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Themes and issues in contemporary art history

This module prepares you for independent art historical research by introducing you to some of the key issues that are current in art history. You’ll explore the way that art history has been constructed as narrative, with particular reference to Renaissance Italy; recent developments in the social history of art, with particular reference to eighteenth and early nineteenth century British landscape art; and issues of identity, difference and the performative in contemporary art. At the end, you’ll be expected to write a project on a topic related to the themes and issues of the module.


Start End Fee
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No current presentation - see Future availability

This module is expected to start for the last time in February 2014.

What you will study

The main teaching component will consist of three blocks, each of which presents a distinct model of art-historical practice and introduces a specific subject area in the history of art, ranging from the Renaissance to the present. The module concludes with a project which must be related in approach and/or subject matter to at least one of the three blocks. The module is designed to allow you to progress gradually from guided study to independent research.

This module makes considerable use of information communication technology (ICT). Learning how to use, and obtain information from, online bibliographic and full text databases is an essential part of study at postgraduate level. Throughout this module and the MA in Art History as a whole, you will be required to access online databases and other ICT based reference sources, many of which will be made available to you through The Open University Library (Open Library). You will have to access them on a frequent basis to download information to support your studies.

Introduction: This introduces current themes and issues in art history, with particular reference to those covered in the blocks that follow. Recent developments in art history will be related to the broader concerns of postmodern and poststructuralist theory, and the implications of these critical perspectives for the discipline will be opened up for debate.

Block 1 Constructing Renaissance Art as History will consider the ways in which the history of art has been constructed as narrative, with particular reference to Renaissance Europe. The set book for this block, James Elkins’ Stories of Art, is used to explore the continuing influence on the discipline of ideas of continuity, development and progress and to propose alternatives to this model of art history. In order to exemplify the ways that art has been located in history, it will explore the over-arching narratives constructed by Vasari, Hegel and Warburg. Art and artists from Italy and Northern Europe, including Botticelli, Memling and Michelangelo, are used as case studies to explore the ways in which narrative construction has shaped the understanding of Renaissance art.

Block 2  Landscape, Art and Society in Britain c.1750-1850 investigates the aims and methods of the social history of art, with particular reference to recent work on British landscape art of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It explores different models of the social history of art that have emerged since the early 1970s, together with more recent approaches that challenge the primacy of the art object and cast doubt on the possibility of grounding historical interpretation in any fixed social ‘reality’. These models provide a theoretical framework for engaging with developments in British landscape studies since the publication of John Barrell’s ground-breaking book, The Dark Side of the Landscape (1980). Among the artists whose work is considered are Gainsborough, Constable and Turner while general themes addressed include the rise of the public exhibition, landscape gardening, the role of the amateur artist and the construction of national identity.

Block 3 Identity, Difference and the Performative in Contemporary Art will consider contemporary art in the light of recent thinking around the notions of identity and difference. Some of these theories have emerged from within the discipline of art history, others from its interface with other disciplines; examples include the work of Griselda Pollock, Rosalind Krauss, Laura Mulvey, Stuart Hall and Judith Butler. These theoretical positions are analysed and tested in relationship to the art works to which they have been applied. Part 1 examines the ways in which feminist theorists have identified gender difference in photographic representation, including images by some Surrealist artists and to work by the American photographer Cindy Sherman. Part 2 explores some theories of difference and performativity as models for the understanding of contemporary British art, including installation and performance art.

You will learn

By the end of this module you will have a good understanding of the self-reflexive nature of contemporary art-historical practice, a familiarity with significant themes and issues in three subject areas of the discipline, and a grounding in the skills necessary for undertaking an independent research project.

Vocational relevance

This module will be of particular relevance to students who wish to embark on a career in Art History, in academic institutions, museums or art galleries, for instance.


To take this module, you declare the MA in Art History (F33) (or another qualification towards which this module can count) as your qualification intention. You should have an honours degree or equivalent, ideally, but not necessarily, in art history. You need to ensure that your subject knowledge and study skills are adequate for study at this level. You are advised to take Postgraduate foundation module in art history (A840) (now discontinued) before embarking on this module, and if you haven’t studied A840 you should consult the advice on entry requirements on the Faculty website. If you wish to gain the MA in Art History you will need to study A840. If you have any doubt about the suitability of the module, please contact our Student Registration & Enquiry Service.

Preparatory work

You may find it helpful to read the set books before the start of the module.


