SOAS University of London

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

Theory and Method in Art History

Module Code:
FHEQ Level:
Year of study:
Taught in:
Term 1

This module introduces postgraduate students to prevalent theories and methods used by art historians to analyse and interpret works of art and objects of visual study. Engaging with the deep impact of 20th-21st-century debates surrounding race, gender, postmodernism, postcolonialism and decoloniality, we will consider the historical development of the discipline and its increasing inclusion of forms of knowledge salient to understanding artistic production and reception in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and their diasporas. While weekly topics will introduce key texts and concepts that have shaped the discipline, such as formalism, iconography, structuralism, and authorship, attention will also be given to the means through which art history has historically shaped hierarchies of value and institutions of knowledge production largely located in the West, and even how the discipline itself has reinforced the construction of ‘the West’ through modes of canonisation. Readings and assessments, structured to enable critical dialogue between disparate perspectives,  will situate methodologies and systematically engage students in cross-cultural debate. By putting theory into practice, students will recognize and be able to articulate the complexity of choices and processes that shape the writing of art history. 

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

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

  • Identify important texts associated with the formation of the discipline and theories of art historical development, aesthetics, and interpretation
  • Demonstrate theoretical literacy across key concepts and discourses of art history
  • Assess methods and theoretical approaches relevant to the study of the arts of Asia, Africa, the Middle East and their diasporas
  • Apply theory and method through spoken and written argumentation

Demonstrate knowledge and skills applicable to art historical scholarship, curatorship, and other industry and academic fields.

This is an introductory course in art historical theory and method, with particular focus on the practice of art history in relation to the regions we study at SOAS, and aims to lay a disciplinary foundation for study and learning in all the other courses students are taking in HAA MA programmes.


There is a total of three contact hours a week for this module:

One lecture (2 hours) each week

One tutorial (1 hour) each week.

(10 hours total contact time)

Scope and syllabus

1. Decolonizing Art History: the Imperative of Our Times

2. Histories of Art History

3. Style, Form and Race

4. Iconography, Semiology and the Cultural Determination of Meaning

5. Marxism, Ideology, and the Political Economy of Art

6. Modernity, Modernism and their Alternatives

7. Vision, Space, and Representation

8. Postmodernism and Poststructuralism

9. Gender and Art History

10. Orientalism, Post-Colonial Critique, and Subalternaity

Method of assessment

There are two essaus to complete for this module:

1. Essay with a word limit of 1,000 - to be submitted in week 5 of Term 1 (30% of total mark)

2. Essay with a word limit of 2,000 - to be submitted in week 1 of Term 2 (70% of total mark)

Suggested reading

Core Reading List:

1. Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, eds. The Post-Colonial Studies Reader (Routledge, 2006)

2.Dadi, Iftikhar and Salah Hassan, eds. Unpacking Europe: Towards a Critical Reading (Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, 2001)

3. Fernie, Eric. Art History and Its Methods: A Cricital Anthology (London: Phaidon, 2013)

4. Nelson. Robert S and Richard Schiff. Critical Terms for Art History (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2012)

5. Pinder, Kymberly N., ed. Race-ing Art History: Critical Readings in Race and Art History (Routledge, 2002).

6. Preziosi, Donald, ed. The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology. 4th Ed. (Oxford UP, 2009)

7. Smith, Paul, and Carolyn Wilde. A Companion to Art Theory (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2016).

8. Nelson, Robert, ed. Visuality Before and Beyond the Renaissance; Seeing as Others Saw, ed. R. Nelson (Cambridge, 2000)

9. Araeen, Rasheed, Sean Cubitt, and Ziauddin Sardar, eds. The Third Text Reader on Art, culture and Theory (London: Continuum, 2007)

10. Bird, Jon, ed. The Block Reader in Visual Culture (London: Routledge, 1996)


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules