David Levi Strauss
For fifteen years, from 2006 to 2021, the MFA program in Art Criticism & Writing (which changed its name to Art Writing in 2015) invited some of the best and most prominent art writers to speak. The series was established by the founding Chair of the program, Thomas McEvilley, who presided over the first five events, and was then continued by the new chair, David Levi Strauss, to its conclusion. The first talks were held in the SVA Amphitheater on 23rd Street and 3rd Avenue, then moved to the SVA Theatre on 23rd Street and 9th Avenue, and finally to our own department library on 21st Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues. At that point, the series was renamed “Quijote Talks,” in honor of the storied El Quijote bar and restaurant in the Chelsea Hotel, where our students and faculty often went with the speakers for dinner and talk after the lectures. The name was also, of course, inspired by the errant knight himself, and the series consisted of pointed talks and discussions about relevant pasts and possible futures. Here’s the link to the archive: Quijote Talks & Lecture Series Archive
Tributes from Faculty Members in the Program
Debra Bricker Balken
Teaching Critical Strategies in the SVA MFA Art Writing program was always an exhilarating experience. The students were truly remarkable, engaged not only in the craft of writing but in the urgent issues that confront the practice of criticism. I am sure Levi’s exemplary program will continue to live on through their words.
The éminence grises for David Levi Strauss’s Art Writing program at the School of Visual Arts were John Berger, Susan Sontag and Leo Steinberg. Each of the three is a revered writer who loved knowledge, thought independently, read closely, and surprised, provoked and moved readers. Each brought into being a community of readers that continues to turn to them. If you look hard, read well and commit yourselves to the never-ending struggle to write with passionate intelligence, art writing has no limits, Levi communicated to his students. Art needs you, the culture needs you, we are behind you, go for it, his program said.
Working with and for David Levi Strauss at SVA was like entering an asylum for provocative thinking around a brilliant constellation: contemporary visual art, critical writing, politics and poetics. These animated our inquiries, free from jargon and from received ideas of significance. Intellectual freedom is always rare; those of us who were part of Levi’s inspired gathering were lucky and happy, knowing we were having a conversation, with each other and with our students, anchored by his respect and trust. Thank you, Levi!
The SVA Art Writing MFA program, in which I had the good fortune to teach for more than a decade, brought together students from all over to talk and write about an equally unbounded range of cultural events, objects and ideas. Initiated by Tom McEvilley and developed by David Levi-Strauss, two thinkers and educators of rare breadth, it was a laboratory, a forum, and an uncommonly welcoming home.
The world is full of gatekeepers (especially the academic world). One really has to cross the desert to find an oasis where to be fully oneself. The Art Writing program at the School of Visual Arts in New York was one such oasis. All the seeds of my work to come here germinated in an amicable way. This space of freedom, both in spirit and in thought, where I taught for six years, was marked by receptive students and a chair (our dear David Levi Strauss) who let the act of teaching mysteriously open. Presently this space is folding but not dying. It continues to live through the work of those that were nourished in it and now pollinate the world with their words.
Both as a teacher and as a writer, I have never felt as proud, or as invigorated, as I have during my eight years on faculty in the MFA Art Writing program at SVA. To have spent that time among colleagues and students who share a passion not only for the art of criticism, but also for the power of the written word, was a joy and an honor. I am deeply grateful to David Levi Strauss for giving me a gift beyond measure; namely, the space and support to teach what I love and believe in most. The cultural landscape is much richer for this program, and I look forward to seeing how the alumni continue to cultivate and shape literature, the arts, and the future.
Levi created a program to extol writing as an art. His doctrine, if one existed, said that being excited by and thinking about ideas and theories is great; talking is great. But writing on them requires as much effort as thinking. In the thesis seminar I taught and participated in, an idea was realized on a page only when the thought was as good as its elucidation. Levi advocated for the necessity of a writer’s excitement and understanding to be written for the page, for readers, meaningfully, even beautifully. I share his belief in the essential relationship of writing and thinking, and am happy to have been a teacher in this critical project.
In January 2012, nudged by Eric Gottesman, who had been Levi’s student at Bard, I sent in my application to the Art Writing program at the School of Visual Arts, New York. After I was accepted and couldn’t resume that fall due to financial constraints, Levi sent me a short essay he wrote at the prompting of Irving Sandler. “Dear Irving,” the essay began, “If it’s not good writing, it can’t be good criticism.” Thus began my apprenticeship, nearly a year before I eventually resumed. That sentence—paraphrased from Walter Benjamin—became, and remains, a defining statement of my work. I needed a lodestar, and Levi, together with the eclectic group of writers and critics he assembled during my two years there (Claudia La Rocco, Nancy Princenthal, Dejan Lukic, Charles Stein, Lynne Tillman, Susan Bee, Thomas Beard, Jennifer Krasinski, and Susan Bell), provided an unforgettable and nonpareil constellation. Things came full circle for me when, in fall 2016, I began teaching the foundational Writing I course at the program. I didn’t think I was deserving, but as he had done for me as a student, Levi placed a bet on all that was yet to come. I point to my trajectory to make my gratitude unflinchingly personal, to say this for myself, and I hope for others: Without your pathfinding work, dear Levi, what would we have done?
What to say about the art writing MFA that is enough? For a writer who has since my teen years loved bending an object into language and those shimmering, psychedelic possibilities of pushing on words and vision and time and histories, there is no place I wanted to teach more. Also, because the program celebrated the essay as form, a form with its own elasticity … And, that it was the only place in the country doing this work with criticism, and that it included a broad array of students across diverse backgrounds. In my short time working with them, they’ve explored everything from works of high modernism to breaking capitalism in the lyric form to shit and Sheila Fell. This program that Levi developed and shepherded held my pedagogical heart and now that heart is broken.
Phong H. Bui
Among the most profound pleasures of my teaching career was passing to my students what I’d learned from Meyer Schapiro’s worldview of humanism and his thoughtful advocacy for the artists’ “inner freedom;” as well as Dore Ashton’s tireless defenses of the artists’ indispensable contributions to our cultural firmaments, and Irving Sandler’s essential on-the-spot art history with artists in their studios, among others. The opportunity to share how we, critics, writers, and curators communicate with our artist colleagues with absolute sensitivity, intelligence, and scholarly rigor, has deepened my commitment to carry out this tradition of passing the baton with the utmost care at the Rail. The two graduate seminars I taught at Levi’s program reaffirmed the possibility of bridging the academy and real life experience. I’m forever grateful to Levi and his program, as well for the alliances I forged among faculty members and students, many of whom are essential to the Rail’s ongoing “living organism.”
The opportunity to teach in Levi’s Art Writing program was exceptional in a number of ways. As an artist, being asked to to teach future art writers made clear to me Levi’s profound respect and commitment to theory born out of practice, out of looking and thinking deeply and slowly, and out of a complex set of sources and resources that includes makers and thinkers of all kinds. It’s a way to develop theory as practice, as well. As his student years before, at Bard MFA, I learned from how he modeled this method through conversation, correspondence, and the generous act of looking together at work, and allowing thoughts the space and time to take form alongside it.
With students, Annette, and Emily, Levi made a beautiful home for the wandering souls of those who cross the Rubicon back and forth between art and writing, art as writing, and writing as transformation. A thing of joy and endless perusal the library they constructed came alive as quivering force for the many guest lectures that I will miss, as will NY City.
