Revisiting Modern Art and Modernism

On 29 March 2019, organisers Amy Charlesworth and Veronica Davies were thrilled to welcome over 150 delegates to the conference Revisiting Modern Art and Modernism.  Our stellar line-up included keynote lectures by Professors T.J. Clark and Briony Fer, as well as contributions from many other eminent speakers: this was really special because every single speaker has been associated with our modern art courses in some way over the last 40 years.  What was so stimulating about the day as a whole was that it offered both a celebration and a critical evaluation of what we have achieved in that time, as well as what we are doing now and plan to do in future.  Each session is presented as a separate recording, so you can dip into what interests you at any time.  Enjoy the recordings – and don’t forget the Open Arts Objects Facebook page if you have any comments!

The full programme of recordings can be found at the links below:


‘In conversation’ session on how OU methods and teaching materials spread to the wider world of art history education with Steve Edwards, Gail Day, Joanne Crawford & Barry Venning.


Chair: Amy Charlesworth

Gavin Butt: It’s Not Made by Great Men: Post-Punk and Art History

Wendy Frith: Summer School


Chair: Veronica Davies

Anne Wagner & Nick Levinson: ‘The Complexities of Representing Sculpture (Case study: Rodin)’

Warren Carter: ‘Utilising 21st century media (Case study: Mexican muralists)’


‘In conversation’ session discussing the ways OU scholarship has contributed to developments in this subject area in recent decades with  Emma Barker, Paul Wood and Warren Carter



Many thanks to the audio-visual team at the OU for recording and editing the whole event.

-Veronica Davies

OU study day in Munich

On 23 March around twenty OU students gathered in Munich for a study day and tour of the Alte Pinakothek. Tiffany McKirdy, an AL on AA100 and A105 , and Kathleen Christian, Senior Lecturer in Art History, organised the trip for Europe-based students studying on AA100 and A105. Tiffany had worked with all the participants already in her tutorial groups, while Kathleen provided the connection to Munich, having spent time there with an Alexander von Humboldt fellowship.

The event kicked off on Friday evening with greetings and a few of the beverages Munich is most famous for in the Hofbräukeller (it wasn’t yet the season to sit outside in the beer garden, but we were close!).

Friday night dinner  

On Saturday morning we met at the Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte, an institute in the centre of Munich devoted to research in art history. The director Dr. Ulrich Pfisterer, who had been Kathleen’s host during her Humboldt fellowship, kindly offered us the use of a classroom. Being in the Institute was a special experience, since it has a fascinating history: in 1945 it was used by American forces as a ‘Central Art Collecting Point’, where works stolen during the war were collected, conserved and repatriated (think ‘Monuments Men’). Ever since the 1940s it has been a research institute devoted to art history.

The Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte 

The group in the foyer with its remarkable collection of plaster casts  

In the morning Tiffany led a lively classroom session in which the group were divided into two teams, arguing either for or against the repatriation of the Parthenon Sculptures. Tiffany gave a short introduction, reminding students of their study of Benin in AA100 and looking ahead to the study of philosopher Dr Kwame Anthony Appiah’s cosmopolitanism in Book 4 of A105. Three students had volunteered to be judges, and they also took on the responsibility of making tea and coffee for everyone while the teams devised their speeches. A representative from each team spoke for 5 – 10 minutes and after a brief deliberation by the judges, the winners were announced.

The judges make their decision 

The winners! 

After a trip to the Marienplatz, the city centre of Munich, and some time eating lunch and walking in the gorgeous sunshine, the group headed to the Alte Pinakothek, Munich’s world-famous museum of ‘Old Master’ paintings. Here Kathleen led a tour focused on about twenty of the works, including paintings by Dürer, Titian, Raphael, Leonardo, Van Dyck and Rubens.  We covered a lot of ground in an hour and a half and surveyed several centuries of art history, looking for example at the differences between Early Netherlandish and Italian works, and between painting on panel and painting on canvas.

At the Alte Pinakothek

Among the student favourites were Dürer’s famous Self Portrait, Aldorfer’s Battle of Alexander and Darius at Issus, and Boucher’s very Rococo portrait of Madame de Pompadour. Altdorfer’s large history painting, shown below, is a fascinating depiction of Alexander the Great’s defeat of the Persian King Darius, famous for its bird’s-eye perspective, dramatic landscape and teeming battlegound.

Albrecht Altdorfer, The Battle of Alexander at Issus, 1529 

Overall it was an enjoyable experience for the participants, as is seen in the positive feedback we received:

‘It gave me the feeling I am not just sitting in front of a screen, but that behind all the forums and all the messages and assessment notes there are live people who share the same goal. I felt validated as a student and human being. There was genuine interest in each other and in the subject matter of our course. The feeling of togetherness can’t be conveyed any other way than in person.’

