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Art in the Present - ENG00082H

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  • Department: English and Related Literature
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Alexandra Kingston-Reese
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: H
  • Academic year of delivery: 2020-21
    • See module specification for other years: 2022-23

Module summary

The aim of this module is to explore the rise of the contemporary art novel, its critical vocabularies, interdisciplinary forms, and negotiations with contemporary art culture.

Traditionally, literary and art historical scholars have tended to understand the written mediation of visual art firstly in terms of ekphrasis—the literary description of a work of art, meaning to speak out from the work—and secondly, predominantly in terms of poetry. This module, however, explores the important turn toward art that the contemporary novel is witnessing and makes use of interdisciplinary vocabularies to discuss the innovative ways novelists, rather than poets, engage with visual art.

You will begin by looking at the validity of the term ekphrasis for contemporary art novels with Chloe Aridjis, then explore a kind of contemporary novel that not only meditates on art, but that develops its own practice of art criticism. As novelist Ben Lerner declared in a 2013 essay for Frieze Magazine, not only is the novel “a testing ground for aesthetic experiment and response,” but “a space wherein such an experiment in art writing can take place before the existence of the art itself, where an encounter can be staged between individuals and/or art works that are not or cannot be made actual.”

This module is therefore intrinsically interdisciplinary, asking you to look at not only key contemporary art novels, but art criticism written by contemporary novelists and the art they discuss. You will question how contemporary writers depict the figure of the artist, artistic practice, and artistic sensibility. How do these novelists reflect on questions of literary form, beauty, and aesthetic experience? What political and ethical problems, and debates about identity (gender, class, race), do they access by discussing art? If ekphrasis is no longer a suitable term what other terms could literary critics use to describe this engagement? From art criticism and critique, to engagements with contemporaneity and historicity, to formal play with visuality, media, and collage, you will investigate how these literary encounters with art develop new methods reading the art novel for a specifically present moment.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching cycle
A Autumn Term 2020-21

Module aims

The aim of this module is to explore the rise of the contemporary art novel, its critical vocabularies, interdisciplinary forms, and negotiations with contemporary art culture.

Module learning outcomes

On successful completion of this module, you should be able to:

  1. Demonstrate knowledge of contemporary novelists’ various engagements with the art world;
  2. Show familiarity with the artistic, cultural, political, and critical contexts at play in the arts of the present;
  3. Show an understanding of the shifting borders of novelistic and critical genres in contemporary art writing;
  4. Develop independent interdisciplinary arguments and ideas through an engagement with visual and written texts.


Task Length % of module mark
Essay 3000 words
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

  • You will be given the opportunity to hand in a 1000 word formative essay in the term in which the module is taught (usually in the week 7 seminar).  Material from this essay may be re-visited in your summative essay and it is therefore an early chance to work through material that might be used in assessed work. This essay will be submitted in hard copy and your tutor will annotate it and return it two weeks later (usually in your week 9 seminar).  Summary feedback will be uploaded to your eVision account.  All students will have the opportunity to give an in-class individual presentation during a seminar in weeks 2-9.


Task Length % of module mark
Essay 3000 words
N/A 100

Module feedback

  • You will receive feedback on all assessed work within the University deadline, and will often receive it more quickly. The purpose of feedback is to inform your future work; it is designed to help you to improve your work, and the Department also offers you help in learning from your feedback. If you do not understand your feedback or want to talk about your ideas further you can discuss it with your tutor or your supervisor, during their Open Office Hours  
  • For more information about the feedback you will receive for your work, see the department's Guide to Assessment

Indicative reading

Key texts for this module may include the following. Current students should consult the VLE for the reading list:

  • Chloe Aridjis, Asunder
  • Siri Hustvedt, The Blazing World
  • Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers
  • Tom McCarthy, Men in Space
  • Teju Cole, Blindspot
  • Zadie Smith, On Beauty
  • Ali Smith, How to be Both
  • Julian Barnes, Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art
  • Art Criticism by Teju Cole, Ben Lerner, Siri Hustvedt, Laszlo Krasznahorkai tbc
  • Art trip: destination to be confirmed.

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.