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Making sense of art history


Unit image

In this unit you'll explore a further arts discipline – art history. But why study art history? Look around you, it's likely that wherever you are you'll be able to see some images – for example, on posters, magazine covers or food packaging. It's also likely that many of these images will be intended to have some sort of effect on you. For example, an image on a cereal packet might be intended to persuade you that eating the product will make you healthy, whereas the images on the front page of a magazine will be chosen to encourage you to read on. While you won't be studying cereal packets and magazine covers in this unit, you will be exploring the power of images via a study of contemporary art from the 1980s onwards.

The Study Diamond

The Study Diamond represents an approach to analysing and interpreting texts such as poems, works of art, pieces of music and works of literature. When used methodically, the Study Diamond provides a reliable and reusable formula for arriving at well-argued conclusions when interpreting a particular work.

There are four points to the Study Diamond:

  • effects
  • techniques
  • context
  • meaning

You will apply the Study Diamond to the analysis of art works as well as developing your study skills. Both the activities and the text in this unit are designed to be worked on while you look closely at the art works.

Plate 1: Turner prize artists

Rachel Whiteread, House, 1993. (© The artist. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photo: Tate Photography.)

Gilbert and George, Life from Death Hope Life Fear, 1984, handcoloured photographs, framed on paper, unique. (© Gilbert and George. Courtesy Tate, London, 2005.)

Jake and Dinos Chapman, CFC76311561.1, 2002, painted bronze, 92 × 58 × 49 cm. (© The artists. Courtesy Jay Jopling/White Cube, London.Photo: Gareth Winters.)

Tracey Emin, My Bed, 1998, mattress, bed, linen, pillows, suitcase, ephemera, 79 × 211 × 234 cm. (© The artist. Courtesy Jay Jopling/White Cube, London.)

Damien Hirst, Mother and Child Divided, 1993, steel, GRP composites, glass, silicone sealants, cow, calf, formaldehyde solution, tanks: 190 × 323 × 109 cm and 103 × 169 × 63 cm. (© The artist. Courtesy Jay Jopling/ White Cube, London.)

Rather than giving a historical overview of art, as might be suggested by the term ‘art history’, we'll concentrate on looking at art produced by artists nominated for the Turner Prize. It's worth pointing out that while we're concentrating on art produced since the 1980s, you can apply the same techniques that you will learn here to the study of any art work, from any period.

The Turner Prize is awarded each year to an artist who has made an outstanding contribution to art in Britain during the previous twelve months. I've chosen to concentrate on the Turner Prize because I believe that many of the art works nominated for it have important things to say about the times in which we are living. The art works that you'll encounter here are visually diverse, ranging from pickled cows to paintings made with elephant dung and glitter. Some are beautiful, some are shocking and many might appear on first sight to be very confusing. I can't predict whether you'll like all (or, indeed any) of them, but I hope that by the end of this free course you'll agree that contemporary art can be extremely thought-provoking. Taking the time to look beyond the immediate appearance of an art work to consider what the artist might be trying to say can be immensely rewarding.

This unit is an adapted extract from Y180 Making sense of the Arts, a course which is no longer taught by The Open University, but which was part of our Openings Programme which has been replaced by our Access modules. This unit gives a good idea of the level of study on these modules.

If you want to study formally with us, you may wish to explore other courses we offer in this subject area [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .

If you are new to Higher Education you may want to consider our Access module Y031 Arts and languages.

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