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Exploring art and visual culture

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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 London 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.

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. Each book deals 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 - 1100 to 1600​
This focuses on the visual culture of the medieval period and the renaissance exploring 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'll consider judgments 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. You'll cover: 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; the role of gender in patronage; and the travels of El Greco.

Book Two - 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, highlighting 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; and the development of urban London in the eighteenth century. 

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 - 1850 to present
You'll consider 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: Abstract Expressionism and Conceptual art; installations and site specific art; and artistic responses to the recent economic and political conditions of globalisation.

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. 

Entry requirements

This is an OU level 2 module and builds on the OU level 1 modules Discovering the arts and humanities (A111), or The arts past and present (AA100) (now discontinued), and 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.

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.

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

A computing device with a browser and broadband internet access is required for this module. Any modern browser will be suitable for most computer activities. Functionality may be limited on mobile devices.

Any additional software will be provided, or is generally freely available. However, some activities may have more specific requirements. For this reason, you will need to be able to install and run additional software on a device that meets the requirements below.

A desktop or laptop computer with either:

  • Windows 7 or higher
  • Mac OS X 10.7 or higher

The screen of the device must have a resolution of at least 1024 pixels horizontally and 768 pixels vertically.

To join in the spoken conversation in our online rooms we recommend a headset (headphones or earphones with an integrated microphone).

Our Skills for OU study website has further information including computing skills for study, computer security, acquiring a computer and Microsoft software offers for students.

Materials to buy

Set books

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

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.

If you have a disability

The OU strives to make all aspects of study accessible to everyone and this Accessibility Statement outlines what studying A226 involves. You should use this information to inform your study preparations and any discussions with us about how we can meet your needs.

Future availability

Exploring art and visual culture starts once a year – in October. This page describes the module that will start in October 2019. We expect it to start for the last time in October 2023.

Course work includes:

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

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