Department Dossier: David Levi Strauss

January 15, 2010

The first in a series of one-on-one conversations with SVA’s department chairs.

MFA Art Criticism and Writing Department Chair David Levi Strauss is starting off 2010 with a double publishing event, releasing both his new essay collection From Head to Hand: Art and the Manual (Oxford University Press, 2010) and a new edition of his underground classic Between Dog and Wolf: Essays on Art and Politics (Autonomedia, 2010). Strauss talked to the Briefs just before the beginning of the spring 2010 semester to discuss the two books and his role running a graduate department at the College.

Tell me about From Head to Hand.
It’s a book that has been in the works for awhile, and I’m very pleased with how it’s turned out. I’m generally known as someone who writes about photography and politics, and this was an effort to focus on mostly painters, sculptors and drawing, along with some writers. It’s a look at the least mediated of the arts; if photography is the most mediated, meaning that it involves the most media between the artist and the work, the things I’m talking about in this book are much less so.

You’re also seeing an older book, Between Dog and Wolf, reissued at the same time.
It was my first collection, and it’s kind of earned an underground place. This new edition has a prologue written by Hakim Bey, with whom I’ve done a number of things over the years. I’ve had an unusual trajectory as a writer, in that I started out as a poet and then began to write essays. I’ve found the essay form to be extremely flexible and full. It’s served me well for 25 – 30 years. I can certainly see an historical progression in the way I think, and the writing has developed in various ways, but I think there’s a continuity through it all.

How has your experience at SVA affected the way you approach art criticism?
The thing about SVA that people know is that we encourage practitioner teachers. When I became chair, I didn’t stop being a writer. I write constantly and publish a lot, and I think it feeds into my teaching and running of the department. From the beginning I’ve had the idea that this is not a primarily academic program—it’s a practical program. It’s intended to prepare people to write out in the world as I do. The intent is to write directly and clearly about art.

What impresses you most about the students in your department?
Their enthusiasm to learn. That’s what I’m looking for in students. When I find it, it’s very exciting, and it makes everything go better when someone is just hungry to learn. Then, the teachers can do anything. There are no brakes on how far we can go.

Image: David Levi Strauss, From Head to Hand: Art and the Manual (Oxford University Press, 2010).

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