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.
Tributes from Alumni
Ann C. Collins
When I first met with Levi to talk about the MFA in Art Criticism & Writing program, I confessed that I had never written a piece of criticism, but he was certain I could learn. “In an essay,” he said, “you can travel as far as you want in any direction, and when you get lost, you can always come back to the art.” Implicit in that thought, I only later realized, is the notion that criticism requires the curiosity to venture far and the resolution to allow oneself to get disoriented in the process. A few months later, I found myself neck-deep in seminars, workshops, readings, and conversations, all of which invited my fellow students and me to move beyond ourselves into new ways of observing and thinking as we tried to find our footing in the writing of criticism. Levi’s words stayed with me throughout that time, and I think of them still. In the moments when there is nothing on the page but a trail of thoughts that have led me to the crumbling edge of a cliff I suspect will not hold, I do what Levi said. I return to the art and to the experience that each of us who had the privilege of spending time in that department carries with us, and I remember that getting lost is a necessary part of arriving at where you need to be.
I always had a suspicion that if one had been able to sit for a long enough time in that little library on the sixth floor, reading book after book, talking and listening with whoever passed through, one might have been able to untangle the threads tying together the whole universe.
Less like a library and more like a huge machine for thinking in unexpected ways, the place seemed governed by the power of sortilege: a book pulled at random or a chance conversation would often draw you around an unexpected corner of thinking, and with your ideas pleasantly crashing down around you, you would be pulled into the fruitful realm of the unexpected.
I will miss such trips, though sometimes across harsh terrain. On them one could not have had better guides or companions.
The Art Criticism and Writing program was like a two-year-long Japanese tea ceremony. Every day we sat in a circle and patiently contemplated the artwork or text before us. We handled each word delicately and thoughtfully, both in our reading and our writing. It was somewhere in the middle of the program that I even realized I wanted to be a writer, that I understood what writing meant. I think it remarkable how from all around the world we came here and found each other—students, teachers, rare books, three kinds of coffee pots—and nurtured each other. Though upset that the department’s physical space no longer exists, I think each of us is aware that its legacy will continue through everyone who passed through its doors.
I want to bring in the voices of two critics who were foundational to our beloved program, so that the energy and intelligence of their minds can be part of our tribute.
The first is Susan Sontag, from her book On Photography, published in 1977, though the essays appeared initially in the NY Review of Books and in her acknowledgements, she writes that were it not for the encouragement of her friends, specifically Barbara Epstein, Robert Silvers, and Don Erik Levine, the essays may not have happened at all.
From the first essay, In Plato’s Cave; this is how she ends:
It would not be wrong to speak of people having a compulsion to photograph: to turn experience itself into a way of seeing. Ultimately, having an experience becomes identical with taking a photograph of it, and participating in a public event comes more and more to be equivalent to looking at it in photographed form. That most logical of nineteenth-century aesthetes, Mallarme, said that everything in the world exists in order to end in a book. Today everything exists to end in a photograph.
And the other quote comes from John Berger, specifically from his book Another way of Telling. A book about photography that Berger made in collaboration with Jean Mohr, published in 1982. Berger acknowledges that this work would not have been possible without the Transnational Institute, which according to its online profile “is an international research and advocacy institute committed to building a just, democratic and sustainable planet.” Berger was one of the first fellows of the institute, which also initially supported his move from London to the French mountain village, Quincy.
And in life, meaning is not instantaneous. Meaning is discovered in what connects, and cannot exist without development. Without a story, without an unfolding, there is no meaning. Facts can be fed into a computer and become factors in a calculation. No meaning, however, comes out of computers, for when we give meaning to an event, that meaning is a response, not only to the known, but also to the unknown: meaning and mystery are inseparable, and neither can exist without the passing of time. Certainty may be instantaneous; doubt requires duration; meaning is born of the two. An instant photographed can only acquire meaning insofar as the viewer can read into it a duration extending beyond itself. When we find a photograph meaningful, we are lending it a past and a future.
I framed the quotations this way to accentuate the value of friendship, of community, and to acknowledge the need for encouragement and support in the creative process. The writing program that fostered a community of creative and critical thinkers has closed, but the relationships that were developed and which form the true network of this community remain vibrantly open.
