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This is not a theory program about ‘theory.’ This is a program about what we can learn about art, of course, but, most of all, what we have to learn from art. Artworks ask us to think about them as does nothing else humanly made. An artwork is not founded on any conceptual presupposition or assertion, and this makes it possible for us to experience in it the origin of thinking—as the experience of the need in thinking—which is why art is at the center of the critique of domination.

The three-semester MA program has a unique and 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.

Degree Requirements: 

• Successful completion of 36 credits, including all required courses and the thesis project. Documentation of all thesis projects must be on file in the Critical Theory and the Arts Department to be eligible for degree conferral. 

• Three semesters of residency (fall, spring and summer). Students must complete their degree within two years, unless given an official extension by the provost. 

• Students are required to maintain a minimum grade point average of 3.0 (B) in order to remain in good academic standing.

 Note: Departmental requirements are subject to change by the department chair if the chair deems that such change is warranted.


CTG-5340 Critical Theory and Aesthetics I
CTG-5345  Critical Theory and Aesthetics II
CTG-5370  The Arts, Their History and the United States I
CTG-5375  The Arts, Their History and the United States II
CTG-5420  Social Theory, Research and Criticism I
CTG-5425  Social Theory, Research and Criticism II 
CTG-5540  Proseminar 1: Artists’ Colloquium I 
CTG-5545  Proseminar 1: Artists’ Colloquium II
CTG-5730  Proseminar 2: The Serious Times Lecture Series I
CTG-5735  Proseminar 2: The Serious Times Lecture Series II
CTG-5810  Psychoanalysis: Insight and Cognition
CTG-5900  Comprehensive Thesis

General Course Listing

CTG-5340 / CTG-5345
Critical Theory and Aesthetics I and II
Two semesters: 3 credits per semester
These seminars are 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.

CTG-5370 / CTG-5375
The Arts, Their History and the United States I and II
Two semesters: 3 credits per semester
Taught by the program chair, these seminars 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.

CTG-5420 / CTG-5425
Social Theory, Research and Criticism I and II
Two semesters: 3 credits per semester
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 struggles 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 these courses 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 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.

CTG-5540 / CTG-5545
Proseminar 1: Artists’ Colloquium I and II
Two semesters: 1.5 credits per semester
In these seminars 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 and art scholars 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?

CTG-5730 / CTG-5735
Proseminar 2: The Serious Times Lecture Series I and II
Two semesters: 1.5 credits per semester
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 three-fold intention: 1) students develop a substantial understanding of the complexities and tensions of social dynamics; 2) students discover that these realities turn out to have considerable implications for what is happening in the arts today; and, 3) 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?

Psychoanalysis: Insight and Cognition
Spring semester: no credit
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.

Comprehensive Thesis
Summer semester: 12 credits
The Comprehensive Thesis is the occasion for MA candidates to establish meaningful coherence in the 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 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. Students are encouraged to formulate these topics in a way that builds directly on what they have been intensely studying. 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.
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 few weeks of the semester, students present the 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 thesis with selected members of the faculty and invited discussants.

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