Course of Study

IDSVA offers a low-residency PhD in art theory, philosophy, and aesthetics to visual artists, architects, curators, and creative scholars.

Course of Study

The IDSVA course of study is made up of three interrelated academic programs: Topological Studies, Seminars, and Independent Studies. Each of these programs focuses on the historical relation between art and ideas. Over the three-year course of study, the programs overlap and intersect, illuminating from three blended perspectives the ever shifting, ever volatile relations between art and ideas.

The coursework blends distance learning with intensive residencies at Spannocchia Castle in Tuscany, the Venice Biennale, Aix-en-Provence, Athens, New York City and Berlin. IDSVA students work directly with internationally renowned artists and thinkers. One self-designed independent study and one seminar course per semester comprise the three-year curriculum. Independent studies are faculty directed. Seminar courses commence in residency and continue online. Online coursework and independent studies are pursued through fall and spring semester and include online seminar videoconferences, one-on-one faculty/student conferences, study group discussion and collaboration, and project research conducted through IDSVA’s virtual library. 

The Course of Study is 60 credits over three years. At the end of the third year, candidates are required to pass the oral and written qualifying exams, and receive permission to start writing the dissertation. The dissertation is submitted within two years following completion of the Course of Study. The PhD degree is granted upon successful defense of the dissertation. Total time to complete the degree is about five years.

Each cohort is made up of approximately fifteen students, for a total of 45 students in the course of study, and 30 additional students writing dissertations. 

IDSVA grants the Master of Philosophy (MPhil) to students who complete a minimum of 40 credits and do not go on to receive the PhD. This degree will be made available to students who enrolled in the PhD program, and who successfully completed the first two years of coursework (40 credits) with an average of B or better. The Director of the School, in consultation with academic advisors and core faculty members, will determine which students should be advised to consider the MPhil instead of proceeding to the PhD.

Year Three



701.1 ~ Topological Studies I: Rome, Spannocchia, Siena, Florence, Venice/Aix-en-Provence  Syllabus
IDSVA Topological Studies is grounded in two or three fundamental ideas. First, the present is shot through with the past, and the past is permeated with the present. Each not only informs but indeed constitutes the other. Secondly, past and present can be grasped only insofar as we bring into view the art and ideas that make up past and present. Moreover, art forms and ideas occur not only in a given time, but in a particular place. Finally, to understand a given moment in a particular place, to configure past and present, we have to put ourselves in situ, in place. 

To know, to experience, the art and ideas of a given time and place, we must uncover their relation to the ideas and art forms that constituted cultural consciousness in other, intertextually related times and places, and to do that, we must go to those other places and experience them as they are now, in the present. To know, to experience, to grasp these relations is to envision the future of ideas, the future of art, the future of history and cultural consciousness. And it is to ask, “what is my responsibility for that future?” 

701.2 ~ Seminar I: The Twentieth Century: Art in Theory  Syllabus
The purpose of this course in critical theory is to (re)introduce students to the major conceptual and practical issues that confronted artists, theorists, critics, philosophers, and aestheticians in the twentieth century. Through the readings, seminar discussions, presentations, and debates, as well as written assignments, students are also expected to familiarize themselves with the language of theory, aesthetics, and philosophy as it is developed over the course of the century, in order to understand art as a dynamic, ever-changing mode of cultural and historical discourse. 

702.1 ~ Seminar II, Part 1: Kant & Hegel  Syllabus
The purpose of this mini-seminar is to lay the groundwork for our fall seminar in Art in Theory Revisited. Indeed, our summer’s reading will lay the groundwork for all future readings. More specifically, we might say that while Kant lays the groundwork for the critique of art as form, Hegel lays the groundwork for the critique of art as history. Each in its own way, these critical approaches to art come down to the question of freedom.

The two philosophers studied in this reading session (and in the fall, the remaining three) have been chosen to establish distinct methodologies in the practice of cultural analysis. Here, students look at the relationship between subject and object, time and space, individual and society, duration and event, establishing links between aesthetics, history, and the relationship between the empirical and the ideological. This course aims to lay a solid foundation for thinking the aesthetics of modernity. Kant and Hegel provide the two primary platforms from which nearly all such thinking departs. The seminar will focus on key terms and concepts in the texts, establish the conventional positions of Kant and Hegel (vis-à-vis aesthetics), and then seek to problematize this conventional positioning. Students should finish the seminar with a working knowledge of the Kantian and Hegelian aesthetic positions.

702.2 ~ Seminar II, Part 2: Art in Theory Revisited  Syllabus
The aesthetic philosophy of Kant and Hegel prepared the groundwork for Art in Theory Revisited. In Kant, we saw the critique of art as form; in Hegel, the critique of art as history. In the first three weeks of this seminar we shall see how Marx and Engels extend the Hegelian project to the possibility of a social criticism of art as ideological discourse, showing how the historically conditioned forms of human praxis emerge from within the movements of the Hegelian dialectic. In a similar vein, Nietzsche upends the logical schemes of Western metaphysics (symbolized by Socratic logic, seen as a symptom of decline) in favor of instinctual life attitudes, postulating the primacy of aesthetics over morality, and emphasizing the vitalistic impulse of Greek tragedy, born of the encounter of two drives or forces – the Dionysiac and the Apolline. Finally, Freud presents the possibility of a psychoanalytic critique of art as an aesthetic representation of individual human subjectivity. The purpose of Seminar II, Part 2 is to (re-) read excerpts from Art in Theory 1900-2000 in order to more fully grasp the ways in which Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud inform the artists and thinkers whose work appears in the anthology, which serves as a compendium of twentieth-century ideas about the historical status and function of art. These ideas will be examined with reference to specific keywords that can be traced back to the five foundational thinkers, and situated in the passage between modernism and postmodernism – i.e., early twentieth century and late twentieth century. As such, seminar discussions will be given over to intertextual analysis along the lines indicated above.

