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7AAICC12 Visual Culture

Module convenor: Professor Richard Howells
Credits: 20
Teaching pattern: Ten one-hour lectures and ten one-hour seminars
Module description:

This module provides strategies for the analysis of visual culture in an increasingly visual world. It demonstrates how meaning is communicated in a variety of visual media while also discussing ways in which those meanings – both deliberate and unintentional – can be unlocked by an informed reading of the visual text. As such, it expands upon both the media and methodologies encompassed by traditional art history. The module is divided into two equal parts: the first is theory based (but uses copious examples), while the second is medium based (but continues to be informed by theory). Both parts are united by a running concern with the relationship between visual representation and reality. Please note: This is a traditionally popular module, but that does not mean that it is also an easy one. Students do fail this module: The material can be conceptually difficult and therefore high standards of reading and writing in English are strongly recommended. Most importantly, the attractiveness of the subject matter should not be confused with the academic rigour necessary for its scholarly analysis.

Draft teaching syllabus

Week 1: Content, iconography and Erwin Panofsky
Week 2: Form, meaning and Roger Fry
Week 3: Traditional art history and Ernst Gombrich
Week 4: Sociology, ideology and John Berger
Week 5: Signs, semiotics and Roland Barthes
Week 6: Fine art and illusion
Week 7: Photography and the ontology of the image
Week 8: Film, time and space
Week 9: Television and social realism
Week 10: New media and the message

Learning outcomes

After completing the module, students are expected to be able to:

  • critically examine a wide variety of visual texts and articulate both what they mean and how such meaning is communicated;
  • demonstrate a solid knowledge of the major theories and theorists covered and their comparative usefulness in the analysis of visual culture;
  • show that they have understood the varying relationships to reality exhibited by fine art, photography, film, television and new media;
  • understand the key concepts discussed including the relevance of conscious intent in the meaning of a visual text;
  • develop a critical awareness of the importance of visual culture in society;
  • apply the approaches and methodologies discussed to visual texts of their own choosing by and for themselves.

Core reading

  • Barthes, R. (1993), Mythologies, translated by Annette Lavers, Vintage, London. 
  • Berger, J. (1990), Ways of Seeing, Penguin, Harmondsworth.
  • Fiske, J. and Hartley J. (2003), Reading Television, second edition, Routledge, London.
  • Fry, R. (1998), Vision and Design, Dover Publications, New York.
  • Gombrich, E. (1995), The Story of Art, 16th edition, Phaidon, London.
  • Gombrich, E. (2004), Art and Illusion, sixth edition, Phaidon, London.
  • Goodwin, A. (1992), Dancing in the Distraction Factory, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
  • Howells, R. and Negreiros, J. (2012), Visual Culture, third edition, Polity Press, Cambridge.
  • Monaco, J. (2000), How to Read a Film, Oxford University Press, New York.
  • Panofsky, E. (1972), Studies in Iconology, Westview Press, New York.
  • Sontag, S. (2002), On Photography, Penguin, Harmondsworth


1 x 4,000 word essay (100%)

Students are reassessed in the failed elements of assessment and by the same methods as the first attempt.

 The modules run in each academic year are subject to change in line with staff availability and student demand so there is no guarantee every module will run. Module descriptions and information may vary depending between years.

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