Critics Wanted

Acclaimed writer David Levi Strauss brings a photography critic's eye to SVA's fledgling Art Criticism and Writing program.

When David Levi Strauss talks about the possibility of a "post-critical future," he might as well be talking about a post-apocalyptic one.

A vogue term for several of today's crises of information, Strauss describes "post-critical" in his own succinctly forceful way as "a future where public matters are decided by fiat and force rather than deliberation and debate." But however you define it, it is something that Strauss is dedicated to diverting -- and one of his main motivations for accepting a new position as the chairman of the School of Visual Arts' fledgling Art Criticism and Writing program.

"We live in a conflicted time when the need for criticism is great, but the practice of it is embattled," says Strauss, who is a well-respected author, educator, and art critic with a special place in his heart for photography.

Perhaps in anticipation of that need, the Art Criticism and Writing program was created in 2005 largely under the auspices of Tom McEvilley, who directed it until this year. Touted as a program that prepares students "to apply critical thinking to the image in all its manifestations to better understand how we are subject to them," it is one of only a few masters programs dedicated exclusively to the formal criticism of art. Its students -- five the first year, 12 the second, and more to come -- arrive from backgrounds including philosophy, art history, and creative writing. Once they are trained to think critically and write eloquently about "the image," Strauss hopes to see them move on to doctoral programs and teaching positions.

Or, as Strauss admits he is eager to see, they may go on to write the kinds of accessible critical essays that have made him the darling of magazines such as Aperture and Artforum. Strauss won the 2007 Infinity Award for writing from the International Center of Photography and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2003. His books include Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics and a forthcoming one about photography and belief.

"I want the [Art Criticism and Writing] program to embrace all kinds of criticism that is out there in the world and that is not cloistered behind ivy walls," Strauss says. "When talking about the politics of the image, the critique is so important and so much needed, it's not right to limit it to a small group.

It is important to note that the word "image" keeps coming up here. While that encompasses more traditional visual arts such as painting, it's hard not to hear in it the ring of "technology-based images," as Strauss describes the art on which he's built his career: video, film, and, of course, photography.

"I don't think we understand as much about photos as we think we do," he insists. "That's why I keep writing about it." And why he's interested in teaching a new generation to write about it. One of the misconceptions that has led to photography's misperception, Strauss says, is the idea that because a photograph is created instantaneously, it can also be understood instantaneously.

"I don't think that's the case," he counters. "I think you have to look at images for a long time before different layers of meaning start to come through."

While Strauss has championed this approach as it specifically applies to new media, he also sees it as the mark of a good art historian in any medium -- a philosophy he undoubtedly will impart to the department's students.

Strauss also brings with him many years of experience as an educator, including a class called Image and Belief he taught for the department of Art Criticism and Writing's inaugural year. He has served as a visiting critic or professor at universities including Yale, Columbia, New York University, and University of California, Los Angeles. Strauss' pet project for the past six years however, has been the Master of Fine Arts program at Bard College. If he can possibly make it work with his new schedule, he says he wants to stay involved there. "I believe in that program," he says.

But, of course, he is most eager to plunge into his duties at SVA. Along with the many responsibilities of running the department, Strauss is also teaching its two-part core class, The History of Theory and Art Criticism, which McEvilley taught last year. The program's curriculum is rounded out by special-topics classes taught by SVA faculty and visiting professors, as well as a thesis seminar.

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