Situated in the heart of New York City and at the intersection of words and images, the Art Writing MFA program offers writers the opportunity to bring their language into a complex meeting with the visual arts and the ideas that inform it. This program is not involved in "discourse production" or the prevarications of curatorial rhetoric, but rather in the practice of criticism writ large, aspiring to literature.
The practice of criticism involves making finer and finer distinctions among like things, but it is also a way to ask fundamental questions about art and life. The MFA program in Art Writing is designed to give students a grounding in the philosophical and historical bases of criticism, to improve both their writing and their seeing, and to provide sources that they can draw on for the rest of their lives.
Critics need a broad base of knowledge, so our curriculum is wide-ranging. In addition to the foundation seminar, Bases of Criticism I & II, three levels of Writing Practicums, and the Thesis Seminar, we offer an array of continually changing electives taught by prominent writers and critics.
We concentrate on the essay as form, as well as on shorter forms of review, and learn criticism by doing it. The thesis that students write at the end of their course of study is intended to be a substantial piece of criticism. We want students to come out of this program better prepared to write in the world.
From its inception, this program has had a special emphasis on the history and current transformations of the image. The critics of tomorrow must study images, in all of their manifestations, in order to better understand how we are subject to them.
In addition to our exceptional core faculty, we invite many artists, writers, critics, philosophers, editors, and art historians in each year to give lectures and to meet with our students individually or in small groups. It is obviously a big advantage to have such a program located in the middle of New York City, amidst the greatest concentration of artists and art activity in the world.
Bases of Criticism I & II
Required of all first-year students, these courses will provide background to the history, theory and criticism offered through the elective courses. Foundational texts and other sources will create a base for further studies and assist students in understanding the prominent theoretical positions of art criticism—past and present—and their sources.
On the Line: Drawings, Diagrams and Writing
There are all kinds of lines: linear, broken, zigzagging; there are those that connect, initiate or deviate; there are lines (treads) that bond and lines that escape (into flight). Indeed, lines are the first aesthetic gesture found in prehistory. They are also the foundation of contemporary artistic production, from drawing to installation, from performance to architecture.
This is the first part of a three-semester course. These courses will lead to the writing of the thesis in the final year of the program. Students will study examples of critical writing, such as reviews of current exhibitions. As the process advances, students are encouraged to dig deeply into ideas without ever losing sight of the value of clarity.
The History of Aesthetics
We will read classical and modern texts on aesthetics, tracing the passage from the Platonic notion of the artist as “demiurge” to the contemporary interest in "emergent" art—art whose very nature comes into being in the process of its production. Inquiry into the nature of image readily involves us in the study of the nature of “form.” Is form imposed on inchoate matter? Or does it rather derive the refrom? Are there fixed archetypes—physical, psychological, metaphysical, or mathematical—that dictate its possibilities? Does form flow organically from the material world? Is there an ontology of The Image that can be drawn from our reflection on form? These and many other questions will concern us as we entertain texts from Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Goethe, Blake, Ruskin, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Jung, Olson, Duncan, et al. Writing assignments will be tailored to individual interests and guided through personal conferences.
Home Is a Foreign Place: Writing on Art, Conflict, and Estrangement
What does it mean to write about art in relation to conflict? This class will grapple with the difficulty, intensity, and promise of capturing the work that artists do in times and places that are deeply troubled, whether by political upheaval, economic collapse, epidemic illness, armed struggle, or outright war. Through case studies, close readings, and lively discussions, we will scrutinize the forms of writing—including the dispatch, the daybook, and the diary—that document the urgency of art in moments of extreme or slow-burning crisis, in the face of subtle or sensational violence. Drawing on the work of John Berger, Cynthia Carr, Jace Clayton, Joan Didion, Cuauhtémoc Medina, Yasmine El Rashidi, and Susan Sontag, among others, we will, in our own writing, experiment with a mix of criticism, narrative, and reportage to shake up how we look, what we see, and why we write about a thing so fragile (and magical) as art in so often brutal circumstances.
This is the second part of a three-semester course. These courses will lead to the writing of the thesis in the final year of the program. Students will study examples of critical writing, such as reviews of current exhibitions. As the process advances, students are encouraged to dig deeply into ideas without ever losing sight of the value of clarity.
