contemporary art

from WW2 to the present


Course description and goals

(4 credits, no prerequisites)  This course covers the major figures, movements, and ideas of American and European art in the second half of the 20th century.  The issues raised by contemporary art are the issues of our own time, and the ideas that inform it are for the most part not as foreign as those of Chinese landscape painting or Italian Baroque art.  However, contemporary art is not necessarily any more immediately understandable than, say, modern physics or current politics.  In order to participate in the dialog of contemporary art, we need to know a little bit about the basic issues and the prior history of the conversation.  This course is designed to give you the tools of such an understanding.  By the end of this course you should be able:

•     To recognize the major artists and movements of contemporary art, including Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Formalism, Minimalism, Performance Art, Body Art, Happenings, Conceptual Art, Earth Art, Postmodernism, Neo-Expressionism, Feminism and other activist art, and so on.

     •     To articulate some of the major theoretical underpinnings of contemporary art and art criticism, such as Jungian and Gestalt psychology, semiotics, the critical doctrine of formalism, the philosophy of existentialism, essentialist and social constructivist theories of identity, and so on.

     •     To relate contemporary art with its context, including social issues such as feminism and postcolonialism, technological innovations such as the rise of new media and mass media, economic issues such as consumerism and the gallery system of marketing art, political events such as the Vietnam War and the fall of Soviet Union, and so on.

     •     To better analyze and interpret works of visual art, using appropriate terms, in relation to the works’ purposes.

Text and resources

The required text for the course will be Jonathan Fineberg, Art Since 1940 (third edition), plus some additional readings that will be available on the course study-guides for each topic (see above).  The study-guides have a summary of the important points for each topic, along with a complete set of images to know for the exams. However, please note that they will not substitute for coming to lectures and taking thorough notes.  I will be adjusting the study-guides as we go to account for material we might not get to or changes of emphasis -- including possbly changes to the key works -- so be sure to check the internet for the most recent version.  The study-guides will, however, be finalized by a week or so before the corresponding exam.

2 exams 35% each • 2 papers 12% each •  attendance and participation 6%