Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session
Recitations: 2 sessions / week, 1 hour / session


There are no prerequisites for this course, and no prior knowledge of art history is required.

Course Description

People are sexually aroused by pictures and sculptures; they break pictures and sculptures; they mutilate them, kiss them, or cry before them, and go on journeys to them; they are calmed by them, stirred by them, and incited to revolt. They give thanks by means of them, expect to be elevated by them, and are moved to the highest levels of empathy and fear. They have always responded in these ways; they still do.
—David Freedberg, The Power of Images, 1989

People also pay extraordinary amounts of money for works of art, build museums for them, steal them, and frequently attempt to censor them. This course investigates the power of art in historical perspective. It focuses on Euro-American traditions of art, the social and cultural practices that defined them, and the analytic tools available to help us interpret the diverse meanings and functions of art works in the past and at present. Engaging selected works—from paintings to prints to other kinds of crafted objects—and artistic developments from the fourteenth to the twentieth-first century, we will examine changing conceptions of the artist, the work of art, and the discipline of art history. Our brief is to explore the multiple roles images and objects have played over time, how they functioned in various social, economic and cultural contexts, and whose interests they served or sought to disrupt.

Throughout, we will attend to questions of gender and representation, patronage and politics, the meanings of materials, as well as the impact of new technologies and of historical interactions between Europe, America, and the wider world: How did devotional practices, science, colonialism, and global trade shape Euro-American conceptions of art and artists? How do institutions such as the art market, the art museum and the temporary exhibition define what is and isn’t art? And what does the contemporary reception of art tell us about its—and our—place in our globalizing world?

Course Structure

In addition to lectures, the course includes weekly recitation meetings that are designed specifically for you to discuss readings and images, and to exchange ideas with fellow students. Recitations include visits to local museums.


There is no textbook for this course. If you think one would be helpful to you (which some students do), any recent edition of Hugh Honour and John F. Fleming's The Visual Arts: A History is recommended. Used copies are available at online vendors, or it can be purchased new from Amazon:

Buy at Amazon Hugh Honour and John F. Fleming, The Visual Arts: A History. Laurence King Publishing, 2009. ISBN: 9781780671178.

Additional recommended supplementary sources are:

Readings are assigned for each lecture. All assigned readings are mandatory and will be discussed and debated in class and in recitation meetings. It is your responsibility to complete your assigned readings before your recitation section and to be prepared to discuss the critical perspectives they present.

Course Requirements and Grading Policy

Participation (15%)

Regular attendance at lectures and recitations is required and engagement in class discussion is expected. In calculating your participation grade, your preparedness for discussion and the quality of your contributions will be taken into account, as will your punctuality, your civility and your attendance. Unexcused absences may result in a reduction of your course grade.

Papers (45%)

The course requirements include three double-spaced writing assignments varying in length from c. 4-8 pages depending on the topic (15% each). Please note: Late papers may be penalized. Exceptions will only be made in special circumstances and after consultation with the professor. If you are having trouble, please talk to us before your assignment is due.

Exams (40%)

There will be two exams in this class, a midterm (15%) and a final exam (25%). If you miss an exam for a non-medical reason, you will receive a grade of zero for the test in question. You will not be permitted to retake the exam. If you miss an exam for medical reasons, it is your responsibility to provide written evidence of a serious illness.

Satisfactory completion of all assignments is required in order to pass the course.

Policy on Academic Honesty

Please read the following carefully and be advised that the policy is real.

Plagiarism—the use of another’s intellectual work without acknowledgement—is a serious offense. Students who plagiarize or hand in work completed by another will receive an automatic grade of “F” for the course. You will also be referred to the appropriate Institute committees. If you have any questions about plagiarism or how to cite your sources properly, please consult the section “Avoiding Plagiarism” on the writing and communication center website or your instructor and TAs. We are here to help you.

Policy on Devices

Smartphones may not be used at any time for any reason during class. Students may not use laptop computers or tablets during class without the express permission of the instructor. Permission will be granted only for the purpose of note-taking if other means constitute a burden to an individual student. The instructor reserves the right to withdraw this privilege from individual students if the use of such devices is a distraction.