BA Art History and History / Course details

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
Art After Modernism: Approaching Contemporary Art

Course unit fact file
Unit code AHCP30561
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


This seminar-based course examines major developments in artistic practice and theory from the mid-1960s up to the present day, situating them in their social, political and economic context. It considers art produced after the exhaustion of modernism and the failure of the (neo-)avant-garde. This period is characterised by the disappearance of conventional historical movements and the emergence of looser categories of practice such as Performance, Installation, Video and Relational art. The course compares and contrasts the earlier discourse of “the postmodern” and the more recent discourse of “the contemporary” as accounts of art after modernism. Particular attention is paid to the multifarious, increasingly globalised nature of art since the 1960s and the methodological challenges this presents to the discipline.


None (although students will find it advantageous to have studied one or more aspects of modernism and the historical and/or neo-avant-gardes at Level 2).


The course enables students to understand the practice and theory of postmodern and contemporary art as well as to appreciate ongoing debates about the end of artistic modernism and the challenge of theorising art since the 1960s.

Learning outcomes

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

  • Distinguish and analyse the major artistic developments of postmodern and contemporary art (while being aware of the ongoing scholarly debates about the adequacy of these categories).
  • Appraise the contribution of individual artists to the overall artistic developments in question.
  • Critically evaluate the notion of postmodernism and the contemporary in relation to the increasingly globalised nature of art since the 1960s.
  • Produce a sophisticated account of the challenges of artistic periodisation in relation to wider debates about the character of modernism and modernity.


Indicative course syllabus (final list of topics may differ):

1. Introduction: Postmodernism and its Artistic Logic

2. Performance and the Rhetoric of Presence

3. Video and Duration

4. Installation and Subjectivation

5. Appropriation and The Critique of Originality

6. Approaching the Contemporary

7. Art as Ethnography

8. Relational Art and its Antagonists

9. Art and the Archive

10. Net and Post-Internet Art

11. Conclusion: The Global Contemporary? 

Teaching and learning methods

  • Seminar-based course
  • Directed reading  
  • Small-group discussion of 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 postmodernism and the contemporary as art historical periodisations.
  • Evaluate the notion of art after modernism as a concept and discuss artistic practices that exemplify or refute it.
  • Appraise postmodernism and the contemporary as theoretical approaches.
  • 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 and develop 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.
  • Present and publicly defend their own original research.
  • Situate postmodernist and contemporary art in their broader social, economic and political contexts.
  • Think self-reflexively about theoretical and historical methods in the discipline.

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 independently to produce a high-level discursive presentation.
  • Publicly defend their work.
  • 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, compelling and sophisticated manner (including responding to critique).
  • Produce a clear, sustained and engaging written exposition of a given topic.
  • Manage time effectively to deliver work to a deadline.
  • Improve their performance self-reflexively in light of others' feedback.
  • Use IT resources for research and communication.

Assessment methods

Assessment task Formative or Summative Length Weighting within unit (if relevant)
Plan and indicative bibliography for Essay 1 Formative 750 words 0%
Essay 1 Summative 1500 words 40%
Exam Summative 2.5 hours/2500 words 60%

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:

Drucker, Johanna. Sweet Dreams: Contemporary Art and Complicity. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

Foster, Hal, ed. The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. New York: The New Press, 1998.

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

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London: Verso, 1991.

Osborne, Peter. Anywhere or Not at All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art. London: Verso, 2013.

Smith, Terry. What Is Contemporary Art?. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Smith, Terry, Okwui Enwezor and Nancy Condee, eds. Antinomies of Art and Culture: Modernity, Postmodernity, Contemporaneity. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008.

Wallis, Brian, ed. Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation. New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984.


Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 22
Seminars 11
Independent study hours
Independent study 167

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Luke Skrebowski Unit coordinator

Return to course details