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Exploring art and visual culture

What is art and how has it changed through history? What is visual culture? These and many other issues are explored through case studies focused on artworks, buildings and other visual artefacts from 1100 to present day. Topics addressed range from Gothic churches to modern design, Renaissance altarpieces to Dutch seventeenth-century painting, eighteenth-century landscape parks to recent installations and videos. You will also gain an understanding of the art-historical debates that have shaped approaches to this exciting subject. The module is taught using lavishly illustrated module books, alongside extensive audio, video and interactive material.

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Module code
Study level
2 8 5
Study method
Distance Learning
Module cost
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Entry requirements
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What you will study

The module is organised chronologically, beginning around 1100 and extending over the period up to the present day. This long time span is broken down into three sections, each of which corresponds to one of the module books:

  • the first covers the period from around 1100 to about 1600
  • the second looks at the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries
  • the final one examines the period from the middle of the nineteenth century to the present.

Each of the books is arranged in two parts, which deal with prominent themes in the study of art and visual culture during the period in question. These books are supported by a variety of online materials, audio and video resources, and a module reader containing important primary and secondary sources.

Beginning with the early medieval period, the module starts in a time before the category of art existed in the way we understand it today. At this point there was no clear line between artworks and other forms of visual culture. Rather, images were produced for use, usually in religious rituals. The module sets out from these images before ‘art’ to explore defining moments in the emergence of a modern art world, in which art and visual culture are distinct categories. This involves consideration of the Renaissance, the emergence of institutions of art in the eighteenth century, and modern ideas of ‘autonomy’ in art. At each point the module reflects on the shifting definitions and practices of art and visual culture. In the process, we hope to illuminate modern categories and how they came into being.

Book One focuses on the visual culture of the medieval period and the Renaissance. Rather than attempting a survey of art from around 1100 to roughly 1600, this long period is explored through carefully selected topics and themes. It asks fundamental questions such as: what do sacred representations signify? How might the study of architecture be approached? When did the idea of art develop and what should we make of images in an era before this category came into use? How did the consumption and uses of art change through time? Engaging with these questions, you will consider judgements about art and visual culture in a society very different from our own. The first part concentrates on the visual culture of medieval Christendom, exploring not only what we now think of as the ‘high arts’ of painting, sculpture and architecture, but also the wider visual representations that played a significant role in the cultures of the time. Material covered includes: the relation between the visual arts and religious culture; art and architecture of Great Churches, with a case study of Westminster Abbey; the work of the prominent Italian painter Simone Martini; and the distinctive visual culture that developed in the ‘Holy Land’ during the Crusades. The second part looks at art and other visual artefacts that were important in the period broadly designated ‘the Renaissance’, from approximately 1400 to 1600. The Renaissance is traditionally seen as one of the high points of European culture and important themes from this cultural moment are considered. Material investigated includes the art of aristocratic Courts; Sandro Botticelli’s memorable paintings; the role of gender in patronage; and the travels of El Greco.

Book Two investigates the art and visual culture of the period from roughly 1600 to 1850. This was the period in which a distinctly modern art world began to appear, with its own institutions and associated ideas about art and artists. The book assesses the significance and value of the labels traditionally used to define the art of this period, notably Baroque, Neo-classical and Romantic. In addition, it explores the ways in which art and visual culture were shaped by the ruling elites of different European countries, as well as considering the impact of socio-economic change and growing engagement with the world beyond Europe. The first part addresses the period from around 1600 to about 1760. Rather than attempting a broad survey of artistic developments, this part of the book highlights the way in which the relationship between the country and the city helped to shape different cultures of visual representation in different national contexts. Material covered includes: the embodiment of religious power in the restructuring of Rome by Bernini; seventeenth-century Dutch painting and the thorny problem of realism; the development of urban London; and the new culture of British landscape parks. The second part is concerned with the period from around 1760 to 1850. It explores some of the ways in which art and other visual forms responded to changing societies and contributed to the emergence of a recognisably modern world. It covers: the emergence of public exhibitions in Britain and France and the codification of genres and types of art; the representation of the body in Canova’s sculpture; the meeting of western travellers with Pacific islanders, as reflected in images; and the emergence of the Romantic ‘genius’.

