SOAS University of London

Department of the History of Art and Archaeology, School of Arts

Critical Theory in Art History and Material Culture

Module Code:
Year of study:
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Term 1
This module is designed to help postgraduate students establish a solid critical basis on which to develop their understanding of a broad range of forms of expression (art objects and architectural spaces, ritual and performance, archaeological materials), enabling them to identify their own research questions and design their individual approaches to these forms. In doing so, it considers issues of decoloniality and dialogism and reviews some non-Western concepts of truth and forms of analysis and understanding, in a bid to lay down a basis for more effective cross-cultural communication.

Starting with a discussion of decolonial principles and their content, and of the need to acknowledge and seek to understand different paradigms of truth and inquiry, the module then engages in a brief review of Western criteria for truth and knowledge (epistemology). It then discusses the emerging discipline of Ethnophilosophy before examining issues of being and reality (ontology), lived experience (phenomenology) and interpretation (hermeneutics), and considering how they affect our understanding of the different academic disciplines of our interest (art history, archaeology, anthropology). The module then reviews the modes of interpretation developed from modernity to postmodernity, examining the full range of methodologies normally used for visual analysis – from basic approaches to iconography, iconology and semiotics to post-structuralist and post-colonial disciplines, including gender, cruelty and the abject – and whether they are always applicable cross-culturally. The last session questions the principles of dialogism and considers their interpretative possibilities.

This module should ideally be taken in combination with the half unit entitled Cross-Cultural Approaches to Aesthetics (term 2).

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

On successful completion of this module a student will be able to:

  • Assess current concerns regarding decoloniality and promote decolonial epistemic thinking
  • Evaluate the diverse critical theories and scholarly positions used in research into visual disciplines and their sources
  • Understand the principles of sound epistemic work, and the epistemological distinction between truth and belief
  • Understand the principles of phenomenology and its role as a critical tool enabling the establishment of greater cross-cultural understanding
  • Analyse forms of Western and non-Western art and material culture in terms of the theories and methods discussed during the module, using the appropriate vocabulary
  • Articulate and justify their own scholarly position within the wider philosophical and interpretative debate tackled in the module
  • Demonstrate critical awareness of visual evidence as a source for the study of Western and non-Western forms of expression
  • Assess critically the materials and themes explored in the module.


  • One hour lecture, one hour seminar

Method of assessment

  • One 750 word book/exhibition review (worth 25%)
  • One 2,500 word essay (on a given or self-selected topic) (worth 75%)

Suggested reading

  • Adams, Laurie Schneider, 1986. The Methodologies of Art
  • Arnheim, Rudolf, Art and Visual Perception
  • Bontekoe, Dimensions of the Hermeneutic Circle
  • Cheetham et al. (eds). 1998. Subjects of Art History
  • Deutsch and Bontekoe (eds). A Companion to World Philosophies. Blackwell, 1997. [Chapter 14: The Chinese tradition: The way and the truth, pp. 214-224. Chapter 17: Indian conceptions of reality and divinity
  • Elsner, Jas (ed), 2017. Comparativism in Art History
  • Mignolo, Walter, 2011. The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options
  • Nagel, A. and Christopher S. Wood, Anachronic Renaissance
  • Panofsky, Erwin, Studies in Iconology
  • Preziosi, Donald, The Art of Art History


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules