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This one-year MA Program is unique in presenting the philosophical, sociological, political, art and social historical contexts a student must be familiar with 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 that society somehow amounts to the world of art.

  • The curriculum is made up of courses in aesthetics, political theory, social history, the history of art and social theory. Classes involve open discussions concerning the most important questions we have about art, politics, society and our lives.
  • Focal points of the program are the Proseminars on the “The Situation of the Arts: The Level of the Problem” and the "Serious Times Lecture Series."
  • A small group of students is selected annually by the Committee on Graduate Admissions. Philosophy, social history, and political science often engage the arts, and students in the program come from many disciplines, no less than from the art studio.

“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 year-long 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 students who join us for the year have a lot on their minds and mean to have a whole lot more on their minds. They have made it clear in their applications that they have a serious developing involvement in the arts and questions of social reality. These students 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 students come from various fields of undergraduate education, including art school. A number are active in studio work. Because the curriculum is wide ranging, it necessarily turns out that each student is more prepared in one area of study than in another. Those, for instance, with a more extensive background in art history, philosophy, or sociology may have less direct experience in making art than do art school graduates, who may themselves know less about contemporary society than those who have studied sociology or whose lives have long been engaged in social activism—and so on. We expect this, and the array of strengths, familiarities and backgrounds produces a collaborative atmosphere in which students support and fill each other in. The faculty are fully aware of this situation, themselves have different areas of expertise, and make these differences a productive source of reflection in the classes.

“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 public intellectuals; 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; others will return to their studio practice finding their work transformed. 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.

Program Size

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. 

Financial Aid

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.

School of Visual Arts | 209 East 23 Street, NY, NY 10010-3994 | Tel: 212.592.2000 | Fax: 212.725.3587