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Art and its critical histories

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This module showcases the possibilities of art history, for exploring many pasts using different perspectives and approaches, and also for thinking about how understanding aspects of the past might inform actions for the future. It offers the tools to choose, analyse and research your choice of artwork for your dissertation. And it offers the opportunity to engage in a sustained period of independent study. You’ll explore how art historians have developed methods and ideas for analysing and explaining aspects of art, and encounter diverse and stimulating case studies putting these ideas into practice. You’ll also develop your writing skills through the theme of writing as a craft, as you work on writing your own academic dissertation or a dissertation plus a public-facing piece of art historical work.

What you will study

This module presents multiple ways of approaching works of art, architecture and design within the discipline of art history. It is not bound by beginnings and ends of chronological divisions; it is about thinking and writing with critical analysis. Art historians whose ideas are still valuable today have been selected because they helped to open up interesting questions about art. How do you identify what art means? Why is art connected to society? How do visual works communicate? Can art explain ideas? You’ll be introduced to some key authors and their works, and shown through case studies how you can apply their ideas and methods to a range of artworks. The case studies have a global scope and delve into prehistory as well as reaching into contemporary art.

Writing as a craft is an important theme across the module, leading up to your dissertation project. Across the three blocks, you will be introduced to useful concepts and methods for recognising and understanding different types of writing, from the academic to writing for the public in different forms. You’ll have chance to apply new ways of writing, including a review and a short exhibition, and you may choose to use writing for a general audience as part of your academic dissertation work. Whichever dissertation option you choose, this project will enable you to develop your skills in working independently.

Block 1 looks at the twentieth-century art historians who changed the way art history is written, making connections from art back to society. These authors are grouped here through their shared interest in analysing artworks as if they could be read, like a text, through decoding visual languages. Ways of interpreting art include reconstructing world views of past societies up to the first challenges about writing inclusive art history from the perspective of class and gender, as understood in feminist thought up to the 1990s.

Block 2 works with art historians who have thought about the importance of understanding different cultures and contexts for art. The key writers introduced here worked in the second half of the twentieth century in societies dealing with the impact of two global wars as well as the challenges of contemporary art practices. Questions arising include how can art effectively acknowledge atrocities; what are the boundaries of art; who can be an artist; and how can art represent all identities?

Block 3 extends the contexts for art from about humans to about humans in relation to the rest of the Earth. Once again, human identities are in focus, expanding the discussion through representations of the body and more recent gender theories; then, seeing humans in relation to the rest of the world, considering if other species make art; how the properties of materials for art call attention back to their own qualities; and finally, whether art history can highlight issues of sustainability, as a challenge for the whole Earth.

You will learn

By studying this module you'll learn about:
  • art history as a whole and its links to related subjects
  • the established concepts, theories and principles of art history
  • the potential uncertainty, ambiguity and limits of art-historical knowledge.

Entry requirements

This is an OU level 3 module, and so you should have a good command of written English and good digital literacy skills for information retrieval. You should be prepared for an increased amount of independent study in preparation for your dissertation research.

If you are studying the BA (Hons) Art History and Visual Cultures (R27), Stage 3 includes Art and its global histories (A344) and, finally this dissertation module.

Preparatory work

This is a dissertation module that's designed as the final stage of a degree. This is why prior study of art history, including an OU level 3 module, is strongly recommended. If you choose to take this module without prior art history study, you will be directed towards additional study materials for Art History on Study Home. The module uses Newall, D. and Pooke, G. (2021) Art History, The Basics. Abingdon: Routledge (Second edition), which is available as an ebook through the OU Library.

What's included

You’ll be provided with a printed module book 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.

Each week you'll study through this module website which supports what you learn in the book by helping you to put into practice your skills of visual analysis, as well as working with texts and thinking through the concepts and questions you have been introduced to. You will find a specially written skills section, drawing out what you need to be able to do for your assessments and building your research skills towards your dissertation project. There are specially filmed discussions with leading art history professionals, as well as panel discussions with the module team authors, drawing out insights and experiences that you can apply to your own work.

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.

Module tutors also run online tutorials throughout the module. Where possible, recordings of online tutorials will 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 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 A336 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 its critical histories 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:

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