The one-year Master’s Degree in Critical Theory and the Arts is a 36-credit program of study that is completed in three consecutive semesters, Fall, Spring and Summer. In the Fall and Spring semesters, students participate in a closely-organized curriculum of year-long seminar classes in philosophy, art theory, sociology, political thought, and social- and art-history. In the Summer semester, students and their advisors work in collaboration preparing the Comprehensive Thesis, which draws on the year’s coursework and student writings.

The program is designed to focus the broad encompassment of the year’s studies on the development of a critical understanding of the contemporary situation of the arts. The significance of what we have to consider in this situation of the arts necessarily engages the entire history of art and society and the most urgent questions and concerns that we have about our lives. In our studies, art is not reduced to society or in any narrow sense explained by society, or psychology, or let alone by economics. And while the program is certainly an intellectual undertaking, it presupposes that in the relation between intellect and art, the latter leads the former. However intellectualized contemporary art now is—and however important it is to understand why this extreme intellectualization has happened, both in art and in writing about art—no one in human history would have ever bothered with wanting to make art, see it, or seek to know it, if it did not make something appear that has never before been seen.

Fall Semester
(15 weeks)

The Arts, Their History and the United States I

Proseminar 1: The Situation of the Arts I

Critical Theory and Aesthetics I
(3 credits)

Social Theory, Research, and Criticism I

Proseminar 2: The Serious Times Lecture Series I

Spring Semester
(15 weeks)

The Arts, Their History and the United States II

Proseminar 1: The Situation of the Arts II

Critical Theory and Aesthetics II

Social Theory, Research, and Criticism II

Proseminar 2: The Serious Times Lecture Series II

Summer Semester
(15 weeks)

Comprehensive Thesis

Comprehensive Thesis Seminar Meetings

Comprehensive Thesis Advisor Appointments


Fall and Spring Semesters

The Arts, Their History and the United States I and II

Taught by the program chair, this seminar broadly investigates the thesis that of all that humans make, art is the object that potentially and most of all reveals the antagonisms, felt conflicts and promises of human history and of the moment we inhabit. In this sense, as T. W. Adorno once wrote, art really does “know us better than we know ourselves.” And once this thought is on one’s mind, the impulse to understand how these considerable realities become coiled up in art, what they genuinely are, no less than wanting to know what it would mean intellectually and socially—whether in writing or in social action—to do justice to art’s more than important content, becomes insistent and can be developed in the study of individual artworks and their complex implications.

Proseminar 1: The Situation of the Arts – “The Level of the Problem” I and II

In this seminar led by experienced and distinguished critics and curators, students gain considerable familiarity with the contemporary situation of the arts, especially in New York City. Students have unique access to meet with established as well as with newly-emerging artists for intimate discussions directed toward understanding what artists today are immediately contending with, first of all in their studio practice, but also in terms of their intellectual and theoretical ambitions for their work. What is an artist today in the midst of rapidly shifting technologies of art manufacture and reproduction, all of which goes on while dealing with other artists, art markets and promotion, galleries, museums, patrons and collectors. What, in other words, are the problems of art today that are shaping its situation?

Critical Theory and Aesthetics I and II

The seminar is a careful investigation in considerable depth of the philosophical developments that undergird contemporary critical theory as it bears especially on questions of art, a field sometimes described as aesthetics. The first semester presents the tradition of thought stretching from antiquity to Kant, Hegel and Marx. The second semester begins with a study of the seminal importance of Nietzsche and Heidegger, tracing how their writings fused in the early 20th century with the French tradition in Bergson, Valéry and Lévi-Strauss and spurred the development of the most dynamic body of critical theory devoted to the arts of the modern era, from Barthes to Foucault and Althusser, and from Derrida and Rancière to Badiou and Žižek. Students are encouraged to examine the close reasoning of these thinkers and to achieve a genuine and perhaps rare understanding of a complex field that is often presented in a limbo of cursory and vague approximations.

Social Theory, Research, and Criticism I and II

Because art is inextricably joined with human struggle, experience and aspiration on every level – and no less because increasingly artists feel compelled to engage social struggle in their own work – writers and critics require an understanding of political realities and economic and social structures. Here study necessarily engages several fields at once as does this course which comprises political philosophy—questions of political representation and those of social justice, progress, human equality and emancipation—as well as sociology and an introduction to techniques of social investigation and observation that aim at insight into a world that characteristically veils itself to our efforts at understanding, “What is really going on here?” The aim of the course is for students to have a genuine grasp on what begins to answer this question and the overarching structure of the program seeks to bring this developing capacity into relation with art itself. The seminar begins with Freud, Rousseau and Hobbes and in the course of the second semester has led students with considerable lucidity through to the thinking of Marx, Simmel, Mauss, Weber, the Frankfurt School, and contemporary feminism and gender studies.

Proseminar 2: The Serious Times Lecture Series I and II

In the Serious Times Lecture Series students work together in seminar with a series of invited lecturers, faculty members and discussants to engage critical problems of contemporary social reality. There is a threefold intention: students develop a substantial understanding of the complexities and tensions of social dynamics; students discover that these realities turn out to have considerable implications for what is happening in the arts today; and, at the same time, students are provided with many occasions for close involvement with scholars, social activists and critics of considerable accomplishment.

Each year, the lecture series takes a somewhat different shape, depending on the social realities engaged and the group of scholars invited to work with us. But, whatever the issues raised—whether these be the destruction of the earth’s climate, the gross economic inequality, gender struggle or recent transformations of industry and labor—the focal point of the seminar remains the question of how it can be that society continually develops new possibilities for improving our lives and ameliorating human suffering, while all the same the toll of social calamity continues to mount. Why? Given that there are so many achievements in the sciences, in civil equality, in absolute power to control nature, why does the social order remain so destructive and immune to urgent realities?

Summer Semester

Comprehensive Thesis

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 their work in the summer semester on 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 colloquium with selected members of the faculty.

Comprehensive Thesis Seminar

Here students have the opportunity to discuss the development of their Comprehensive Thesis projects and workshop their materials in preparation for the last section of the summer semester, when the final thesis work is completed.

Student Colloquia

MA students in Critical Theory and the Arts, who in the summer months are primarily engaged in preparing their Comprehensive Thesis, attend meetings with members of the faculty on topics pertaining to their thesis questions. Students who care to present brief papers for roundtable discussion.