I have had the good fortune to teach under the leadership of poets and those attuned to poetry’s strictures and delights. In programs led by Anne Waldman and Robert Storr, I felt an expansive vision at that moment when teaching ramifies to the benefit of both teacher and student. David Levi Strauss’s MFA in Art Writing program at School of Visual Arts was just such an environment. Based in Levi’s experiences at New College in San Francisco, his close proximity to Diane di Prima, Robert Duncan, and others, his editorial acumen at ACTS: A Journal of New Writing (1982–1990), his SVA program came with the awareness that there is no correct way to write about art, or the world, that a multiplicity of approaches would best serve the community, provided each approach was founded on some necessary principles, including careful reading, open-minded analysis, wide-ranging reference points, and the ability and desire to engage in debate to defend or, if necessary, modify one’s positions. I recall that Levi was a top-notch baseball player in his youth, and I always see that athlete’s alacrity and attention to detail in his thinking. It was an honor and a pleasure to have taught classes on The Poet as Critic and Investigating Interdisciplinarity under Levi’s guidance and leadership in that intimate array of minds.
During his time as chair of SVA’s Art Writing MFA Program, David Levi Strauss opened up a vital space for many people to experiment, test out ideas, and push their writing further. He gave teachers like me the chance to introduce new courses on criticism in relation to conflict, race, and revolution; on writing about art in the context of film, poetry, and narrative nonfiction. With a light touch, Levi created a real spirit of camaraderie and non-hierarchical learning. The students in the program—who came to SVA from all over the world and brought with them deep levels of expertise in journalism, art history, philosophy, and their own established forms of art writing and art making—were ready to question everything and very often worked harder than any others I have known. They continue to pose important challenges for criticism today, a legacy of the program that will stick around even when that great library is packed up and taken away.
My seven years teaching my class in Levi’s program was among the most satisfying teaching experiences I have ever had. Smart and fascinating/fascinated students, an astonishingly various population of young writers. How could it be that people from so many anywheres would be interested in listening to me? Ha! I learned plenty. Hope they did too.
It’s very sad the program has come to an end as we desperately need new critical voices elevating public discourse now. It’s ending is also a reminder of how the landscape of higher education is changing … for the worse. I’m grateful to Levi for being so cognizant of both of these issues and to the staff and students. I know our conversations will continue regardless.
What I most appreciated about the MFA in Art Writing program at SVA, where I had the privilege to teach in the fall of 2012, was its refusal to approach art through the lens of the market. Too many pieces of art criticism are press releases by other means, and I never had the sense that the program’s guiding pedagogical principle was to provide the tools for explaining an artist’s intentions. Rather, David Levi Strauss and the faculty he assembled aimed to understand the rhetorical, and at times magical, power images have always had, for better and for worse—and when in the service of power, usually the latter. The MFA in Art Writing program taught how to deconstruct these images while simultaneously reconstructing a writer’s art of vision. Its illustrious roster of alumni have graduated to make important contributions across the United States and around the world as writers, editors, curators, and activists. The program will be deeply missed.
Jessica Holmes, Editor of the Degree Critical journal, and Holding Everything Dear: Selections from Degree Critical and the School of Visual Arts MFA Art Writing Published Archive
When Degree Critical was established, about a year after the founding of the MFA Art Writing Program at the School of Visual Arts, it began, as so many digital publications did in 2007, as a blog. Its early years were characterized by a certain quality common to blogs in the mid-2000s: an element of the piecemeal, the hand-stitched that brought together the earliest pieces of writing.
Degree Critical underwent a number of changes in design and format over the ensuing years. The renegade spirit that distinguished the publication remained at the heart, however. What has always made it stand apart from other popular, online art writing publications is the surprising, “anything-can-happen” nature in its approach to art criticism. Degree Critical has always been open to, and encouraging of, alternate ways of considering critical writing. The mission statement of the Art Writing department has long been plain in its aims, and probably scores of the program’s alumni can recall the missive’s most storied line: 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 gathering together of these writings, representing some of the best of what Degree Critical has had to offer readers, is presented here as a memorial totem to the life of the Art Writing Program. If you are a first-time reader of Degree Critical, we hope this will offer you a little insight into the effervescent writing that has come out of the Art Writing Program over the years, the rigorous thought and the contemplative temper that made being a part of it such a unique experience.