The Art Writing Library on 21st Street (courtesy the author)

In the fall of 2003, the writer, art historian, and philosopher Thomas McEvilley, who I’d known for some time, called me to say that he was planning to start a graduate program in Art Criticism & Writing at the School of Visual Arts, and he wanted me to be a part of it. He gave me a rough outline of how the program would be structured, described what he was trying to do, and asked for my advice. He was also talking with Arthur Danto and Donald Kuspit about it. I liked what Tom was planning, thought it was the right time for such an effort, and agreed to be one of the first teachers in the program. When it was launched in fall 2005, I taught a graduate seminar in “Image & Belief.”

After that first year, I became absorbed in teaching at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard, charged with trying to improve the writing being done by curators, and also in Bard’s interdisciplinary studio MFA program that happened mostly in the summers. In 2007, I got a call at Bard from the provost at SVA telling me that Tom was leaving, and asking whether I would like to take over as chair of the Art Criticism and Writing program? After a few more meetings, and the provost’s repeated assurances that I would be given a free hand to build and run the program as I wished, I accepted.

It took five years to build the program I envisioned. My only real model for such an endeavor was something called the Poetics Program in San Francisco, where I was a student from its inception in 1980 to 1983. This was a program in poetics, conceived in its largest sense, as the study of how things are made. It was taught entirely by poets, under the direction of the great poet Robert Duncan, who taught a seminar called Basic Elements. We read the foundational texts of structuralism and post-structuralism as well as those of Hermeticism, Neoplatonism, and Orphism. Duncan had taught at Black Mountain College with Charles Olson in the 1950s, and the Poetics Program at New College in San Francisco was very much part of the Black Mountain diaspora.

The program in Art Criticism and Writing (the name of the program was changed in 2016 from “Art Criticism and Writing” to “Art Writing,” in an attempt to shake off the negative charge of “criticism,” but the bases of the program remained the same) that I built was fundamentally a writing program, in the midst of a large art school. It concentrated on the essay as form and encouraged hybrid forms. But it was also an attempt to give students an intellectual base that they could build on, as writers, for the rest of their lives, and a way to find and maintain their own network of sources.

Because of the unusual nature of the program, it was difficult to know where to go to find students. I was always on the lookout for prospects, and began to find them far and wide, all over the world. Initially, we attracted a number of poets, fiction writers, and playwrights that wanted to write about art. Later, a dual educational background in literature and art was common. And we always included some visual artists who wanted to write.

We didn’t exactly teach people how to be art critics. We taught them how to be better readers and writers and viewers of art. The first thing I did each year in my foundation seminar, called Bases of Criticism I, was to bring in two works of art and ask students to choose one of them and write something in relation to the work, longhand, on the spot. I wanted them to respond to the works directly, without knowing anything about the art or the artists from outside. I wanted them to account for their experience of the work in writing, without filters or prejudice. These handwritten accounts were like fingerprints. I could tell a great deal about where the student was coming from by examining these first experiments in ekphrasis.

At the beginning of Bases of Criticism II, I asked students to answer the question, What is criticism? I picked up this exercise from the art historian Leo Steinberg, who always asked his students to do the same. Comparing how a student answered this question when they came into the program with how they answered it after being in the program for two years, was also very revealing. At a time when the very idea of criticism was becoming suspect, this concentration on it as a practice was a radical turn.

I figured out early on that what worked was to find the best writer-teachers I could and then encourage them to teach what they were most passionate about. A lot of extraordinary writers taught in the program over its 16 years of existence, and we brought a host of other writers in for guest appearances, lectures, and talks. An archive of 80 of the public talks can be found on the SVA YouTube channel here: Quijote Talks & Lecture series archive.

In the end, we decided not to accept an incoming class for the Fall 2020 term. Covid restrictions made our kind of hands-on teaching and learning almost impossible, but thesis writing continued undiminished. The seven students who wrote their theses and graduated from the program in May 2021 comprised our final class. In 16 years, the program graduated 112 alumni who are now out in the world, writing, editing, teaching, and making a difference in how the task of criticism is perceived.

It became increasingly clear over the life of the program that critical thinking itself was being threatened in the face of major changes to our communications environment. The corporations that now control most of our day-to-day communications have done everything they can to make critical thinking irrelevant, reducing it to personal preferences and opinions, and that has made it difficult to engage difficult questions in the larger social frame. This takeover of daily communications has also contributed to a breakdown in the trust necessary for open educational exchange. So, making a place where critical thinking was at the center of everything was bound to be an uphill battle.

But we made it work for a little while, in a library and a seminar room on 21st Street, with a significant number of people. Radical educational experiments like this usually don’t last very long, and 16 years is a good run. I’m sad to see it end, but I’m proud of what we were able to do in the time we had. Hopefully, the legacy of the program will live on, in the ongoing work and writings of all the extraordinary students who came through our program.

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David Levi Strauss

David Levi Strauss is the author, most recently, of Photography and Belief (David Zwirner Books/ekphrasis series, 2020) and Co-illusion: Dispatches from the End of Communication (The MIT...