The clear focus of the Art Writing MFA Program at SVA was to refine the student’s writing craft, giving practical and aesthetic advice alike. But at the same time, there was a parallel emphasis on impacting the budding critic’s reading stance. Through the course of study, we were all faced with reading images as well as texts, where the material at hand—whether visual or linguistic—needed to be taken for what it actually contained, without burdening the object of attention with extraneous baggage pulled from outside. The program stressed this direct engagement with the work, eschewing dogmatic approaches, formulaic structures, and other writerly crutches. As reading and writing are resolutely entwined, the faculty’s syllabi were full of authors—many situated beyond an art-specific sphere—who quickly mutated from unfamiliar new material to cherished voices who could stoke an interior dialogue and impel conversations with others in the seminar room and beyond. Vilém Flusser, Édouard Glissant, Fleur Jaeggy, Fernand Deligny, Jill Johnston, Henry Corbin, and Raúl Ruiz are just some who took turns as catalysts, bringing in new frameworks, crushing older forms, and inspiring total commitment to the possibilities of a writing life concerned with culture. The reciprocal relation of writing and reading, of seeing and thinking, the continuous flow of words into idea and image and back again, this transformative maze was underscored by Levi and the other amazing professors at every turn, and as such I am forever grateful.
I don’t know where I would be today, or what I would be doing, if David Levi Strauss hadn’t happened into my life in the fall of 2015 and radically transformed it. I was an unlikely candidate for his Art Writing program: a broke college dropout in his mid-30s facing a career crisis. I’d already given up on the dream of making a living from writing. Instead, I was getting by gigging whatever creative skills I had for heartless corporations, and hating every minute of it. To Levi this didn’t matter: he convinced me to apply to the program against all these odds. Somehow, he had confidence that it would work; I on the other hand was sure the application effort alone would end in total failure. He even fought the school’s administration to waive some bureaucratic requirements that stood in the way—namely that I didn’t even have proof of completing a BA. Now, thanks to him and to his wonderful then-assistant, artist Annette Wehrhahn, I have a life and a career much closer to what I always dreamt of having. It’s the stuff of fairy tales, but it turned out to be true: A kind person who believes in you more than you do yourself comes and offers you a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s then up to you to take it and run with it. For me—and for many others—that person was Levi.
I’ll keep mourning the closure of this unique program, which gave so many of its graduates a voice, a craft, and a place in the world. Looking back on its spirit of creative freedom and its defiance of ossified conventions of writing and criticism—I wonder how it existed within an academic institution in the first place. I’m lucky to have taken part in that dream while it lasted.
David Levi Strauss’s Art Writing MFA program gave me tools I didn’t know I needed to write about art, tools that also enabled me to perceive the world in ways I hadn't expected. As much as I learned certain “how tos” of art criticism, I was led along more intricate paths that reach at the roots of how we see and sense, how we come to know, and how we make meaning. The titles of certain courses I took—Criticism and Risk, Art and Information, Motion Capture, The Sublime and the Beautiful—are enough to illustrate the range of questions posed by a faculty consisting of critics, artists, poets, and philosophers. But this wouldn’t capture the unique pedagogies of figures like Michael Brenson, Ann Lauterbach, Claudia La Rocco, or Lynne Tillman, who, across their differences, share what I understand to be the quality that Levi valued above all: a dedication to cultural criticism that arises from sustained attention and ethical care more than from any particular discourse or “take.” Those same commitments, it turned out, sharpened our perception of all that was unfolding outside our classes—from Cairo’s Tahrir Square to the Occupy Wall Street encampment downtown, in my years—and not only of those events and objects delimited as “art.”
The community of the Art Writing MFA saved my life as a writer. I entered the program with curiosity and a longing for an intellectual community. What I found became the ground for my political and aesthetic education, my development as a person, and a home for fellow travelers. I was a student in the most recent cohort to graduate, which meant over half of our education took place virtually due to the pandemic. Despite our mutual isolations, we read and discussed critical texts; we laughed and held space for each other’s Zoom exhaustion; we wrote theses that stretched the limits of form; we were mentored by professors who demonstrated care and intentionality in their teaching. My time in the program introduced me to a life built by the quality of my attention. It showed me—through teachers who were devoted to their craft, and through texts that illuminated the path—a way toward living.
