ARTH 5417: Twentieth Century Theory and Criticism

3 Credits

Since the 19th century, artists, critics, and historians have deployed philosophical and theoretical ideas to think self-reflexively about the meaning of art. What counts as a work of art and who qualifies as an artist? What is the role of the viewer and how should works of art be interpreted? Are they passive reflections of their historical milieu or do they play an active role in forming cultural values? In the 1920s, the surrealists were reading Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud to answer these questions. Artists of the Harlem Renaissance studied the sociological essays of W.E.B. Dubois and Zora Neale Hurston. Conceptualist artists in the 1960s read books on semiotics; performance artists studied phenomenology reading the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Feminist artists in the 1970s read up on psychoanalysis and feminist philosophy. Following in their footsteps, this is primarily a readings course designed to familiarize students with important theoretical ideas applied to the visual arts of the 20th century. The course focuses on significant trends in that century’s art theory, historical methodology, and criticism. It examines key philosophical ideas of modernism and postmodernism including formalism, semiotics, poststructuralism, feminism, Marxism, psychoanalysis, deconstruction, critical race and queer theory. Because the course is organized chronologically as well as thematically and follows the lives and writings of key figures, it is also intended to help students trace intellectual histories as they develop over the century. In addition, it seeks to foster students’ critical reading skills, discipline-specific writing skills, and to help them consider the historical implications of art theory for the production and reception of works of art today.

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All Instructors

B+ Average (3.333)Most Common: A (25%)

This total also includes data from semesters with unknown instructors.

16 students
  • 4.33


  • 4.69


  • 4.63



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