The MFA Art Criticism and Writing and MFA Design Criticism programs at SVA share one important distinction: They are among the very few graduate-level departments in the country that focus specifically on criticism. Both programs provide a solid grounding in history and theory for students to build on as they develop wide-ranging, well-informed and original points of view. Some students come straight from undergraduate study, others are professional writers seeking to expand their knowledge base, and still others are graphic designers, architects and even circus aerialists looking for a career change.
Conversations with four recent graduates reveal a further common denominator: Exposure to the best minds in the field while at SVA was a key factor in acquiring the confident writer's voice needed to produce assertive, insightful criticism. Viewing everything in our visual culture—from animation to contemporary art and architecture to artists' lecture-performances—through a critical lens, their work illustrates the diversity of interests flourishing within these innovative writing programs.
Portuguese freelance designer, curator, teacher and writer Frederico Duarte has lived in four countries and speaks five languages. A true citizen of the world, the 2010 graduate of DCrit's inaugural class has contributed to projects ranging from daily newspapers to exhibitions to a book, Fabrico Proprio, The Design of Portuguese Semi-Industrial Confectionery.
You were already a professional journalist when you entered DCrit. How did the program change your writing?
DCrit helped me develop my voice. I don't think design criticism has really been fully defined yet—many of us are still trying to find it. It also proved to me that there are no sacred cows. For example, I knew of Steve Heller as a sort of big, mighty graphic design 'divinity,' but once I got to SVA and took a class with him, I realized that he's more of a design communicator than a scholar—and a really generous, super-approachable guy. So things became demystified.
Why DCrit as opposed to some other MFA writing program?
In 2007, I saw a small article in Metropolis about the development of the program and thought, 'That's for me!' It was exactly what I wanted to do. When I started writing for the Portuguese daily newspaper Público, I didn't know anything. I didn't even know what the lede was! I really had to learn the nuts and bolts of journalism and develop both a voice and an audience for what I wanted to say.
What are you working on now?
I'm teaching, editing two books for Experimentadesign [a design biennale held in Lisbon], and freelance writing. A Brazilian architecture and design magazine just published a long article I wrote on design in that country—a version of a talk I gave at the Royal College of Art in London. Both projects grew from my MFA thesis work, which was an exploration of contemporary design in Brazil.
I'm now back in Portugal, which is facing a major financial crisis. It's important for me as a writer to see how I can be part of the new awareness and importance of design in such a climate. Do we need to make more crap? More well-produced products? More things exclusively made in Portugal? I'm developing a new publication that will focus on designer-led visits to manufacturing facilities, a sort of design magazine from the factory floor. I see it as a way to look at the relationship of the design/manufacturing process, and to explore the small workshops that make big things and the big empires that make small things.
Originally hailing from Northbridge, Massachusetts, Aimee Walleston arrived at the Art Criticism program after a turn producing fashion shoots for the now-defunct Jane magazine and photographer Bruce Weber. She soon realized production wasn't her calling, and began writing about art for small publications like Tokion. Her critical writing can be found in V Magazine, Flash Art and Art in America online, among other publications. She graduated from Art Crit in 2009.
Is a graduate degree something you've always wanted?
No. My parents didn't go to college at all, so I wasn't really exposed to the path of academia. Getting my MFA wasn't my primary focus, and I honestly worried that I wasn't smart enough to get into graduate school. But I realized that my undergrad education wasn't adequate for what I wanted to do with my writing—I just didn't have the right tools in my tool belt.
How did you decide to apply to Art Crit?
I started going to the department's lectures; the first two I attended were given by Arthur Danto and Mira Schor. I was both excited and perplexed at the same time. My mind was blown! And as a reader I was completely captivated by people like Dave Hickey and David Levi Strauss. They are two writers who have been very influential for me. I would read Hickey and think: 'I want to do what he does.' David Levi Strauss' writing is very personal, but he's not a memoirist. He responds to art theoretically, personally, socially and analytically. When all those wheels are spinning simultaneously, that's when you get really great critical writing.
What did you take away from your experience at SVA?
