The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States is a self-inflicted wound that will not heal anytime soon. It will fester and infect other parts of the Social Body for years to come. One of its principle sources, and its ongoing effects, has been the degradation of our collective communications environment. And a big part of that has involved the determined denigration of critical thinking. Rather than talking and writing across lines of difference and disagreement, we have built walls, firewalls around our own views and opinions, to avoid the painful and generative conflict of critical engagement. The balkanization of communications in social media has exacerbated political divisions in the country, and made actual political discourse nearly impossible.
In this toxic context, what does criticism mean, now? That’s the question I decided to ask fifteen alumni of the MFA program in Art Criticism & Writing (now called Art Writing) at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Although concentrating on art writing, the program has always involved the larger terms of criticism and critical thinking and writing, and also the history and future of the image. The program was conceived and launched in 2005 by the great writer and critic Thomas McEvilley. Tom contacted me two years before the program began, to ask for my advice, and I taught in the first years of the program. When Tom left in 2007, I agreed to come in as Chair, partly at the urging of Rail publisher Phong Bui. Since 2017 marks my first ten years in the program, Phong and I thought it would be a good time to commemorate that with my students.
Every year for the past ten years, the first thing I ask my students to do is to look at a work of art and then account for their experience of it in writing—directly and honestly. The second thing I ask them to do is to respond to the question, What is criticism? Every year, their answers have been substantive and surprising. This first assignment is a veiled homage to Leo Steinberg, who always asked his students to answer that question when his classes began. When Leo died, I inherited a portion of his voluminous, annotated library that is now the centerpiece of our departmental library on 21st Street, and Leo’s example of criticism and art history as literature lives on in the program.
The writers gathered together here all graduated from the Art Writing program between 2007 and 2016. I would have liked to include responses from everyone who’s graduated (seventy-eight since 2007, soon to be eighty-eight), but this exceeds the capacity of the section. All of these alumni have been out in the world, writing, for a while now, and I was curious to see how their thoughts about criticism have changed. They responded variously, and generously, mostly, and with a good deal of grace under pressure, as the country was splitting apart. It makes me deeply proud of them. And, at this dire point in our political history, it gives me a glimmer of hope.