“Art knows us better than we know ourselves.” –T. W. Adorno
The Program in Critical Theory and the Arts
The MA in Critical Theory and the Arts is a one-year, three-semester program of study in the arts that has its origins in a recognition shared by most everyone, though rarely explicitly, that art is not simply one more thing that humans happen to make, but the object that potentially and most of all reveals the antagonisms, conflicts and promises of human history and of the moment we inhabit. In this sense, 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 to do justice to art’s more than important content, may become insistent.
The program in Critical Theory and the Arts engages these questions in a broadly conceived curriculum that focuses on the contemporary situation of the arts: on the problems of making art today, on what art has become and is becoming, and on understanding what is at stake in the relation of these developments in art to contemporary social conflict and reality. This focus is, however, by no means limited to what’s happening “now,” for in understanding art from the perspective of the present, the past—our past—is necessarily illuminated and may even, in a certain sense, come to our aid in what we have to consider.
Much thinking is required here, and this is widely sensed by many. Thinking about art has, in fact, with rare historical precedent, never before been so protean, so inventive and urgently central to the whole of social, philosophical and political reflection. Every major area of thought now turns considerable attention to art in expectation that it will provide the key to solving its central questions. And this intensity in thinking about art is inseparable from what is occurring within art, where it hardly matters whether one is “for” or “against” theory. For reflection on art is no longer separate from its making. On the contrary, today every aspect of art’s reality presents dynamic conflicts and puzzles, and those who are directly involved in the arts can no longer imagine that it is possible to proceed naïvely, mixing passion with thin air. Where artists of earlier generations struggled to disguise the thinking labor that went into their work, today art theory has become part—often an explicit part—of all art-making. To an unprecedented degree, developments in art theory directly transform art. What the arts once were, they soon enough will no longer be; in large measure, they have already been irreversibly transformed. For artists and graduate students from several fields of inquiry, the need collaboratively to understand what has happened, what is happening and what is at stake is salient.
The Academic Year
The carefully structured curriculum is itself focally organized around two year-long seminars, The Situation of the Arts: “The Level of the Problem”—which engages students in the contemporary art world—and the Serious Times Lecture Series. Internationally acclaimed visiting artists and distinguished intellectuals are invited to these seminars to share their work, research—and sometimes their working lives—with students and faculty.
Who are the students?
The one-year MA Program in Critical Theory and the Arts is an international program. The faculty is American, French, German, and Hispanic and joined yearly by students from the United States and many other nations, including Sweden, Argentina, Israel, the Netherlands, Korea and dual national students as well.
The students accepted to the program have a range of educational experience back of them. Some arrive directly from having completed their undergraduate BA or BFA; other students have spent a number of years out of college. Many have majored in studio arts, arts history, philosophy, music, social philosophy, literature and the humanities. Some students already have an MA degree or advanced degrees in these areas of study. Occasionally the program year includes graduate students and visiting scholars who participate in the groups studies and research and make important contributions to our curriculum.
The students selected for the program are individuals who, like the faculty, have a lot on their minds and mean to have a whole lot more on their minds. Students follow the same group of classes, so the broad mix of students contributes significantly to our discussions and study.
Students are selected for the program who will bring an intensity for education to the program at a moment when it is widely recognized that society and a pragmatically narrowed education are largely in retreat from engaging some of the most tense, most difficult problems that have ever confronted humanity—problems that art, at whatever apparent distance from society, cannot help but share.
“The measure of the program…”
Of all that we are concerned with in this program, we measure the success or failure of the curriculum—and this states an aspect of the deepest intention of the program—by whether in teaching it we are able to provide students who are seeking a genuine autonomy of mind the concepts, reasoning and intellectual experience in which they may possibly assert the sapere aude—the Dare to know!—in which this autonomy is fulfilled.
Where does it lead?
The program is a year of intensive research and study, and we protect it. We do not, for instance, allow curious visitors to sit in on our classes. To deepen the lives of our students and deepen our own lives in teaching, is what preoccupies us. Our greatest satisfaction in the program is exactly the same as that of our students when they tell us that they “will be thinking about this for the rest of their lives”—and they do tell us that. But, while we do not train students for any particular employment, we know—without at all underestimating the difficulties that anyone today faces who wants to make a life that is meaningful and equal to one’s own talents—that we are educating students to go on to do important things. And the program leads in many such directions, especially because of the degree’s flexibility. Students with an MA in Critical Theory and the Arts will, for example, find themselves well prepared and advised for seeking PhD degrees in a number of areas of study and from there go on to write and teach; others will become critics and public intellectuals; others will return to their studio practice finding their work transformed; and other students will in the course of the year discover what they never would have guessed they most wanted to do with their lives;. Each student in the program discusses with his or her advisor and with the program’s chair what the student intends to do “next.” These discussions are a formal part of the program.
A small group of students is selected annually by the Committee on Graduate Admissions. Students who, for various reasons—international students, especially—may need to plan far ahead to join the program, may request deferred admission for the following year.
We are able to provide some financial assistance and, on occasion, a number of teaching and research assistantships to our students. In general, however, we do what we can to make these scholarships free of departmental responsibilities so that our students have as much time as possible for their studies.
The School of Visual Arts has been authorized by the New York State Board of Regents to confer the degree of Master of Arts on graduates of the program in Critical Theory and the Arts. The School of Visual Arts is accredited by the Commission on Higher Education of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools. The School of Visual Arts is an accredited institutional member of the National Association of Schools of Art and Design.