With the rise of postwar artistic movements such as the New York School, critical writing in United States attained a certain urgency. How to define the radical meanings of midcentury art? This class will consider the varied responses of Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, Meyer Schapiro, Leo Steinberg and others and how their essays and reviews either refined pre-existing formalist strategies or turned to philosophical models such Marxism or existentialism. As their positions became increasingly entrenched in the late modernist period, a certain fallout ensued with the result that academically trained writers such Rosalind Krauss, Douglas Crimp and Craig Owens eventually questioned once cornerstone beliefs in originality and the artist’s subjectivity. Others, such as Michael Fried, Philip Leider and William Rubin, maintained devoted to formalist criteria. In a post-modern era where little or no critical consensus prevailed, a rich, diverse body of discourse emerged that will be examined in depth through these and other key critics such as Arthur C. Danto, bell hooks and Dave Hickey.
The Charismatic Image
What is charisma and how is it embedded in an image? In this course we will investigate the modalities of charisma, its power of attraction and repulsion, and its presumed necessity for aesthetic experience. We will try to define the role of charisma in different contexts of art and politics (from revolutionary activity to totalitarianism). In light of this, we will address themes of captivation, becoming, inspiration, violence, vision, prophecy, charm, temperament, and mediation. Examples through which we will explore these concepts will come from visual arts, philosophy, and the everyday. The assignments will consist of writing about one particular “charismatic-image” chosen from any artistic medium (installation, painting, photography, performance, etc.).
This course is a continuation of Writing I & II, with an added element. In conjunction with writing and revising exhibition reviews for possible publication in the department’s online journal Degree Critical, instructors will consult on thesis issues such as selection of a topic, prognosticated outlines and review of written drafts.
The Oculus: The Light and the Circle
Sight has been the preferred and dominant sense in the history of aesthetic perception. Besides the critique of this domination, this class will delve into two particular qualities of the seeing experience: a) the light as the agent that stimulates the organ (the eye) and b) the circle as the preferred geometric form of seeing objects. Through these two portals we will address theories of perspectivism, animism, and vitalism. Our discussions will include politics of transparency (from satellite surveillance to micro-drones), cross-cultural conceptions of the “evil eye” phenomena, photosynthetic properties in nature, the impact of darkness and shadows as immanently belonging to the sphere of light rather than being its opposites, etc. To this end we will study contemporary artists that use light as their preferred medium, such as James Turrell, Olafur Eliasson, Ann Hamilton, and Christo and Jean-Claude. Furthermore, we will couple these studies with the reflections of Paul Klee, Vasily Kandinsky, Giordano Bruno, William James, and Baruch Spinoza on the physiology and metaphysics of the eye (and the circle). In light of this, our goal is to, on the one hand, diagnose, politically and aesthetically, the present state of vision and, on the other, to unravel its necessity for a more expansive understanding of what constitutes space, creation, and inspiration. Finally, throughout our meetings we will try to define what "luminous writing” should look like in the sphere of art criticism.
Writings on Art, Protest, and Revolution
From partaking in the French Revolution to later rebellions in Russia, Mexico, and China, to fighting in the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation movements, artists have long used activism as a tool for undoing abuses of power. We currently see artists involved in social movements ranging from climate justice to prison abolition to Black Lives Matter to #MeToo. This course will look at recent intersections of art and activism and also ask how artists have used, criticized, and galvanized cultural institutions in their efforts at movement building. In addition to reading select essays and interviews, we will also examine a few philosophical writings, or case studies, on revolution by Lucretius, Arendt, and Deleuze. Key artists and collectives to be examined include: Cauleen Smith, Tiona Nekkia McClodden, Simone Leigh, Chemi Rosado-Seijo, Barbara Hammer, Hank Willis Thomas, Suzanne Lacy, Edgar Heap of Birds, Sue Coe, William Kentridge, Martha Rosler, Carrie Mae Weems, Adrian Piper, Hans Haacke, Tania Bruguera, Nan Goldin, Maria Gaspar, W.A.G.E, Decolonize this Place, and fierce pussy.
Thesis faculty from various backgrounds and fields will discuss what is important about a thesis from their points of view. Students will submit drafts of their work for discussion and review.
A subjective overview of strategies for resisting criticism, this class will look at the perennial efforts artists have undertaken to resist the authority, and the conventional formats, of criticism. From Dada, Fluxus, and Conceptualism, to the Bruce High Quality Foundation and other collectives dedicated to rewriting art history’s curriculum (or pedagogical practice), usurping the critical role has been a recurrent motive. Because the subject is so broad, this course will be organized in part around examples of particular interest to the students who enroll. Susan Sontag’s essay will be one starting point; Sol LeWitt’s sentences and paragraphs on Conceptual art will be another.
Writings by Filmmakers
This course provides a historically wide-ranging and international survey of writings by filmmakers. Bringing together criticism, manifestos, poetry, autobiography and theoretical tracts, it covers the early Soviet cinema (Alexander Dovzhenko, Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov), the first European avant-garde (Germaine Dulac, Hans Richter), documentary and propaganda (John Grierson, Humphrey Jennings, Leni Riefenstahl), American experimental film (Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren, Jonas Mekas, Jack Smith), the French New Wave filmmakers associated with Cahiers du Cinéma (Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer), the Japanese New Wave (Nagisa Oshima), and movements like Cinema Novo (Glauber Rocha), as well as poet-filmmakers (Forough Farrokhzad, Pier Paolo Pasolini), cinema and metaphysics (Robert Bresson, Nathaniel Dorsky), feminist cinema (Laura Mulvey), the essay film (Harun Farocki, Chris Marker), and the filmmaker-as-filmhistorian (Thom Andersen). Through a series of workshops, students refine the way they discuss moving-image art, considering how the writings of these auteurs have shaped their filmmaking and vice versa.
Narrative as Criticism
If criticism aspires to be the best of literature, then this class seeks to account for a genre within a genre: forms of writing that put narrative techniques at the service of criticism, and vice versa. Inspired by the work of filmmakers, novelists, and artists, we shall deliberate on instances where storytelling has been deployed across medium -- particularly in the combination of text and image to produce a third, exploratory space. The models being studied are intended to serve as prompts for the aspiring critic. How are sensibilities cross-pollinated, such that a critic might begin to think, for instance, like a novelist or an essay-filmmaker? Most importantly, our enthusiasms pay attention to form, writ large, so that our writing can appear to be mutable, as well as lucid. In our deliberations, we will keep in mind the nature of an experiment; that is, we are not looking for precise delineations of form, but for quirky, idiosyncratic stratagems, even those that seem improbable.
Each student will meet with his or her advisor and work on a one-to-one basis throughout the semester. Meetings are used for the instructor to read drafts of the thesis-in-progress followed by discussion on its development.
Applicants must have a bachelor's degree from a regionally accredited college or university or equivalent diploma from a four-year professional art school.
Application form and nonrefundable $80 fee. Click here to apply online.
Official transcripts from each college or university attended.
Transcripts from foreign institutions must be officially translated into English and U.S. grading equivalencies. More information regarding our foreign transcript evaluation can be found here.
Three letters of recommendation from instructors or practicing professionals.
Writing samples between 2,500 and 3,000 words long. Content is at the discretion of the applicant. Applicants are encouraged to submit papers or articles that have been published or presented, if applicable.
Statement of purpose (250–500 words) describing the applicant's reason for pursuing graduate study
Proof of English Proficiency (required of applicants whose primary language is not English).
Nonimmigrant alien applicants are required to submit documentation of sufficient financial resources to attend SVA.
Applications for Fall 2020 enrollment are now being accepted. We will continue to accept applications on a rolling basis until all positions are filled by exceptional candidates. We encourage you to apply earlier rather than later, to ensure that places in the Fall 2020 class are still available. Applicants who need immediate confirmation of the receipt of application materials should send all materials through a mailing service that will track the package.
Send all materials together to
Office of Graduate Admissions
School of Visual Arts
209 East 23 Street
New York, NY 10010-3994
The College does not disclose admissions decisions via phone, fax or e-mail. Note: All application materials become the property of the School of Visual Arts and will not be returned.
Art Writing Tuition
For a full schedule of graduate tuition and fees for the Art Writing program, please consult SVA's Student Accounts page.
What We're Reading
- Donald Judd, Complete Writings 1959-1975
- Heiner Müller, Germania
- Ananda K. Coomaraswamy; The Door in the Sky
- Pier Paolo Pasolini, Heretical Empiricism
- Hannah Arendt, On Violence
- Edward W. Said, Representations of the Intellectual: The 1993 Reith Lectures
- Samuel Beckett , Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment
- John Berger and Jean Mohr , Another Way of Telling
- William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin, The Third Mind
- Looking through Duchamp’s Door: Art and Perspective in the Work of Duchamp, Sugimoto, Jeff Wall
- Hans Belting
- A Natural History of Pragmatism: The Fact of Feeling from Jonathan Edwards to Gertrude Stein
- Joan Richardson