Book Three examines the history of art and visual culture from roughly 1850 to the present day. It considers the development of modern art in Europe and North America and the impact made by an increasingly globalised art world. The book provides a good guide to changing ideas and forms of art that will be unfamiliar to some. Some artists in this period responded to the commercialisation of society by trying to demarcate art from visual culture, while others immersed themselves in popular imagery. Focusing on a series of key points, the book tracks these transformations. As well as considering painting and sculpture, it contains material on photography, print culture, architecture, design, installation and video. The first part covers the period from the middle of the nineteenth century to the end of the 1930s. It investigates the relationship between the processes of social and industrial modernisation that took place in western Europe and its colonies and the emergence of a variety of self-consciously ‘modern’ art forms. Material studied includes: Manet and the Impressionists; visual culture in nineteenth-century Britain, including William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites; Cubism and Abstract art; and modern Architecture. The second part considers the period from the 1940s up to the present day, including the consolidation and dominance of modernism in the New York art world and the subsequent opening up of a globalised art market. It includes material on: figurative painting and sculpture; Abstract Expressionism and Conceptual art; installations and site specific art; and artistic responses to the recent economic and political conditions of globalisation.

Associated Residential School Module

You may also be interested in The art history residential school (AXR272). This module develops the Open University art history curriculum, providing a balanced mix of classroom-based learning and first-hand experience of artworks. A key strength of the residential school is the emphasis on looking at actual works of art; and the excellent opportunity to take part in guided visits to prominent London galleries and museums: the National Gallery; Tate Modern; and the British Museum.

The module covers topics ranging from the art of the Renaissance to contemporary art and ‘non-western’ art and artefacts. The themes of the residential school complement and support existing art history modules without repeating their content.

You will learn

You will gain a grounding in Renaissance, eighteenth-century and modern art. However, you will also be introduced to the art of other periods and places. Further, you will develop an understanding of how art has been defined and its relation to other types of visual culture. The module provides an insight into the diversity of art history’s subjects and approaches and looks at a wide range of media, including painting, prints, photography, installation, architecture, sculpture and landscape. This broad introduction to art and visual culture ensures that you can make the transition to the two OU level 3 modules, Renaissance art reconsidered (AA315) and Art of the twentieth century (AA318).

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You will have a tutor who will help you with the study material and who will mark and comment on your written work. Your tutor will use a blend of methods that will include face-to-face tutorials, some online tutorials and moderated online discussion forums. This blend of methods is designed to help you benefit from tuition whatever your circumstances.

Contact us if you want to know more about study with The Open University before you register.


The assessment details for this module can be found in the facts box above.

You will be expected to submit your tutor-marked assignments (TMAs) online through the eTMA system unless there are some difficulties which prevent you from doing so. In these circumstances, you must negotiate with your tutor to get their agreement to submit your assignment on paper.

Future availability

The details given here are for the module that starts in October 2015. We expect it to be available once a year.


As a student of The Open University, you should be aware of the content of the Module Regulations and the Student Regulations which are available on our Essential documents website.

Course work includes:

6 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
2 Interactive computer-marked assignments (iCMAs)
No residential school

Course satisfaction survey

See the satisfaction survey results for this course.


This is an OU level 2 module and builds on the OU level 1 modules The arts past and present (AA100), Voices, texts and material culture (A105). These OU level 1 modules develop skills such as logical thinking, clear expression, essay writing and the ability to select and interpret relevant materials. They also offer an introduction to the range of subjects in the arts and humanities.

Your regional or national centre will be able to tell you where you can see reference copies of the OU level 1 study materials, or you can buy selected materials from Open University Worldwide Ltd.

If you have any doubt about the suitability of the module, please speak to an adviser.

Preparatory work

No preparatory work is necessary but, if you would like to do some reading in advance, you might like to look at A World History of Art by Hugh Honour and John Fleming (Laurence King Publishing). Despite its formidable size, this is a very accessible book, and you will find reading some of it provides interesting background for the module. The book is relevant from Part 3 onwards.


Start End England fee Register
03 Oct 2015 Jun 2016 £2700.00

Registration closes 10/09/15 (places subject to availability)


You may need to apply for some payment or funding options earlier. Please check the Fees and Funding information or contact us for information.

This module is expected to start for the last time in October 2023.

Additional Costs

Study costs

There may be extra costs on top of the tuition fee, such as a laptop, travel to tutorials, set books and internet access.

If you're on a low income you might be eligible for help with some of these costs after you register.

Ways to pay for this module

Open University Student Budget Account

The Open University Student Budget Accounts Ltd (OUSBA) offers a convenient 'pay as you go' option to pay your OU fees, which is a secure, quick and easy way to pay. Please note that The Open University works exclusively with OUSBA and is not able to offer you credit facilities from any other provider. All credit is subject to status and proof that you can afford the repayments.