Great teachers transmit skills or knowledge; or, they empower the individual to teach themself; or, they create within the classroom a social space that becomes an egalitarian political structure to aspire to in the world; or, they serve as a model of how to fully engage with a question. Levi accomplished all these, and something else as well. More than simply “demonstrating engagement with a question,” Levi effectively infected us, his students, with an incurable disease. “How do images affect humans? What is the source of their power, and how do they obtain it? How should this power be handled?” This line of inquiry became the chronic condition, the lifelong ailment of those who studied with Levi. These questions, as revealed in their full beauty and horror by Levi, can't ever be passed over, or put aside. The stakes are simply too high. Those of us who left Levi’s classroom with the affliction of images know that the permanency of this condition is proof of its central importance, and that to have contracted this disorder was, in fact, a fortuitous gift. We stare at images, the images stare back. We feel grateful.
Sahar Khraibani and Sumeja Tulic
We were standing on the green, putting,
and our recollections came to resemble history:
serious, but not too serious,
redundant—and so on.
Reading Ashbery always reminds us of Bases—two memorable classes that David Levi Strauss taught us. It is there and then that we came to accept that we are people of plurals—we stand on more than one ground. Yes, now and then, these tectonic plates move and collide, the earth shakes, and things break, but it is only to bring certain elements closer to each other. The Art Writing program was a cartographic guide not to certainty but to safety.
Walking into the beautiful and expansive library of the department gave a feeling that could only be matched by conversations we had with Levi and our mentors from the program, in and outside of the classroom. The practice of criticism, as we have been taught, requires making finer and finer distinctions amongst things, but most importantly it was a way to question fundamental notions about life and art.
Not only was the program grounds for expansion in a literary sense, but it also fostered pivotal friendships such as ours. We are forever grateful to our dear Chair and teacher David Levi Strauss without whom we would never have embarked on this journey—and so on.
The Art Criticism & Writing program at the School of Visual Arts (which became “Art Writing” after I graduated in 2016) did not teach critical theory, curatorial practices, or really any other methodology for approaching art—other than, of course, the practice of writing. Incidentally, this is why the program was accredited as an MFA. On the first day of class, Levi brought two artworks in from his car—a blue saddle painting by Ron Gorchov and a series of frames Kurt Ralske excerpted from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc—set them on the table and (in my memory, he’s departing the room, but he may have remained silently) instructed us to write. Later, he underlined the parts that “felt alive.” Academic insights and other forms of received wisdom were left unmarked, deemed callow; underscored was the language that bluntly communicated the effect of the object’s presence. It was an exercise in forgetting what we thought we knew and learning to see. When in doubt, whenever you’re stuck, teachers reminded us over the years, go back and look longer, look harder. I came to think of writer’s block as something that lives in the punctum caecum, where the retina meets the optic disk and the eye is blind. Something curious happens in the synapses between the eyes and brain, the brain and fingers … if you’ve spent enough time looking, they fire in inarticulable patterns that nonetheless cohere into language. It took most people two years to pass through the Art Criticism & Writing program, or just long enough to begin developing this obscure mental procedure. The class of 2016 comprised seven students. We deemed bad criticism a form of violence against art, and good criticism a way to augment its visual potency. These are mystical processes, to be sure, but we were encouraged to embrace magic and alchemy.
It was the only school of its kind in the world, and it only lasted 15 years. The day I learned, in 2020, that it would shutter was one of the most difficult days of that dismal year. Whatever comes after, whomever wants to nurture the next generation of art critics, will have to account for its absence.
To be an independent critic is a hard thing in China, because it takes time to write a quality review on an exhibition with little payment, or, most of the time, no payment at all. So I have to earn money by other means. But I am proud of myself, for no matter how hard my financial situation may be, I have never compromised my independence for money or other reasons, because I know that in some parts of this world, my fellow writers from our program are doing the same; and because I know that, one day, If I were to stand in front of Levi, I wouldn’t feel ashamed of my deeds.