‘The whole experience was wonderful and it has given a new dimension to my course. I feel closer to my tutor and to the other people on my course, and this means a lot to me. I enjoyed everything about the day, and I think the dinner the night before was a great part of it.

‘The hands-on approach to interpreting the paintings was a valuable addition to the course material.’

‘The visit to the museum was awesome […] It’s mind blowing how much you can see in one picture when you take a closer look and someone guides you through it.’

‘ I had a great time just talking to people. Although our ages and origins were vastly different, we could all connect which I thought was really wonderful.’

‘ I really enjoyed meeting [the group] as well as the debate and tour! I think it is wonderful that the OU shows it values its overseas students as much as its U.K ones.’




Revisiting Modern Art and Modernism

2019 marks 50 years since the founding of the OU and the Art History department will be offering a number of events to celebrate.

In March 2019, we’ll be hosting a conference, ‘Revisiting Modern Art & Modernism at the OU.’

Drawing on the OU’s pioneering and world-class research in this field, the courses have helped position the OU as a leader in the development of an innovative and influential curriculum for the understanding of modern art, and has led to the production of publications such as the indispensable anthology Art in Theory. The conference will explore the impact of OU art history courses and broadcast media, critically assessing how they inspired successive generations of OU undergraduate students by involving them directly in current – often closely fought – debates about modern art. This was supported by a tried and tested but evolving model of distance learning, combined with week-long summer schools in major museums and galleries.

Keynote lectures, panels and roundtable discussions with eminent scholars in the field will cover a range of connected topics:

  • the challenge posed to the Modernist paradigm: the relationship of successive courses to what became known as ‘the social history of art’ or ‘the new art history’
  • how students from a broad demographic were encouraged to challenge their own assumptions about art and art history
  • the introduction of new bodies of scholarship into an overall pedagogical model, encompassing, among others, feminist art history, postmodernism, post-colonial studies, semiotics and identity theories
  • the application of key theories to the study of modern modes of art making, such as abstraction, conceptual art, installation art and time-based media
  • the impact of OU teaching materials in the wider field of the discipline

The conference will acknowledge the importance of looking forward as well as back. It will therefore also consider the state of the discipline now, particularly within the changing landscape of Higher Education provision and the urgent need, more than ever, to engage a wider demographic with understanding modern and contemporary art.

To book, please follow the link:

Art History matters to us…

At the OU, we teach our students to scrutinise the visual world around them, whether that’s a painting by Leonardo da Vinci, a ceramic done by an anonymous craftsmen, a local sculpture on the village green, or a building in which they live or work. Art History matters because it is everywhere; it’s the world around us!

The OU’s mission has always been to “be open to peopleplaces, methods and ideas. We promote educational opportunity and social justice … to all who wish to realise their ambitions and fulfil their potential.” Here in the Art History department, we take this mission seriously. This is particularly important in Art history– a discipline that is often seen as elitist and irrelevant for today’s world. We believe that art history is relevant and that as a discipline it will only be enriched by widening participation.

We give access to Art History in a number of ways: from our free open access materials on Open Arts Archive  (including Open Arts Journal and Open Arts Objects) and OpenLearn, and our co-production of BBC television series such as Civilisations, to our range of courses from BA to MA to the PhD.

Why does Art History matter to us?

It teaches us to look critically at the world around us…& to think about the things we do in our everyday lives from the buildings that we live in or work in, to the sculpture on the local village green or the graffiti on our street.

Art History matters because it is everywhere; it’s the world around us!

Watch this short film to learn about how the #arthistory department at the #openuniversity has always been dedicated to democratising the discipline.

Pearson Exam Board to offer new Art History A level exam from 2017

The recent news that the Art History A-Level is to be saved for future generations to study is very welcome for those of us who believe in providing opportunities for a broad historical and culturally sensitive education. Here at The Open University we have lobbied alongside teachers, other HEIs and the Association of Art Historians to raise awareness about the huge deficit in knowledge and creative opportunities that the dismantling of the arts and humanities subjects at school level could bring.

We are delighted that Pearson will now be offering A-Level Art History. Meanwhile we will continue to use our digital platforms ( to disseminate the subject to a wider public and to produce educational material, enabling more state schools to offer the provision.

One of the main ways in which we have been doing this is through our project, Open Arts Objects, a series of video podcasts exploring works of art from the Renaissance to the 21st century. Each podcast is a free resource, presented by a specialist and is accompanied by support material for lesson plans. These have been developed in close collaboration with secondary school teachers.

