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Art and its global histories

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This module presents a new history of art, starting with the Renaissance when Europeans encountered a new range of desirable objects from across the globe. You'll explore the role of art and architecture in colonial expansion up to 1800, before looking in depth at art and culture in British India. The vital role that art played in the stories that Europeans have told about the wider world is highlighted, with suggestions as to the ways in which these stories might be challenged or revised. The module concludes by analysing the globalisation of artistic practice from the twentieth century to the present day.

What you will study

You may be familiar with Renaissance altarpieces or Dutch still lives, but have you ever noticed that they sometimes include depictions of luxury goods imported from across the world? Did you know that the British architect Edwin Lutyens was responsible for designing the capital of modern India? Why did the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei fill Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall with porcelain sunflower seeds? These are just some of the fascinating questions that are addressed by the rich range of material, shaped by cross-cultural encounters, in the four blocks that comprise this module. As the module progresses, you are expected to develop a degree of independence in learning to the extent that you are able to complete independent analyses using the skills you have learned in the course of your study.

Block 1: European Art and the Wider World c.1350-1550
You'll examine art and visual culture during Europe’s ‘age of exploration’ to discover what happened when art objects moved between different cultures, or were created in a cross-cultural context. Imported objects that appealed to wealthy Europeans (such as Islamic metalware, Chinese porcelain, or African ivories) became prized luxury goods to be imitated, collected, or depicted in paint. In Spain, Islamic, Jewish and Christian cultures created a fusion of architectural styles, such as in the world-renowned Alhambra Palace, shaped from the Red Fortress (Qal'at al-Hamra) built under Muslim rule. Venice was the trading hub that exemplified the meeting of Europe, Byzantium, and the Islamic world in its architecture, luxury commodities and art. 

Block 2: Art, Commerce and Colonialism 1600-1800 
You'll explore art and visual culture of a period in which the major European powers competed with each other for global dominance. The influx of ‘exotic’ goods, above all from Asia, transformed European taste and artistic production, including seventeenth-century Dutch painting, and gave rise to the vogue for ‘Chinoiserie’ in eighteenth-century Britain. Art and architecture were exported across the Atlantic to Latin America, where some of the most spectacular works of the Baroque era were created, as well as to North America, where Thomas Jefferson built his ideal classical villa, Monticello. Local circumstances and cultural traditions helped to shape the transfer of artworks, and artistic models from one context to another. A key theme for this book is the relationship of art and visual culture to slavery and the slave trade.

Block 3: Empire and Art: British India 
This block invites you to explore the role of the visual arts in the British Empire by examining artistic interactions between Britain and India. You'll discover how British painters and photographers responded to India and how the encounter with British art initiated new Indian art traditions that ranged from the vernacular to the rise of modern Indian painting and experiments with photography. And did you know that the principles of Indian design informed the teaching of British artisans and how the droplet-shaped motif on Kashmir shawls became associated with the Scottish town of Paisley? The question of imperial architecture will also feature, and you'll examine the arguments that were made for and against European classicism and the mixed architectural styles of the Indo-Gothic and so-called Indo-Saracenic. 

Block 4: Art after Empire: from Colonialism to Globalisation 
In this final block you'll explore the relationship between art and visual culture in Europe and the ‘wider world’ from the early 20th century through to the contemporary era of globalisation. Artists such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse appropriated non-Western art in ways that would later be deemed to be Eurocentric, whereas in the interwar period, avant-garde artists such as the Surrealists were radically anti-imperialist. The complex interaction between art, politics and post-colonial struggle is explored in the work of Diego Rivera and other Mexican muralist painters, as well as more recent installations, multi-media works and film. You'll study the role of museums, international exhibitions and biennials alongside patterns of artistic migration across continents and the increasing importance of communication technologies under globalisation. 

Supporting learning resources
The module makes use of a number of interactive resources accessed via the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). Both video and audio materials will give you the opportunity to view films shot inside museums or on location in front of monuments. The module will also provide you with the opportunity to engage with programmes from the BBC and the OU archives, as well as exciting new material filmed for the OU as part of the landmark BBC television series Civilisations.

You will use Open Design Studio at several points in your study of the module, enabling you to collaborate with other students by sharing images. Online forums will also help you exchange ideas with your peers as well as the module team.

You will learn

By studying this module, you will:

  • gain knowledge and understanding of diverse cultural contexts in which works of art were produced, consumed and interpreted in Europe and beyond
  • ​gain knowledge and understanding of artistic practice as it has been shaped by cultural exchanges along trade routes and within key geographic centres
  • 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 from a global perspective
  • develop a degree of independence in producing reasoned arguments that engage with the themes and academic debates around the global nature of art.

Entry requirements

This is an OU level 3 module. OU level 3 modules build on study skills and subject knowledge acquired from studies at OU levels 1 and 2. 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.

What's included

You’ll be provided with four 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.

Materials to buy

Set books

  • Newall, D. (ed.) Art and its Global Histories: A Reader Manchester University Press £17.99 - ISBN 9781526119926

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You'll 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 majority of tuition is online, with a full range of options for tutor groups 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 A344 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 global 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 2028.

Course work includes:

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

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