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Exploring art and visual culture

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What is art and how has it changed through history? How do artists create works of art? If you're interested in the place of the visual in our lives, then this module is for you. You'll look at major artworks from Raphael to Vermeer, the Pre-Raphaelites to Picasso, and at buildings from Westminster Abbey to the houses of Le Corbusier. You'll study the religious imagery and court art of the Medieval period and Renaissance; the growth of modern cities and art rooted in classical traditions; and finally look at changing approaches to art making from Manet and the Impressionists to the global contemporary.

What you will study

The module introduces you to major art works and artists through art and visual culture of the Medieval period and Renaissance; art, sculpture and building in modern cities and the wider world  from 1600-1850; and how the art world has changed from the late nineteenth century to the contemporary period, reflected in the different kinds of art works artists have produced. You'll look at a wide range of visual media, including painting, architecture, sculpture and contemporary art forms, allowing you to develop skills in the analysis of works of art, from portraits to still life, as well as buildings and sculptures. Further, you'll develop an understanding of how art has been defined and its relation to other types of artistic production. You'll study from three lavishly illustrated co-published module books, alongside extensive online material including films of art works in museums and galleries. The module is also supported by a Reader containing a selection of primary and secondary texts by artists, critics and art historians.

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 approaches to 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 modern art world began to appear, with its own institutions and associated ideas about art and artists. You'll explore 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 the significance for artists of global connections.

In the first part you'll look at the period from around 1600 to about 1760, You’ll study how this new art world began to appear in European cities, contrasting the art of Baroque Rome with the taste for landscape and still life in seventeenth-century Holland and looking at the emergence of the modern city with a chapter studying post-Fire London.

The second part focuses on the period from around 1760 to 1850. You'll explore some of the ways in which art contributed to the emergence of a recognisably modern world. from the start of public exhibitions of art, to the revival of classical models in sculpture and the impact on art of new connections across the globe. You’ll also study how the Romantic image of artists came about.

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 on art practice. 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. In order to explore these approaches you will look at examples of photography, design and installation art alongside painting and sculpture.

The first part covers the period from the middle of the nineteenth century to the end of the 1930s. It looks at the relationship between social and industrial modernisation and art making in western Europe and other parts of the globe. You'll focus on the work of Manet and the Impressionists; the visual culture of Victorian Britain, including William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites; and the emergence of Cubism.

The second part considers the period from the 1940s 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

This module will give you the skills for the study of art history including an appreciation and understanding of Renaissance, eighteenth-century and modern art as well as an understanding of how art has been defined. You'll develop your skills in visual analysis, highly valued in the visual world of today, as well as in evaluating written sources related to the making, collecting and definition of art. You'll also further develop your skills in critical reading and written expression, learning how to build arguments using the evidence of visual material and debates about its place in the world of art.

Entry requirements

This is an OU level 2 module and builds on the OU level 1 modules Discovering the arts and humanities (A111) and Cultures (A112). 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

Your study is based on three module books, co-published between the OU and Tate Publishing. These are extensively illustrated with full colour plates and incorporate activities. In addition, there are extensive visual and audio resources, supplied on DVDs. 

You’ll have access to a module website, which includes:

  • a week-by-week study planner
  • electronic versions of the printed module materials
  • an image gallery of works of art
  • online study and assessment guides.

Computing requirements

You’ll need broadband internet access and a desktop or laptop computer with an up-to-date version of Windows (10 or 11), or macOS (11 'Big Sur' or higher).

Any additional software will be provided or is generally freely available.

To join in spoken conversations in tutorials, we recommend a wired headset (headphones/earphones with a built-in microphone).

Our module websites comply with web standards, and any modern browser is suitable for most activities.

Our OU Study mobile app will operate on all current, supported versions of Android and iOS. It’s not available on Kindle.

It’s also possible to access some module materials on a mobile phone, tablet device or Chromebook. However, as you may be asked to install additional software or use certain applications, you’ll also require a desktop or laptop as described above.

Materials to buy

Set books

  • Lymberopoulou, A., Bracewell-Homer, P. & Robinson, J. (eds) Art & Visual Culture: A Reader Tate Publishing £25.00 - ISBN 9781849760485

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You'll have a tutor who will help you with the study materials and who will mark and comment on your written work. Online tutorials may also be offered. While you are not obliged to attend any of these,  you are strongly encouraged to take part.

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 2023 when we expect it to start for the last time.

Course work includes:

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

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