This is a growing resource and an open network, if you are a teacher or education specialist and would like to be involved or know more about Open Arts Objects please get in touch with us at

Dr Amy Charlesworth and Professor Gill Perry

Save Art History in the A-level curriculum

Statement from the Art Historians at the Open University

As soon as the news reports about removing Art History from the A level curriculum hit twitter, a campaign was started: #whyarthistorymatters. Responses flooded in from key academics in the field such as Craig Clunas (Professor at Oxford), TV personalities such as Simon Schama as well as individuals who had taken the subject at A-level or at university and whose lives had been profoundly changed by Art History. And then Jonathon Jones wrote an opinionated piece in the Guardian describing the discipline as ‘posh’ and ‘elite’. Fortunately, a better informed response was posted on ‘The Conversation’ by Art Historian Professor Griselda Pollock (Leeds University) showing that axing A-level Art History only amplifies class divides.

One of Art History’s many strengths is that it is fundamentally interdisciplinary. Through the study of art you can learn about gender relations, philosophy, anthropology, sociology or economics, not to mention its important relationship with history. At a time when everyone is glued to their smartphones, looking at images on twitter, Instagram or Facebook, the ability to understand, and more importantly, to be able to analyse critically the wealth of images that bombard us seems more pressing than ever.

The AQA say that the decision has nothing to do with the validity of the discipline, but the difficulty, or the ‘risk’, in teaching it. The discipline has long been seen to be an elitist subject, closely tied to access to museums and galleries, but the Open University has sought to change and challenge this perception. It has provided free online courses alongside a wide range of distance learning undergraduate and postgraduate courses available to non-traditional students—from working parents to seniors who never had the chance to study a degree in the past. The Open University is also leading a new initiative helping to teach the subject in schools—by providing shorts films and teaching materials, increasing the accessibility and outreach of the subject. By so-doing we are hoping to increase the facilities and support available to some hard-pressed state schools, and to increase public understanding of the value of art. In a statement released to teachers the AQA explained the reasons behind their decision:

‘The existing specification is challenging to mark and award because of the specialist nature of the topics, the range of options, difficulties in recruiting sufficient, experienced examiners and limited entries. We had hoped that we could reduce or remove these areas of difficulty in developing the new specification, but this has not proved possible.
We are committed to ensuring the safe and secure delivery of all of our qualifications and, after careful consideration, we have concluded that the delivery risks we currently manage for this subject are not sustainable in the longer term. We have therefore taken the decision not to continue with the redevelopment of this qualification.’

The AQA specifies that they have attempted to reduce ‘these areas of difficulty’ but they have not specified how they have. Indeed, the OU’s new initiative to work with teachers and provide the types of training they would need to teach and examine the subject does not seem to have been known to the AQA or taken into consideration in making this decision.

Art History is a discipline that encourages us to ask questions about how we see the world; by studying visual culture through history, we can reflect on our relationship with society. It can offer a window onto the past, while challenging preconceptions about race, gender and power.  Art History, might be a complex subject, but shouldn’t that be the reason to keep it? At the OU we believe we should be seeking to enable and support the widest possible range of students to study, enjoy and think critically about the world around them, rather than removing opportunities to do so. Given the extraordinary bombardment of visual imagery that we experience on a daily basis in the modern digital era, shouldn’t we be equipping more people to look with a critical eye?  Surely, we should seek to provide future generations with new ways of seeing the world?

Pollock argues that the killing off of art history at A-level is a blow against democratisation:

‘A lack of art history will deprive all young people of opportunities for new kinds of knowledge of the world they live in. It will close down the chance to acquire an understanding of the past and of the present through image and object, place and building, powerful patrons and craftspeople and makers. Far from dismissing this subject because at present it is more often taught in independent schools, we need to be insisting on the value of this way of learning about the world through its cultures, its monuments, its legends, its visual story-telling, its creative imaginations — for all young people in all schools.

For many children in state schools, who may not have the advantages of frequent travel or other occasions to encounter not just art but material culture, this may have been their only opportunity to have these doors opened. And other doors – because art history is a portal to a range of work fields, from high-level art marketing to curation and conservation and, of course, museum and gallery education that is aimed a future generations. And let us also remember that the A-level is also a doorway to architecture and design.’

Many of us working in UK universities have been promoting and disseminating the subject precisely because it has so many academic, cultural and career possibilities. We believe, like Pollock that it is a force for democratisation and high quality learning. Hence the importance of the subject in the curriculum at the OU, an institution committed to open access. The support we are now providing teachers suggests it is an important time to offer this subject to the widest possible range of students—not a moment to pull the plug. Give more people, young and old, the chance to study it.

Dr Leah Clark and Professor Gill Perry