A841 is a compulsory module in our:

A841 is an optional module in our:

If you leave the programme before obtaining a masters degree and have successfully completed an additional 60 credits from modules specified in the MA in Humanities programme, including at least 30 credits from postgraduate foundation modules, this module will qualify you for a Postgraduate Diploma in Humanities.

Some postgraduate qualifications allow study to be chosen from other subject areas. We advise you to refer to the relevant qualification descriptions for information on the circumstances in which this module can count towards these qualifications because from time to time the structure and requirements may change.


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.

If you have a disability

One of the learning outcomes for this module is for you to develop the ability to exercise powers of visual discrimination by direct engagement with works of art. If you are blind or severely partially sighted you will experience difficulty in achieving this learning outcome. However, if you have a background in art history gained whilst usefully sighted you will be able to draw upon this experience. Reproductions of works of art will be available in electronic format. You will be able to magnify these reproductions within the limits of standard computer applications, but 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. If you are blind or partially sighted you are encouraged to contact our Student Registration & Enquiry Service for advice before registering for this module.

You will need to spend considerable amounts of time using a personal computer and the internet. 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. Alternative formats of the study materials may be available in the future.

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.

Study materials

What's included

Study guide, other printed materials.

The MHRA Style Book

You will need

This module requires regular access to research library, whether a university library or a very large public library.

Computing requirements

You will need a computer with internet access to study this module as it includes online activities, which you can access using a web browser.

  • If you have purchased a new desktop or laptop computer since 2008 you should have no problems completing the online activities.
  • If you’ve got a netbook, tablet or other mobile device check our Technical requirements section.
  • If you use an Apple Mac you will need OS X 10.7 or later.

You can also visit the Technical requirements section for further computing information (including details of the support we provide).

Materials to buy

Set books

  • Perry, G Difference and Excess in Contemporary Art: The Visibility of Women's Practice Blackwell £20.99 - ISBN 9781405112024
  • Barrell, J The Dark Side of the Landscape Cambridge University Press £36.99 - ISBN 9780521276559 This book is Print on Demand, please allow at least 7 weeks for receipt following order
  • Vasari, Giorgio & Bull, George Lives of the Artists Volume I Penguin £9.99 - ISBN 9780140445008
  • Elkins, J Stories of Art Routledge £26.99 - ISBN 9780415939430
  • Harrison, Charles Art in Theory 1900-2000 Blackwell £25.99 - ISBN 9780631227083
  • Nelson, R S & Schiff R (eds) Critical Terms for Art History (2nd edn) Unversity of Chicago Press £20.50 - ISBN 9780226571683
  • Krauss, R Bachelors: Essays on Nine Women 'Bachelors' The MIT Press £14.95 - ISBN 9780262611657

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You will have a tutor who will help you with the study material and mark and comment on your written work, and whom you can ask for advice and guidance. The module will be taught by means of online forums and real time online tutorials. We may be able to offer group tutorials or day schools that you are encouraged, but not obliged, to attend. Where your tutorials are held will depend on the distribution of students taking A841. Contact our Student Registration & Enquiry Service if you want to know more about study with The Open University before you register.


The assessment details can be found in the facts box above. There is a project outline which will be marked but not given a score.

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 final module start in February 2014. 

How to register

We regret that we are currently unable to accept registrations for this course. Where the course is to be presented again in the future, relevant registration information will be displayed on this page as soon as it becomes available.

Distance learning

The Open University is the world's leading provider of flexible, high quality distance learning. Unlike other universities we are not campus based. You will study in a flexible way that works for you whether you're at home, at work or on the move. As an OU student you'll be supported throughout your studies - your tutor or study adviser will guide and advise you, offer detailed feedback on your assignments, and help with any study issues. Tuition might be in face-to-face groups, via online tutorials, or by phone.

For more information about distance learning at the OU read Study explained.

Course facts
About this course:
Course code A841
Credits 60
OU Level Postgraduate
SCQF level 11
FHEQ level 7
Course work includes:
4 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
End-of-module assessment
No residential school

Student Reviews

“This was a challenging course in Art History. I only wish I had fully read and re-read the requirements and...”
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“We are sorry that Mr Everett was disappointed in A841, but find it hard to understand his response to it....”
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“One thing that OU graduate studies teaches you is to question ideas, narratives and assumptions. In this postgraduate module things...”
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“We are very sorry that Mr Proudfoot did not enjoy studying A841. However, the complaints that he makes about the...”
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