The three-semester MA program is unique in presenting the philosophical, sociological, political, art and social historical contexts with which a student must be familiar to meaningfully pursue the questions that the contemporary situation of art poses. Society and art are studied in their actual tension, without reducing art to society, or pretending, narrowly, that society amounts to the world of art.
The program has a dynamic structure. There is a central group of courses concerned with art theory and aesthetics, social history and the history of art, and social theory. These courses are built around two open proseminars: “The Situation of the Arts: The Level of the Problem” and the “Serious Times Lecture Series,” which poses the ongoing question, “Why doesn’t the United States make social progress?” These aspects of the program combine to focus on what is going on in art today in a way that involves the entire history of art and society and the most important questions we have about our lives.
The motivating concepts and history of aesthetic theory that continue to shape contemporary thought is the focus of these courses. We begin with a review of the Platonic and Neo-Platonic concerns with representation and the social as well as epistemological status of the artwork. An understanding of the developments that led up to Kant allows the class to closely study Kant’s Critique of Judgment, which continues to be a basic work of reference in all thinking about art. This is followed by an investigation of the philosophical complex of thought that Kant’s aesthetics spawned in the writings of Friedrich Schiller and G.W.F. Hegel. The first semester aims to provide an historico-philosophical undergirding for the theoretical and art historical work that follows.
The second semester is an intensive study of the questions of philosophical aesthetics as they develop throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. Additional themes include the meaning of the so-called “end of art” debate; theories of the museum; the “art world”; the “New Aesthetic”; varieties of object theory and aesthetics; theories of the sublime; and tactics of subversion (e.g., feminist, vegan, erothanatic impulses on the fringe). We begin with the writings of Nietzsche and Heidegger, to be followed by selections from Adorno, Agamben, and Arendt; Sloterdijk and Žižek; and Bataille, Baudrillard, Bourdieu, Danto, Derrida, Foucault, and Rancière, among others.
Social Theory, Social Criticism and the Arts I and II
These courses present and carefully examine the structure of contemporary society drawing on close readings of seminal texts in modern social theory and philosophy. We develop in-depth comprehension of modern society and the traditions in social thought and criticism that have considered its antagonistic elements. The first half of the course focuses on the fundamental concepts of the founders of sociology and their development from Hegel to Marx to Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. What distinguishes modern society from other social formations? What insight does this tradition of thought provide into the nature of social action, the comprehension of social artifact and contemporary society?
The second semester amounts to a consideration of particular aspects of modern society in light of the principal debates in current social theory. We study the interconnection of economic and political forms, of modern commerce and state. How do social relations and individual comportment interrelate in modern society? What is the specific function of technology, media and culture industry in its dynamics? The overarching question of the second semester is how social structure at once makes the arts possible and no less structures their crises.
Psychoanalysis: Insight and Cognition
Psychoanalysis was the preeminent intellectual revolution of the early 20th century. It was not only the first utterly new concept of psychology since Aristotle—which is to say, in more than 2,000 years—it ushered in the seminal idea of modernism itself: the discovery of the primitive in ourselves and in the world around us. Every area of art and intellectual activity would be obliged to respond to this development, and, indeed the arts as a whole were entirely transformed by the early-20th century discovery of the unconscious and the techniques that psychoanalysis developed for its investigation. On the intellectual level, these same discoveries became the source for many aspects of critical theory in its several traditions as it developed in both France and Germany as well as the form that critical theory would take when it reached the United States. This seminar presents key ideas of psychoanalytic thought and—especially—psychoanalytic practice that are necessary to understand critical theory today.
Political Philosophy: Notes on Political Life
The central concepts of political life that continue to shed light on the present are the object of this series of talks. With the aim of gaining insight into the political questions of our times, we consider fundamental aspects of political life by examining the fate of citizenship, political forms, democracy, and political literacy. Thinking through these notions, however distorted they have become in the present, is crucial for a critical understanding of contemporary political predicaments. We attempt to retrieve these concepts, and gain genuine insight from them, in order to think through the overarching concerns of political life and how these mediate the ways we think about the political structures of contemporary society.
The Comprehensive Thesis is the occasion for MA candidates to establish meaningful coherence in their year’s work, to integrate their thinking and research, to find new problems to investigate, and to sketch out plans for their future with faculty and mentors.
Preparation for the Comprehensive Thesis
Preparation for the Comprehensive Thesis begins with the student’s application to the program. Prospective students are asked to describe the issues, problems, curiosity, experiences or conflicts that motivated their application. On acceptance into the program, students begin to expand on these motivations, with the intention of developing four topics that they craft and assemble in preparation for the summer semester work for the Comprehensive Thesis. Students are encouraged to formulate these topics in a way that builds directly on what they have been intensely studying for two semesters. It is an opportunity to remember, organize and develop important thoughts that have arisen during the year, whether in course discussions, readings, or in the student’s own reflections and research. In one of the four topics the student is asked to set out plans for future work, whether it is scholarly or artistic, and thoughts about “what is next” in a way that the faculty can be of help in considering and discussing those plans.
Fulfillment of the Comprehensive Thesis
Once the student has completed the statement of the four topics along with a brief supporting bibliography of the work to be undertaken, and a faculty member has reviewed the statements favorably, the student spends the final semester preparing research. During this period, the student consults with his or her faculty advisor for advice and direction. Over the last two weeks of the semester, students present the Comprehensive Thesis through written response to questions formulated as ‘prompts’ on each of the first three topics. The fourth topic, “What is next?,” is treated as part of a final discussion of the student’s work on the Comprehensive Thesis with selected members of the faculty.
Comprehensive Thesis Seminar
In this biweekly seminar, students have the opportunity to discuss the development of their Comprehensive Thesis projects and workshop their materials in preparation for the last few weeks of the summer semester, when the final thesis work is completed.