I came from fashion writing, where you have to make your subject sound good, interesting and seductive. That is also important for art criticism, of course, but it's more of a calling than a career—and the program underscored for me the seriousness of what we're doing. It's a huge responsibility to accurately represent art—to understand and analyze what the artist is doing, to get it, to explain it to the reader—as well as to know the work's place in art history.
When I look at art and interview artists, I still beat my head against the wall, but despite the difficulty, I love what I do. I want the reader to feel he or she is in good hands with me, and that I will help them connect to the art they're seeing.
A native of Texas, Chappell Ellison studied graphic design as an undergrad at the University of Texas at Austin. She's currently a freelance writer and editor for Etsy, the online marketplace for handmade items. A 2010 graduate of DCrit, Ellison was the recipient of the Winterhouse Student Award for Design Writing and Criticism in 2009.
Did you think of yourself as a writer before you applied to DCrit?
Not at all—I wasn't a writer before DCrit, but I guess I've always had a design eye. When my parents took me to Disneyland as a kid, my mom kept pointing out the princesses—'look, there's Cinderella!'—and all I could notice was how the streetlights were specifically designed to match each part of the Magic Kingdom. During my last semester as an undergrad I took one class, Postmodern America, that had a writing component. It was the first time I began thinking about design as writing, and writing as design. That's when it clicked and I felt sort of doomed: I'm meant to be a writer, not an MD or a venture capitalist.
Tell us how you decided on DCrit.
I always knew I'd get a master's degree. I'm addicted to the learning environment—I'd be a permanent student if I could. I ended up at DCrit because designers are my people, and the curse of the designer is that she loves everything too much. I wanted to be able to consider everything in my writing, not just focus on one narrow field like animation or cinema, both of which are other interests of mine.
Did the program change you and what you're doing?
DCrit put me on the ground, in the middle of the field, from Day 1. My teachers were people I respect more than anyone. The program also expanded my definition of what I consider design, especially the scope, and made me realize that just about anything is worth examining and reexamining from a design point of view. A simple walk home from the subway can yield so much material. Now, I have the tools to help me look at things in a newlight.
Was there anything that particularly stands out from your DCrit experience?
Akiko Busch's and Andrea Lippke's classes. Both approached design writing with more of a fictional style, which I wasn't used to or expecting. It was illuminating to talk about design in a storyteller's descriptive way. For me it's all about narrative. It's not meaningful unless there's a story.
Originally from Los Angeles, Patricia Milder is the managing art editor at The Brooklyn Rail and writer-in-residence for the Mount Tremper Arts Festival 2011. Her critical interests focus on the overlap of art, writing and performance, which is not surprising, given her family history (abstract painter father, playwright mother, and figurative painter grandmother). Milder's writings have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, PAJ: A Journal of Art and Performance and Artcritical.com. She graduated from Art Crit in 2010.
How did you get started as a professional writer, before you went to grad school?
I edited listings at The L Magazine in Brooklyn, where I also did weekly reviews of theater, art and dance. I didn't get paid very much, but I got press tickets to anything I wanted, and I started at first with Broadway shows—the most expensive ones. I quickly learned that my heart didn't lie with mainstream theater. I was much more interested in the work going on in smaller venues, and at the margins and borders of disciplines, things that might be text-based or image-based with a performance component.
How did you end up at Art Crit?
I gradually became aware of how much I didn't know. I needed time and space to focus and get involved in my craft, and the Art Crit program crystallized my combination of interests. Attending SVA was what I jokingly refer to as a frivolous impulse, but absolutely the most enriching thing I could have done with my life.
What did you like best about the graduate program?
Art criticism is such a small, specific field, and the Art Crit program presents so many different perspectives; there's a real sense of freedom. My thesis looks in depth at the lecture-performance, which is a form used by artists across disciplines. I discuss contemporary work, tracing the lineage back to Joseph Beuys, Chris Burden and other 20th-century figures. Because of the diversity of the program, I could write this very serious thesis—which was later published in PAJ—and also have the space to experiment with different kinds of writing in different classes. Sometimes a linear narrative doesn't work, and experimental text in its various forms makes more sense when you're attempting to articulate an encounter with a performance or an artwork.