Friday, January 08, 2021

L3 Homework assignment on visual art - my comments

Remember that for your January exam which is now going to be in the form of a homework essay, if it i son British civilization, it will be found here. IF it is on US civilization, it will be in M Benoit's space.

To help you prepare, here are some initial comments on your homework assignments. I will update this (probably by adding more sections, in a different colour), next week.

The question was:

 How have different British artists and British institutions attempted to ensure that visual art is not only for the elite ?

Comments on your homework assignment

Marking your work will take some time, and you have another exam soon (on either US or GB studies). So here are some comments and suggestions concerning the essays you produced. I prefer to give these comments to everyone rather than just to individuals, because more people can benefit from them. If I have mentioned your mistakes, this is to help other people. I will deal here with content difficulties and also with language and style difficulties. These comments will be updated with additional elements next week. 

First of all, make sure you show a precise understanding of the question. What are the visual arts? Because this was a homework assignment, you were able to look up the definition of visual arts. Oxford languages website gives

“creative art whose products are to be appreciated by sight, such as painting, sculpture, and film-making (as contrasted with literature and music)”.

The Encyclopedia britannica, an authoritative source, goes into some detail.

These are the arts that meet the eye and evoke an emotion through an expression of skill and imagination. They include the most ancient forms, such as painting and drawing, and the arts that were born thanks to the development of technology, like sculpture, printmaking, photography, and installation art, the latter a combination of multiple creative expressions. Though beauty is in the eye of the beholder, different eras in art history have had their own principles to define beauty, from the richly ornamented taste of the Baroque to the simple, utilitarian style of the Prairie School.”

You will notice that Oxford languages includes “film-making” whereas the Britannica does not. Sources differ on this, but everyone agrees that at the centre of visual arts are painting drawing and sculpture, so if you write about cinema it must nevertheless take a secondary place in your essay.

Say what institutions are the most important ones to  speak about. Museums, certainly, but also diverse committees and commissions : the Fourth Plinth organizers, the Turner Prize organizers were two we looked at in class. Schools are also important, but I said very little about them in class.

What did these institutions exactly do to make visual art more widely appreciated (and indeed, what did they do which went in the opposite direction?) Museums and art galleries are almost all free in the UK, so that is a key point. How accessible are the examples of art on the Fourth Plinth? Here you need to give your own opinion on that question, because accessibility is not easy to define precisely. Nevertheless, the contrast between the rather difficult and intellectual works which tend to win the Turner prize, and the popular works on the Fourth Plinth is difficult to deny.

If you find yourself with not enough to say, it is good to make sure you have widened the question sufficiently (without going off at a tangent). So, if you can think of actions of artists or institutions which make it more difficult for the mass of the  population to appreciate art, you could include these in your essay as counter-examples, for instance.

Which artists have you chosen to write about? There are so many, it would be best to look at at categories who have a particular relationship with access. 

Street artists seem to have developed directly as an anti-elitist form. Other artists who produce work which can be seen and appreciated without entering an art gallery play a particular role in making art accessible to all. Some, such as Henry Moore, or Mark Wallinger with his “World Turned Upside Down”, make sculptures for public display. Land artists such as Andy Goldworthy, produce work outside (the Arch, for example), but often in places which are not very accessible - far from the big towns. 

Once you have presented some of the tactics and strategies used to make visual art accessible and perhaps even useful to wide layers of the population, it would be good to look at the limits of some of these tactics. Even free museums attract far more teachers than bus drivers or cleaners - why is this? Even street artists can be drawn in to the world of expensive galleries and art auctions - why might this be?

University writing

One or two people used forms of writing which are very popular in industry - lists of bullet points, headings in bold, sentences in abbreviated forms, etc. We do not do this in university work. On a similar topic, journalistic English often makes a paragraph with just one sentence. In a university essay, this is not sufficient - a paragraph should have at the very minimum three sentences. One more point is worth noting: putting key words in bold is not done in university writing.

On the other hand, I just corrected a script where the student had used a paragraph which was 35 lines long (489 words). This is much too long for a paragraph, and it could easily have been cut in three.

Beginning your essay.

