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Taking your first steps into higher education
Taking your first steps into higher education

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1 What is art?

There would be too much to cover even from the 1980s, so I concentrate on looking at art produced by artists shortlisted for the Turner Prize. The Turner Prize is awarded each year to an artist who has made an outstanding contribution to art in Britain during the previous 12 months. I chose the Turner Prize because I believe that many of the artists nominated for it have important things to say about the times in which we are living. (The complete list of artists shortlisted for the Turner Prize from 1984 to 2012 can be found in the Resource booklet [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]  

The artworks that you will encounter here are visually diverse, ranging from pickled cows and ceramic pots 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. However, taking the time to look beyond the immediate appearance of an artwork to consider what the artist might be trying to say can be immensely rewarding, and can be an outcome of using the HE approaches introduced here. While I cannot predict whether you will like all (or, indeed, any) of the artworks you will encounter this week, I hope that by the end of it you will agree that learning about contemporary art can be extremely thought-provoking. It is also worth pointing out that while I am, for reasons of space, concentrating on art produced since the 1980s, you can apply the techniques you learn here to the study of any artwork, from any period.

Week 2 asked you to consider what might be meant by a term like ‘poetry’. Your study of the visual arts will start in a similar way, asking you to offer a definition for the term ‘art’. To begin with, let us look at two artworks, one from the Renaissance and one from a Turner Prize winner.

Activity 1  Looking at two artworks

Timing: Allow approximately 15 minutes

Look at Plates 1 and 2 (from the Resource booklet), and in your notebook make some notes for each one in response to the following questions. Do not spend more than a minute or two on each question.

  • a.Do you like it?
  • b.How does it make you feel?
  • c.Is it art? Briefly explain the reasons for your answer.

Questions (a) and (c) require a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, with some brief explanation for question (c). For question (b), you could record your immediate feelings about the works represented, using one-word answers (for example, ‘happy’ or ‘confused’) rather than complete sentences.


Your response to each question will depend largely on your taste and background. I am guessing, however, that Damien Hirst’s Mother and Child (Divided) will prompt more people to answer ‘no’ to questions (a) and (c) than will Raphael’s Madonna of the Meadow. The range of answers for the second part of question (c) is likely to be particularly wide. Personally, while I feel that Madonna of the Meadow is quite peaceful and seems to convey a feeling of warmth and tenderness, I find Mother and Child (Divided) to be pretty disturbing and I feel uncomfortable about looking at it closely.

I tested this activity on a colleague and she confessed that Mother and Child (Divided) summed up all her fears about not being able to understand contemporary art. She said, ‘I don’t know whether I’m supposed to like it or not but don’t really like to say so.’

You may already have your own feelings about contemporary art; if you have, the next activity will encourage you to get them down on paper.

Activity 2  Thinking about studying contemporary art

Timing: Allow approximately 15 minutes

Now skim through these three examples of Tracey Emin’s work (from Plates 3, 8 & 9 in the Resource booklet) and then make some notes in response to the following question:

  • What are your feelings about the prospect of studying contemporary art?


Since this activity is about recording your own feelings, once again there is no right or recommended answer. Perhaps you are entirely comfortable about approaching contemporary art. If so, then hopefully this material will introduce some new ways of looking at artworks produced since the 1980s. If you are at all uneasy about studying contemporary art, then hopefully this unit will give you some pointers about how you might approach artworks that seem to offer no easily identifiable meaning at first glance.