Concepts in Contemporary Art


The 30pt paper will be taught over one semester in semester 1 only.

Concepts are not just things in our heads they are things we can explore immersed in the world around us. When we make art or interpret it we explore concepts with our eyes and bodies, and with materials, techniques and rhythms. Art does not merely represent thought it helps to expand its definition.

Artworks can produce cognitive dissonance; this suggests art isn’t just there to make us feel happy and content. It also presents us with cognitive and perceptual problems (or "problem spaces") that help us to become aware of implicit attitudes and values acquired through childhood, cultural and institutional learning and through the daily consumption of images in mass media and digital culture. 

In our seminars we try to unpick some of the dualisms by which we acquire implicit assumptions about the world. Some of the main traditional dualisms are:

  • Mind/Matter
  • Body/Mind
  • Subject/Object
  • Masculine/Feminine
  • Political/Personal
  • Form/Matter
  • Culture/Nature

Art’s problem spaces help us to think about how these dualisms might be challenged, destabilised or questioned. It is important that these problem spaces can be shared between viewers and gallery visitors, artists, critics and students in this seminar. Problem spaces are good things. Viewers of art often feel they need to solve the "puzzle" of art, to find meaning; this may be pleasurable and provides motivation and purpose. But there are also opportunities to be open minded about different possible answers. This exercises our creative thought. While art presents problem spaces it does not impose an answer or solution to a problem.

Art also has a close relationship with non-rational thought, subconscious complexities, imagination, emotions, affects and sensations — all of which influence our concepts and how we might combine them. These "felt" and very much embodied aspects to the art experience are addressed and often structured by artistic practice. This may also have political and ethical dimensions, both in terms of freedom of movement and freedom of thought.

It could be said that art is a vision of life as it might be. It may present us with some interesting challenges and counterfactuals concerning this vision. It often helps to produce aspects of spontaneity or improvisation rather than premeditated rules. 

As the French artist Jean Dubuffet said:

"[…] the only flowers I like are wild flowers. Orderly gardens make me nervous…I feel a sharp curiosity for everything that does not emanate from man, in which man has not intervened…wild places, wild animals…and for my interest in worlds very different from that of man…As for human beings, it is also their wildness that I am fond of…I am not a great believer in the laws concerning the nature of art. As soon as such a law is proclaimed I immediately experience an intense desire to infringe it."

Artworks can help to produce feelings of being "in the moment", providing immersive qualities that work against the formulae of visual culture and the dogmas of cultural institutions. Sometimes it emerges at its highest reaches when rational procedures and measurements have been exhausted.


On this course, students will:

  • Acquire an in-depth knowledge of contemporary art in a global context
  • Acquire high-level research skills involved in image analysis and literature reviews
  • Gain a deeper understanding of concepts and technical terms current in curatorial practice, art writing, journalism and art criticism; they will learn how to apply these concepts to their own writing and visual analysis
  • Learn how to present and sustain cogent arguments and complex analysis with visuals
  • Become familiar with techniques that support critical thought and divergent thinking in problem-solving
  • The course facilitates novel solutions through negotiation and teambuilding: key aspects of leadership and intellectual development.

Outside of contemporary art, the course teaches students to situate artistic practice and images in social, cultural, political and psychological contexts.



Availability 2022

Not taught in 2022


Coordinator(s) Dr Gregory Minissale


ARTHIST 725A: 15 points

ARTHIST 725B: 15 points