BA Art History and History

Year of entry: 2024

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

Course unit fact file
Unit code AHCP22812
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 2
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
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: Conclusion: 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


Assessment methods

Assessment taskFormative or SummativeLengthWeighting within unit (if relevant)
Plan and Indicative Bibliography for Essay 1Formative500 words0%
Essay 1Summative1500 words40%
ExamSummative2 hours, 2500 words60%


Feedback methods

  • Written feedback on plan and indicative bibliography for essay 1
  • 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.

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
Lectures 22
Seminars 11
Independent study hours
Independent study 167

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Luke Skrebowski Unit coordinator

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