Department Dossier: Robert Hullot-Kentor

April 14, 2011

The latest in a series of one-on-one conversations with SVA department chairs.

In September 2012, the College will open the doors of its first-ever Master of Arts program, the MA in Critical Theory and the Arts Department. Chaired by Robert Hullot-Kentor, who is also a faculty member in the BFA Visual and Critical Studies Department, the rigorous three-semester program is an interdisciplinary curriculum of lectures and seminars that focuses on the contemporary situation of art. Hullot-Kentor recently sat down with the Briefs to discuss starting up the new program and what students can expect from an MA at SVA.

Tell me about the MA Critical Theory and the Arts Department.
I can’t fit the program into a nutshell, a single sentence or even a pretty long comment, because the program has a dynamic structure. There is a central group of courses concerned with art theory and aesthetics, social history and the history of art, and social theory. And these courses are built around two open seminars whose topics change each year: In 2012–2013, the Proseminar will be devoted to Convergence of the Arts in the 21st century, alongside the Serious Times Lecture Series. These aspects of the program combine to focus on what is going on in art today in a way that involves the entire history of art and society and the most important questions we have about our lives.

What kind of student are you expecting will apply?
I expect people who have a whole lot on their minds and who very much want to have a whole lot more on their minds. Artworks present problems, and today these problems demand considerable reflection. The students in the program are likely to come from many disciplines because philosophy, social history, political science and many other fields of inquiry now turn to the arts in wanting to solve their most central concerns.

What can enrolled students expect from their first year?
‘Beginning to locate what’s most at stake in the arts right now’ is one way of describing what students can expect from their year’s work in the program. And the possibility for this is provided by a highly experienced faculty drawn from several fields of inquiry, all of whom are prepared to provide a well thought-out, dynamic curriculum and see it through with the students as a group and as individuals. It is one intense year. At the end of that year you’d still recognize yourself in the mirror, but much else would have changed.

This is SVA’s only MA program. How does it fit into the College’s ecosystem?
What especially shapes this program, and what makes it different from most graduate programs in critical theory, is that the program’s interest, first and last, is art. This is not a theory program about theory. It’s about art, what we can learn about art and, most of all, what we have to learn from art. Artworks ask us to think about them; they are waiting to be understood. It is essential that we comprehend them, though doing so involves recognizing that comprehending art is different from comprehending statistics or objects of scientific inquiry. So it makes sense that a program in critical theory and the arts that is most of all involved in understanding art should be located at an art school, surrounded by students who are up all night making things in their studios. We want to be right down the hall from the print room, upstairs from animation and around the corner from video, photography and painting.

What are you most looking forward to about starting the program?
Teaching. It’s what I do. I’m pleased to have a situation in which I can teach what I most have to teach. I know the other faculty in the program feel the same way about it.

What has surprised you the most about the process of starting a new department?
How hard it is. It really is hard. I’ve been impossibly busy. There are an awful lot of details to solve. I’ve been thinking about organizing the academic side of this program for maybe 20 years, but I never had to worry about where or how to order a stapler for my desk and for the others working with me. But it’s not so difficult taking these things in stride at SVA. I’ve taught at a number of schools, but SVA is the first college where I feel at home. It’s good when one can know that one has something good to make and has allies to collaborate with in making it who share that recognition, and who are right away ready to pitch in. That is the atmosphere I’ve found at SVA.

Image: Photo by Harry Zernike, ©2011 Visual Arts Press, Ltd.

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