The goal of this Approach is to broaden the historian’s sensitivity to an infinite variety of visual evidence. In most history writing, disproportionate attention is paid to written sources: this course is designed to foster a more balanced approach. However, using visual evidence is far from simple. ‘Art’ in this context is very broadly defined, to include not merely the western canon of ‘high art’, but the entire gamut of material cultural production, and its consumption. The short bibliography can be supplemented with case-studies from different periods and places. Indeed, students should be encouraged to engage in detail with particular images – including any to be found in Oxford’s museums and galleries. While for brevity and convenience it is largely focused on western art traditions, this is not intended as any constraint on the scope of the course. The course is structured around four broad – and overlapping – themes.
Creation and consumption
The first theme relates to the social context of art: how, precisely, are the variety and changes in artistic production (styles of painting, forms of architecture, etc.) related to contemporary social developments? Consideration needs to be given not only to structures of patronage, but also to broader issues of markets and consumption.
Art and politics
The second theme includes, but extends beyond, the use of visual imagery as a form of propaganda. Images have been deployed for subversive, no less than authoritarian, purposes. Analysis often reveals a creative tension in the interpretation of an image, whose ‘true’ meaning is contested.
The power of images: ways of seeing
The third theme explores varieties of visual response. Intense emotional identification with a picture, or a violent desire to destroy a statue, are repeatedly documented phenomena. To study these responses in context is to shed new light on historical societies.
The idea of the history of art: displaying, writing and collecting
The last theme is the particularly western way in which ‘the history of art’ has been conceived. This notion has been profoundly influential (through collecting, the construction of museums, art writing and art history), and rewards study. The post-medieval European idea of ‘fine art’ is a highly particular category: to recognize it as such is to become more fully aware of the richness of a far more inclusive realm of visual culture beyond the ‘fine’ arts, both in European and non-European traditions.