate why people like art and whether this changes historically
  • Ask whether art is a good thing for society and critically examine the common association of art with positive social values like freedom and self-expression 
  • Look at the social conditions that make art possible: Why does putting a shower curtain or a dead cow into a gallery space make it into an artwork? What are the rules of such a procedure?
  • Ask what contemporary art practices tell us about the rest of our social institutions – what does art tell us about ourselves and our society? Why have some groups of people traditionally been excluded from art and how is this changing?
  • Investigate the function of art criticism. Who gets to talk about art and why? What are the effects of this discourse?


The course will consider what art is, including some time reflecting on its essentially purposeless character; the childish and absurd nature of its core practices, and the fact that there is common agreement that it is, nonetheless, important. This will lead into an examination of how classical social theorists, especially Marx, Durkheim and Weber understood art as a feature of modern societies.

The second half of the course turns to recent and contemporary developments in sociological thinking about art, including work that identifies it as a locus of resistance and as an agent of progressive social change. We will also explore the socially exclusive character of art and its institutions, looking particularly at the role of women in art and the problematic issue of art's claims to be 'universal' while for much of its history it has been dominated by white men. Discussion will also consider art's materials and whether 'popular' cultural forms like cinema or digital technologies might be included, in a democratic extension of what 'counts'.

Extensive use will be made of examples ranging from the re-discovery of perspective techniques in the European Renaissance, through the development of abstraction in painters like Hilma af Klint, down to contemporary relational and digital artworks. The examples will be chosen for their illustrative value in relation to a concept or issue being discussed in that week's session. Towards the end of the course there will be the opportunity to explore whether 'art' continues to be a meaningful designation or if other manifestations of human creativity and alternative institutions might be inheriting some of its powers.

Indicative sessions (subject to some variation)

  1. What is art and why does it matter?
  2. Art in classical social theory
  3. Ideology, function and change
  4. The social production of taste
  5. Economy and markets
  6. Art as criticism and resistance
  7. Art's materials: technique and technology
  8. Avant garde: can art create progress?
  9. Indigenous art and the invention of tradition
  10. Review

Teaching and learning methods

A one-hour lecture will describe the topic for that week, highlighting the main readings and the main discussion points. These will be followed by a two-hour workshop in which students will work in groups to present their own ideas and examples, They will be encouraged to draw on examples from the history of art and, where appropriate, to use visual technology to present these to the class. The presentations will be placed on Blackboard, creating a record of the evolving discussion and points of reference as it develops over the course of the semester.

Knowledge and understanding

  • Understanding of the significance of art in modern society and how this is reflected in classical and contemporary social thought.
  • Gain knowledge of the sociological contexts that make art, looking particularly at the criteria that exist for art, their promotion and circulation in systems of evaluation and distinction, and the relationship of these practices to social power and social exclusion.
  • Become competent in the use of theoretical concepts and historical examples to analyse and understand art works and their appreciation in social context.
  • Be able to place art's institutions and practices in a wider account of the reproduction of social power and inequalities.
  • Develop a critical perspective on the idea of art as a vehicle of social change and protest.

Intellectual skills

  • Evaluate competing theoretical and critical perspectives 
  • Assess the strengths and weaknesses of examples, especially from the history of art and design
  • Employ material available from academic sources and those in the art world to make effective arguments.
  • Develop a critical approach to relevant bodies of literature. 

Practical skills

  • Use library and electronic sources and resources
  • Undertake and present independent research

Transferable skills and personal qualities

  • Present ideas and ask questions in group discussion.
  • Work with others to develop ideas and make presentations.
  • Develop a critical approach to contemporary sociological debate on art and the contemporary meaning of the aesthetic.

Assessment methods

Formative: presentation to peers during workshop 
Summative: portfolio of images plus 2,500 word reflective commentary (100%)

Recommended reading

  • Biddle, J. L. (2016) Remote Avant-Garde: Aboriginal art under occupation Duke University Press.
  • Duvignaud, J. (1972) The sociology of art London: Paladin.
  • Elkins, J. (ed.) (2007) Is Art History Global? London: Routledge.
  • Harrington, A. (2004) Art and social theory Cambridge: Polity. 
  • Hessel, K. (2022) The Story of Art Without Men Hutchinson/Heinemann.
  • Nochlin, L. (1989) Women, Art and Power and other essays London: Thames & Hudson.
  • Salter, C. (2015) Alien Agency: Experimental encounters with art in the making MIT Press.
  • Tanner, J. (ed.) (2003) The Sociology of Art: A Reader London: Routledge. 
  • Witkin, R. (1995) Art & Social Structure Cambridge: Polity.

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 30
Independent study hours
Independent study 170

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Graeme Kirkpatrick Unit coordinator

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