There are many good ways to begin an essay. Avoid beginning with an extremely general sentence which does not show any specific knowledge. So do not begin with any of the following, or similar, as first or second sentence. Some of them also include mistakes about how society has developed.

*Art is very important for human beings.  

* Art has an important place in a country’s culture.

* For centuries, English people have loved art. 

* Culture has been part of our lives for centuries. [In fact, hundreds of thousands of years - JM]

* Since 1945, Britain has known numerous changes in its cultural world.” [There has never been a period when there were not numerous changes, so the sentence is too obvious -JM]

Good opening sentences included the following:

There has always been a tension between high culture and popular culture.

For a long time, visual art was seen as elitist.

British artists and institutions have tried to ensure that visual arts is available for everyone, that visual arts are not only a part of high culture.


A number of students found quotations to begin their essay, or to contribute a point of view in the middle. Some of them were very interesting or appropriate, like this very harsh judgement on popular culture by Criss Jami:

      “Popular culture is a place where pity is called compassion, flattery is called love, propaganda is called knowledge, tension is called peace, gossip is called news, and auto-tune is called singing.”

Or this one which we saw in class:

“Culture is simply the ensemble of stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.” (C. Greetz)

Leaving the subject behind

The subject is visual art. This means that you are allowed to write a couple of sentences about music (opera, rap or whatever) if you want to include it in a comparison with what happens to visual art. But no more. If you write two paragraphs about music, however brilliant the paragraphs are, you have left the subject behind. Not good.


The question asks about “different British artists and British institutions” . You must use examples of a few artists and a few institutions. If there are no examples, this is a huge problem. Do not use American and French examples (or at most one or two, after the first ten British examples). If you use American and French examples you are saying “I cannot think of one single British example - I hope you don’t mind, Mr. Examiner”.


Here is the correct spelling of some words which were incorrectly spelt




There are considerably more capital letters in English than there are in French (The Labour Party, the British Museum, the Tate Gallery, the Turner Prize, the Not the Turner Prize, Tate Britain,  the Second World War, the French Journal of British Studies, War and Peace, the Angel of the North, the Daily Mail, A Midsummer Night’s Dream...) However, there are quite strict rules. You will find here a excellent summary


If you do not know why you are using capitals, then do not use capitals. So, no capitals for any of these expressions (taken from student mistakes):

high culture

popular  culture

visual art

cultural hegemony

street art


Occasionally it is difficult to decide : do we need capitals for “fourth plinth”? On the one hand, it is just plinth number four, not a proper name, and so should not have capitals. On the other hand, it is an institution, an art project, and so should have capitals. And indeed, different newspapers have different responses in this case.


You may well spend more time watching films and series in English than reading books on the history of art. The result is that language which is too informal can find its way into student essays. Here are some of the expressions and structures which are too informal for university work

  • Do not use contractions in university work.



Because we are looking at the effect of artists on society, we often have to look at the different classes in society. You need to be careful. If you are speaking about bus drivers, nurses and supermarket workers, (in general about people who do jobs with little prestige or money) you may see that in the United States, the expression “middle class” is used. (In French, you will often see the expression “classes populaires”). In Britain, it is more common to see “working class”, because “middle class” tends to mean teachers and doctors and lawyers and managers. You should not use the expression  “lower class”, because it means you think that people from this class are inferior and worth less.


All French students use the word “famous” too much. Zidane is famous, Madonna is famous. It is used to mean “universally known” and generally reserved for show business or similar (we do not say “Emmanuel Macron is a famous politician”.) Now people like Tracy Emin or Lucien Freud are people who half the class had not heard of before I mentioned them. They are not famous, but they are “well-known”. “Well-known” is often the word students need instead of “famous”.

A few mistaken ideas

The theory of cultural omnivorism

This is the theory that these days the elite does not consume only high culture, but they consume a wide variety of high and popular culture, unlike the situation fifty years ago. “Cultural omnivorism” is not an attempt to mix different kinds of culture, it is a theory about who consumes what these days.

Cultural hegemony

Cutural hegemony means the domination within society of certain cultural values or ideas. So today we might say that the idea of romantic love has cultural hegemony: the vast majority of people automatically accept its existence and importance. Cultural hegemony is not a particular grouping of people with specific ideas about what art should be.

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