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The Art of Looking - HOA00014C

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  • Department: History of Art
  • Module co-ordinator: Prof. Jeanne Nuechterlein
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: C
  • Academic year of delivery: 2024-25
    • See module specification for other years: 2023-24

Module summary

This module focuses specifically on the disciplinary skills of close observation and description of works of art, and situates them in the wider field of professional practice in the analysis of complex information.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Semester 1 2024-25

Module aims

One of the most important features of the discipline of History of Art is the attentive observation, description and interpretation of works of art. When we encounter works of art in museums, sales rooms, books and catalogues, they are frequently accompanied by sophisticated written accounts of their visual qualities. Despite the axiom that art speaks for itself, the skill in guiding a viewer’s visual understanding of a complex object, such as painting or sculpture, is not to be underestimated and is highly transferable to a number of other professional contexts.

The focus of this module is not only to heighten students’ skills in close looking but also to make the important step to their articulation of their observations in verbal and written form. It introduces students to a variety of techniques and theories of observation and description used in art history and its adjacent professional fields, such as curating and museum education, in order to demonstrate the stakes involved in description, such as issues of inclusion and diversity, allowing students to reflect on their own qualities as observers, including their tolerance for ambiguity and their implicit biases.

In recent years, the close observation of works of art has been used in the development of evidential reasoning in a number of different contexts, from primary education to training in clinical diagnosis and forensic analysis. The module will include reflection on the applicability of this fundamental art historical skill to other contexts.

Module learning outcomes

By the end of the module, students should have acquired:

  • an ability to provide close and compelling descriptions of works of art.

  • an awareness of their own strengths and weaknesses as observers.

  • an understanding of the relationship between seeing and describing.

  • an understanding of relevance of art historical skills in observation and description to professional fields in the heritage sector and far beyond it.


Task Length % of module mark
Written Task
N/A 100

Special assessment rules



Task Length % of module mark
Written Task
N/A 100

Module feedback

You will receive feedback on assessed work within the timeframes set out by the University - please check the Guide to Assessment, Standards, Marking and Feedback for more information.

The purpose of feedback is to help you to improve your future work. If you do not understand your feedback or want to talk about your ideas further, you are warmly encouraged to meet your Supervisor during their Office Hours.

Indicative reading

  • Arnheim, Rudolf. Visual Thinking. London: Faber, 1970.
  • Bal, Mieke. Looking in: The Art of Viewing. Critical Voices in Art, Theory and Culture. Amsterdam: G & B Arts International, 2000.
  • Bentwich, Miriam Ethel and Peter Gilbey. “More Than Visual Literacy: Art and the Enhancement of Tolerance for Ambiguity and Empathy.” BMC Medical Education 17, no. 200 (2017).
  • Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972.
  • Braverman, Irwin M. “To See or Not to See: How Visual Training Can Improve Observational Skills.” Clinics in Dermatology 29, no. 3 (2011): 343-346.
  • Brosch, Renate. "Ekphrasis in the Digital Age." Poetics Today 39, no. 2 (2018): 225-43.
  • Carrier, David. “Ekphrasis and Interpretation: Two Modes of Art History Writing.” The British Journal of Aesthetics 27, no. 1 (1987): 20–31.
  • Clark, T. J. The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing. London: Yale University Press, 2006.
  • Didi-Huberman, Georges. "The Art of Not Describing: Vermeer - the Detail and the Patch." History of the Human Sciences 2, no. 2 (1989): 135-69.
  • Elsner, Jas. "Art History as Ekphrasis." Art History 33, no. 1 (2010): 10-27.
  • Freedberg, David and Vitorrio Gallese. “Motion, Emotion and Empathy in Esthetic Experience.”Trends in Cognitive Sciences 11, no. 5 (2007): 197–203.
  • Furnham, Adrian and Joseph Marks. “Tolerance of Ambiguity: A Review of the Recent Literature.” Psychology 4, no. 9 (2013): 717-728.
  • Mukunda, Neha, Nazanin Moghbeli, Adam Rizzo, Suzannah Niepold, Barbara Bassett, and Horace M. DeLisser. “Visual Art Instruction in Medical Education: a Narrative Review.” Medical Education Online 24, no. 1 (2019).
  • Yenawine, P. “Art in School: As Essential as Language.” American Educator 43, no. 1 (2019): 22-27.

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.