Module Details

AR936-7-SP-CO: Art, Politics And Ethics: Contemporary Art And Social Responsibility

Note: This module is inactive. Visit the Module Directory to view modules and variants offered during the current academic year.

Year: 2017/18
Department: Art History and Theory
Essex credit: 20
ECTS credit: 10
Available to Study Abroad / Exchange Students: Yes
Full Year Module Available to Study Abroad / Exchange Students for a Single Term: No
Outside Option: No

Teaching Staff: Dr Matthew Bowman
Contact details: Wendy Williams, Graduate Administrator, email:

Module is taught during the following terms
Autumn Spring Summer

Module Description

Module Outline (Updated August 2013)

Since the emergence of the avant-garde in the early twentieth century, art practice has been faced with contradictory positions in relation to politics. At the most extreme ends of the spectrum, formalist modernism sought an autonomy from politics in order to forestall being ideologically instrumentalized by specific class interests, while politicized artistic strategies contested such autonomy lest art should fall into social irrelevancy and fail to recognize its actual dependency upon the social field. But these polarized options miss the complex, nuanced, and contingent relationships conjoining art and politics that exist between the two ends of the spectrum. This module, then, aims to examine the spaces in between the two opposed positions as well the extremes. What this module proposes is required is an analysis that is theoretical, historical, site-specific, and self-reflexive. While the art movements designated by Peter Bürger as the "historical" avant-garde remain an important backdrop, the core focus of study in this module is mostly the period from after World War Two to the present and its main geographical locus would be Europe and North America. This period, for example, features the new hegemony of the USA, the reconstruction of Europe, the division of Germany, the acceleration of consumer culture, the rise of civil rights and student movements, and the shift from industrial to post-Fordist models of labour.

Utilizing important theoretical texts alongside specific case studies ranging from the 1960s to the present, this module examines how these factors and others serves as contexts not only for new models of artistic practice, but also encourage and even necessitate new forms of political engagement, thereby establishing diverse alternative conjunctions between art and politics as well as new methods for mapping the social and collective engagement.

Learning Outcomes:

an understanding of key practices and theories in contemporary art;
knowledge of key artists and works from Minimalism to recent performance and video art.

By the end of the module, students should also have acquired a set of transferable skills, and in particular be able to:

define the task in which they are engaged and exclude what is irrelevant to it;
locate and organise the most relevant sources of information;
engage with diverse and sometimes conflicting arguments;
compare and evaluate different arguments and assess the limitations of their own position or procedure;
write and present verbally a succinct and precise account of their own arguments and those of others, and their presuppositions and implications;
be sensitive to the positions of others and communicate their own views in ways that are accessible to them;
think critically and constructively.

Learning and Teaching Methods

One two hour seminar each week for ten weeks.


100 per cent Coursework Mark


One essay of 4-5000 words


  • Extended Bibliography (updated August 2013)
  • Please note that this extended bibliography is in addition to the further readings indicated on the reading lists.
  • Aranda, Julieta, et al (eds.), Are You Working too Much? Post-Fordism, Precarity, and the Labour of Art (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2011).
  • Arrighi, Giovani, The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and the Origins of our Times (London: Verso Books, 2010 [1994]).
  • Berardi, Franco 'Bifo', The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy, trans. Jason Smith (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009 (2007)).
  • Bernstein, J. M., The Fate of Art: Aesthetic Alienation from Kant to Heidegger, Derrida and Adorno (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992).
  • Betts, Paul, Within Walls: Private Life in the German Democratic Republic (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
  • Bryan-Wilson, Julia, Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).
  • Buchloh, Benjamin H. D., Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry: Essays on European and American Art From 1955 to 1975 (Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: MIT Press, 2000).
  • Diederichsen, Diedrich, On (Surplus) Value in Art (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2010).
  • Hanshew, Karin, Terror and Democracy in West Germany (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012)
  • Jackson, Shannon, Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics (London and New York: Routledge, 2011).
  • Jameson, Fredric, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (London and New York: Verso, 1991).
  • Judt, Tony, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (London: Vintage, 2010 [2005]).
  • Harvey, David, The Enigma of Capital and the Crisis of Capitalism (London: Profile, 2011 [2010]).
  • Kester, Grant H., The One and the Many: Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011).
  • Kwon, Miwon, One Place After Another: Site-Specificity and Locational Identity (Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: MIT Press, 2002).
  • Möntmann, Nina (ed.), Art and its Institutions: Current Conflicts, Critique and Collaborations (London: Black Dog, 2006).
  • Mouffe, Chantal, The Return of the Political (London: Verso Books, 2005 [1993]).
  • Nancy, Jean-Luc, The Inoperative Community, trans, Peter Connor, Lisa Garbus, Michael Holland, and Simona Sawhney, ed. Peter Connor, foreword by Christopher Fynsk (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991).
  • Osborne, Peter, Anywhere or Not At All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art (London and New York: Verso, 2013).
  • Potts, Alex, Experiments in Modern Realism: World Making, Politics and the Everyday in Postwar European and American Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013).
  • Sholette, Gregory, Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture (London and New York: Pluto Press, 2011).
  • Stallabrass, Julian, Art Incorporated: The Story of Contemporary Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
  • Stimson, Blake, The Pivot of the World: Photography and its Nation (Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: MIT Press, 2006).
  • Virno, Paolo, The Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life, trans. Isabella Bertoletti, James Cascaito, and Andrea Casson (New York: Semiotext(e), 2004).
  • Wiggershaus, Rolf, The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Political Significance, trans. Michael Robertson (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1995 [1986]).

Further information