You pay the OU through OUSBA in one of the following ways:

  • Register now, pay later – OUSBA pays your module fee direct to the OU. You then repay OUSBA interest-free and in full just before your module starts. 0% APR representative. This option could give you the extra time you may need to secure the funding to repay OUSBA.
  • Pay by instalments – OUSBA calculates your monthly fee and number of instalments based on the cost of the module you are studying. APR 5.1% representative.

Read more about Open University Student Budget Accounts (OUSBA).  

Employer sponsorship

Studying with The Open University can boost your employability. OU qualifications are recognised and respected by employers for their excellence and the commitment they take to achieve one. They also value the skills that students learn and can apply in the workplace.

More than one in ten OU students are sponsored by their employer, and over 30,000 employers have used the OU to develop staff so far. If the qualification you’ve chosen is geared towards your job or developing your career, you could approach your employer to see if they will sponsor you by paying some or all of the fees. 

  • Your employer just needs to complete a simple form to confirm how much they will be paying and we will invoice them.
  • You won’t need to get your employer to complete the form until after you’ve chosen your modules.  

Credit/debit card

You can pay part or all of your tuition fees upfront with a debit or credit card when you register for each module. 

We accept American Express, Maestro (UK only), Mastercard, Visa/Delta and Visa Electron. 

Mixed payments

We know that sometimes you may want to combine payment options. For example, you may wish to pay part of your tuition fee with a debit card and pay the remainder in instalments through an Open University Student Budget Account (OUSBA).

For more information about combining payment options, speak to an adviser or book a call back at a time that is convenient to you.

Please note: your permanent address/domicile will affect your fee status and therefore the fees you are charged and any financial support available to you. The fees and funding information provided here is valid for modules starting before 31 July 2016. Fees normally increase annually in line with inflation and the University's strategic approach to fees. 

This information was provided on 02/08/2015.

What's included

Three module books, three DVDs and a website containing a study calendar, online study guide with exercises and interactive materials, image gallery, audio recordings, video material and electronic versions of all the printed study materials.

Computing requirements

You will need a computer with internet access to study this module as the study materials and activities are accessible via a web browser. Any other computer-based activities you will need to carry out, such as word processing, using spreadsheets, taking part in online forums, and submitting files to the university for assessment, are specified in the module materials. If any additional software is needed for these tasks it will either be provided or is freely available.

We recommend either of the following:

  • Windows desktop or laptop computer running Windows 7 or later operating system
  • Macintosh desktop or laptop computer running OS X 10.7 or later operating system.

A netbook, tablet, smartphone or Linux computer that supports one of the browsers listed below may be suitable. The screen size should be at least 1024 (H) x 768 (W) pixels. If you intend to use one of these devices please ensure you have access to a suitable desktop or laptop computer in case you are unable to carry out all the module activities on your mobile device.

We recommend a minimum 1 Mbps internet connection and any of the following browsers:

  • Internet Explorer 9 and above
  • Apple Safari 7 and above
  • Google Chrome 31 and above
  • Mozilla Firefox 31 and above.

Note: using the latest version for your browser will maximise security when accessing the internet. Using company or library computers may prevent you accessing some internet materials or installing additional software.

See our Skills for OU study website for further information about computing skills for study and educational deals for buying Microsoft Office software.

Materials to buy

Set books

  • Lymberopolou, A., Bracewell-Homer, P. & Robinson, J. (eds) Art & Visual Culture: A Reader Tate Publishing £18.99 - ISBN 9781849760485

If you have a disability

Written transcripts of any audio-visual components and Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF) versions of printed material are available. Some Adobe PDF components may not be available or fully accessible using a screen reader. Other alternative formats of the study materials may be available in the future.

One of the aims of the module is to enable you to make critical comparisons between the works of art and texts related to them. One of the learning outcomes for this module is for students to develop their ability to exercise powers of visual discrimination by direct engagement with works of art. Blind and severely partially-sighted students will experience difficulty in achieving this learning outcome. However, students who have a background in art history gained whilst usefully sighted will be able to draw upon this experience. No textual descriptions or alternative formats of reproductions will be available and the use of a sighted assistant to interpret the works of art would conflict with the required learning outcome. Blind and partially-sighted students are encouraged to contact us for advice before registering for this module.

If you have particular study requirements please tell us as soon as possible, as some of our support services may take several weeks to arrange. Find out more about our services for disabled students.