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Art and visual cultures in the modern world

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This module introduces you to the art and visual cultures of the modern period from the second half of the eighteenth century up to the present day. There are five blocks, with each centring on a crucial topic that helps to define the distinctiveness of art and visual cultures as they exist in this period. They will include familiar examples, such as the Pre-Raphaelites and Impressionism, as well as more unexpected material, such as taxidermy and satellite imaging. Each block also addresses the local and the global, with material relating to the United Kingdom, its regions and nations, and to more distant contexts and diverse cultures.

What you will study

The five blocks you'll study in this module are:

Block 1 – Art and its Institutions
In the first block, you'll explore the different ways art can be understood, practised and experienced in the modern world. It takes as its starting point the invention of the art museum or public gallery in the mid-eighteenth century, showing how these institutions have helped to define the work of art as a special category of image or object ever since. It examines a range of artistic practices, from painting and sculpture to ceramics and film, and considers the hierarchies and exclusions that determine why some images and objects are singled out for special veneration as art.

Block 2 – Visual Cultures of Modernity
This block explores the transformation of visual cultures brought about by the massive diffusion of non-art images, thanks to a series of new reproductive technologies such as lithography, photography and digital image-making. It will cover an expanded field of images that shape the modern visual environment, including not only fine art but also advertisements, scientific illustration, political satire, as well as family photography. By analysing these images, you'll explore how modernity has been characterised by the mass reproduction of images, transforming not only how images are made but also how they are used and interpreted.

Block 3 – Art in the Modern World
In this block, you'll explore how art has been transformed since the late eighteenth century as artists have sought to engage with different aspects of modern life, from revolution and industrialisation to sexual politics and disability rights. You'll also examine how art historians have explained the stylistic change in art since the eighteenth century. In doing so, there will be an accessible introduction to some important concepts, such as ‘modernism’ and ‘avant-garde’, which are used to make sense of the political implications of artistic innovation.

Block 4 – The Past in the Present
This block explores how the innovations and upheavals of the modern period contributed to a new and growing fascination with the past and how this often tells us more about the values and concerns of the present. This will be done by focusing on a diverse range of artworks, institutions and examples of visual culture from a range of cultural contexts that reflect on the legacies of the past in the present. In addition to foregrounding art and visual cultures, you'll also be introduced to heritage studies, a discipline adjacent to and heavily influenced by art history.

Block 5 – Visions of the Anthropocene
In the final block, you'll explore the contribution that art and visual cultures have made to the growing awareness of a rupture between humans and the natural environment over the course of the modern period using a broad range of materials, from paintings to performance art, taxidermy to urban planning. The block will cover some familiar names, such as William Morris, alongside many lesser-known artists and designers. You'll also be introduced to the concepts of ‘The Anthropocene’ and ‘ecocriticism’ and examine how they relate to analysing art and visual culture.

You will learn

By studying this module, you will:

  • gain knowledge and understanding of the different cultural contexts in which works of art have been produced, consumed and interpreted in the modern world
  • engage critically with works of art, primary texts and secondary sources, drawing appropriate conclusions based on this evidence
  • become familiar with current scholarship and a range of theoretical approaches in relation to studying art history and visual culture in the period in question
  • develop a degree of independence in producing reasoned arguments that engage with the themes and academic debates around the nature of art in the modern world.

Entry requirements

This is an OU level 2 module. OU level 2 modules build on study skills and subject knowledge acquired from studies at OU level 1. They are intended only for students who have recent experience of higher education in a related subject, preferably at the OU.

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

Preparatory work

Once you have registered on this module, you’ll have access to an art history forum and a variety of art history bridging activities that you can complete prior to the module starting. 

What's included

You’ll be provided with five printed module books, and have access to a module website, which includes:

  • a week-by-week study planner
  • module materials
  • audio and video content
  • assessment guide
  • online tutorials and forums 
  • scholarly resources, including journals and electronic books.

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 Ventura 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.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

Throughout your module studies, you’ll get help and support from your assigned module tutor. They’ll help you by:

  • marking your assignments (TMAs) and providing detailed feedback for you to improve.
  • guiding you to additional learning resources.
  • providing individual guidance, whether that’s for general study skills or specific module content.
  • facilitating online discussions between your fellow students in the dedicated module and tutor group forums.

The majority of tuition is online, with a full range of options for tutor group and online tutorials throughout the module. Recordings of these will typically be made available to students. While these tutorials won’t be compulsory for you to complete the module, you’re strongly encouraged to take part. The module also includes visits to major museums and galleries in the U.K. and Ireland (an alternative, online activity is provided for students who are unable to attend in person).

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.

If you have a disability

The OU strives to make all aspects of study accessible to everyone and this Accessibility Statement outlines what studying A236 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

Art and visual cultures in the modern world starts once a year – in October. This page describes the module that will start in October 2024. We expect it to start for the last time in October 2034.

Course work includes:

5 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
End-of-module assessment