The Cultural Disconnect of “Contemporary Art” - How Did We Get Here?

Many would argue that the visual arts have lost an integral sense of a definitive social function or cultural role within society. This class will seek to analyse this via an historical trajectory from the early-modern period until the present. Drawing upon a range of disciplines including art criticism, aesthetics, philosophy and a direct analysis of visual culture, we will aim to look critically at the current state of the arts through the broader lens of history.


  • This class will be delivered online via the online platform Zoom.
  • This course requires students to have an email, a reliable internet connection, a microphone/speakers and access to a tablet, smartphone or computer.


  • Leon Battista Alberti, On Painting, ed., Martin Kemp (Penguin, 1991).
  • Charles Batteaux, The Fine Arts Reduced to a Single Principle, trans., James O. Young (Oxford University Press, 2015).
  • Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art (Dover Publications, 2011).
  • Alex Danchev, 100 Artists' Manifestos: From the Futurists to the Stuckists (Pengiun, 2011).
  • Alex Danchev, Cezanne: A Life (Pantheon, 2012).
  • Terence Maloon, Paths to Abstraction 1867-1917 (Art Gallery NSW, 2010).
  • Denis Diderot, Diderot On Art 1 The Salon of 1705 and notes on Painting v. 1 and Diderot on Art, Volume II: The Salon of 1767: Salon of 1767 v. 2, trans., John Goodman (Yale University Press, 2009).
  • Dolce’s ‘Aretino’ and Venetian Art Theory of the Cinquecento, trans., Mark Roskill, (University of Toronto Press, 2000).
  • William Morris, News from Nowhere, ed., David Leopold (Oxford University Press, 2003).
  • Thomas Puttfarken, Roger de Piles' Theory of Art (Yale University Press, 1985).
  • Thomas Puttfarken, The Discovery of Pictorial Composition: Theories of Visual Order in Painting, 1400-1800 (Yale Univeristy Press, 2000).
  • Hans Richter, Dada: Art and Anti-Art (Thames and Hudson, 2016).
  • John Ruskin, Modern Painters, edited and abridged by John Barrie (Pilkington Press, 2005).
  • David Wakefield, The French Romantics: Literature and the Visual Arts 1800-1840 (Chaucer Press, 2007).
  • Tom Wolfe, The Painted Word (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975).


  • The visual arts: premodern and modern - We will seek to examine how the visual arts functioned as an integral part of culture, at the religious, civic and societal level, prior to modernity. We will then look at how the seventeenth century French art critic Roger de Piles' theories of art clearly defined an intellectual break with this earlier integrated conception of visual culture.
  • Positivism versus Existentialism: the divergent ideas about existence and knowledge which occurred in the nineteenth century and its effect on the visual arts - Postmodernist philosophy is often mistakenly perceived as the philosophical linchpin for the often-noted cultural opacity of the visual arts today. We will discover that it was rather the emergence of the philosophy of existentialism in the nineteenth century that solidified a view of the arts that was distinctively related to a self-referential and intrinsically personal inner world of both the artist and the viewer. This will be seen in contrast with an earlier outwardly looking cultural /civic aim for visual culture.
  • Dadaism and Neo-Dadaism - In the early 1960s Barbara Rose first coined the term Neo-Dadaism to describe the emergence of what is often more commonly termed conceptual art. Rose used the term to acknowledge the appropriation of the anarchism of the post-World War One European Dada movement by the New York art scene of the late 1950s and 60s. It will be argued that while installation, performance, video and digital art are often treated as evolutionary variations, they can be perceived as conceptually derivative under the umbrella term of Neo-Dadaism. Furthermore, it will be contended that Neo-Dadaism is a more apt description than the label “contemporary art”. Relativising the current art world, rather than asserting an unquestionable finality, via the authoritative use of the word "contemporary."
  • Historical grounds for a constructive criticism of the arts - The visual arts today often escape broad rigorous critical analysis in both popular art criticism and the discipline of art history. It will be seen that the reasons for this are linked to the way the visual arts (like economics) still maintain a covert progress-driven view of their existence. In other words, to offer an overarching criticism of the visual arts today is to be automatically labelled, by inference, a “reactionary.” Notions of progress first emerged in the social theories of the early-nineteenth century, amongst thinkers such as George Freideric Hegel, Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer. While beliefs in forms of progress have become redundant in all other disciplines (e.g. science and history). In contrast to this current professional reticence against a broad critique of the arts, we will conclude by looking at what constructive lessons can be learned from two historical examples of art criticism. Ludovico Dolce’s, dialogue on the visual arts, spoke critically of the perceived cultural opacity of the prevailing Mannerist art of mid-sixteenth century Italy. While Denis Diderot’s art criticism of the bi-annual French Salon sought to critically articulate a perceived superficiality in the French Rococo Style of the eighteenth century. The direct aim of our analysis will not be to pass judgement on the views of either critic but rather to observe how overarching aesthetic criticism functioned as an essential aspect of a healthy and lively visual culture.

By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  1. Have gained a broad macro-historical picture of the evolution of the visual arts from the early-modern period until now.
  2. Look critically at the current art world through the broader lens of art history.
  3. Gain an understanding of how the visual arts are related and interconnected with other disciplines and cultural forces, such as philosophy and aesthetics.
$65 Limited

<p>Many would argue that the visual arts have lost an integral sense of a definitive social function or cultural role within society. This class will seek to analyse this via an historical trajectory

03 Jun

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