Critical Theory and the Arts “…is for students with a lot on their minds who want to have a whole lot more on their minds.”
- The broadly conceived curriculum focuses on the contemporary situation of the arts: on the problems of making art today, and on understanding what is at stake in the relation of these developments in art to contemporary social conflict and reality.
- What the arts once were, they soon enough will no longer be. 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.
- A small group of students is selected annually by the Committee on Graduate Admissions.
“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, 36-credit 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 intensive year of study begins with two semesters of seminar work in social theory, aesthetics, art history, psychoanalysis, political thought and gender studies focused on the contemporary situation of the arts. These semesters, in which students take five, rather than the usual graduate school curriculum of three classes per term, succeed at condensing into the year what otherwise generally takes two years of graduate level work. Students meet individually with an academic advisor throughout the entire year from admission to the program right up to graduation. Students choose a second advisor to direct their MA thesis work, which is completed with the collaboration of a three-member thesis committee. 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 as a whole combines to focus our studies 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.
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, fully aware of this situation, themselves have different areas of expertise and make these differences a productive source of reflection in the classes.
Life After Critical Theory and the Arts
Graduates from this program discover that the MA degree prepares, qualifies and recommends them for many more life possibilities and kinds of work that more narrowly specified craft or career programs, which, though they have their own advantages, do not. Students are able to seek—and have achieved—teaching positions at various levels; work in many areas of the arts, in galleries and museums and work in foundations; students go on to seek advanced degrees, including the PhD, in areas including art history, literature, and philosophy; students may discover an impulse to become public intellectuals; to invent a life for themselves that no one may have thought of yet; and other students return to their engagement as artists with new perceptions and critical insight.
Students come to Critical Theory and the Arts motivated by intensities of inquiry, intellect and an ongoing engagement in problems of social reality and the arts. This is practical: Knowledge engages us in life, and it could not be otherwise.
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.