703 ~ Seminar III: A Quick History of Philosophy  Syllabus
Seminar III begins with a seven-day January intensive residency in New York. Museums to be visited include the Whitney Museum, the Jewish Museum, the Metropolitan, Guggenheim, & MoMA, among others. Students will give seminar presentations on fall papers, with a view toward linking those papers to questions raised during the residency talks, lectures, and museum visits.

Seminar III, Part 2: A Quick History of Philosophy combines a survey of Western Philosophy from the ancient Greeks to the post-modern period with a quasi-Independent Study course. Unlike most courses at IDSVA, Seminar 703.2 follows a chronological approach, starting with the philosophy of antiquity (India, ancient Greece) and ending with Post-World War II French philosophy. From week 1 to week 8 we shall focus on the narrative of Western Philosophy in its most distinctive phases: Antiquity, Medieval, Modern (including Renaissance philosophy, the Enlightenment, Romanticism, and early 20th century), and Post-Modern. The narrative of the history of ideas will be alternated with an overview of key thematic issues for each period (Epistemology, Ethics, Metaphysics, Aesthetics, etc.). On week 9 we’ll switch gears to tackle readings from primary texts of post-war French philosophers (Foucault, Merleau-Ponty, Rancière, Lyotard, etc.), which will be read along with the writing of the quasi-Independent Study.

704 ~ Seminar IV: The Subject and Object of Art  Syllabus
Seminar IV, The Subject and Object of Art, will intertextually loop back to Seminar II, Part 2, Art in Theory Revisited. In tracing the relation between the subject and the object as it develops over the course of the last two centuries, we start with Karl Jasper’s reading of Kant and then move to Alexandre Kojève’s introduction to Hegel. (This seminar, which Kojève gave at the École Pratique des Hautes Études from 1933 to 1939, tremendously influenced French intellectual thought. Participants included Bataille, Merleau-Ponty, Breton, Lacan, and Sartre; and Foucault and Derrida figure prominently among others who acknowledge a sizable debt to Kojève.).

We then venture into subject formation as a question of language and ethics, with Bakhtin’s theory of dialogical consciousness. While here in particular Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov provides a point of focus, the intent is to think through theories of language toward a philosophy of visual art. To that end Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution will question the Darwinian mechanism of evolution with an evolution motivated by an élan vital, a naturally creative impetus that shapes human experience. In addition, Bergson’s notion of subjective time, influential in the work of modern writers and thinkers, can illuminate other developments in the field of human subjectivity. Select writings from the works of Merleau-Ponty will reveal a pivotal study of how, within the operations of perception, there is no strict division between the ‘subject’ and its ‘objects’ of consciousness; as well, his work stresses the primacy of embodiment in perception and the painter-like emergence of the visible world. We will examine Deleuze & Guattari’s anti-psychoanalytic philosophy, back up to revisit Freud on the question of neurosis, and turn to Woolf’s novel for an emerging feminist aesthetic that anticipates so many of the issues standing at the more recent intersection of subjectivity, embodiment, and psychoanalysis.

We then turn to Lacan’s theory of the gaze and its more specifically ocular focus on issues of the object/other, and from here to Jacqueline Rose’s feminist reading of Lacan and film theory, as well as Amelia Jones’ important discussion of visual culture, art, and the feminism-postmodernism relation more broadly. Many of these core issues are in play in Levinas’ focus on the phenomenon of responsibility in the self-other relation, though Rose and Jones will have prepared us to wonder about a feminist critique of Levinas. 

801.1 ~ Seminar V, Part I: Topological Studies II: Berlin, Venice, Istanbul  Syllabus
IDSVA Topological Studies is grounded in two or three fundamental ideas. First, the present is shot through with the past, and the past is permeated with the present. Each not only informs but indeed constitutes the other. Secondly, past and present can be grasped only insofar as we bring into view the art and ideas that make up past and present. Moreover, art forms and ideas occur not only in a given time, but in a particular place. German Idealism defines early 19th-c Berlin as much as French Impressionism defines late 19th-c Paris. And third, to understand a given moment in a particular place, to configure past and present, we have to put ourselves in situ, in place. To know, to imagine Benjamin’s childhood in Berlin around 1900, we have to walk the streets of contemporary Berlin, we have to stop mid-stride and ask ourselves, “What is it to not be the young cosmopolitan ‘flâneur’ Benjamin imagined himself as?”

801.2 ~ Seminar V, Part 2: Continental Glissement  Syllabus
In Seminar V, Part 2 we reengaged Kant & Hegel with another reading of Kant’s Third Critique and a good close reading of Hegel’s Introduction to the Phenomenology of Mind and Chapter IV, plus readings from his Aesthetics, Vol. I. Seminar V, Part 2 traces the Kant/Hegel divide into German Idealism and Romanticism and then from Nietzsche into Marx & Freud. From here we turn to Heidegger’s ontological critique of Western thought, especially as he intensifies Nietzsche’s phenomenological deconstruction of Platonic truth and proposes art as the clearing in which truth appears. This proposition “slips” into Derrida’s Of Spirit: Heidegger and the question. Then, in response to Merleau-Ponty’s assertion that “all the great philosophical ideas of the last century…had their beginnings in Hegel,” we trace Hegel’s ideas through 20th-century French post-humanists, winding up with Lyotard and Foucault.

802 ~ Independent Study I  Syllabus
The IDSVA Independent Study program is designed to help the student develop particular scholarly interests and to integrate those interests within the IDSVA curriculum. It is also meant to encourage exploration and extended research toward a dissertation topic, keeping in mind that eliminating unsuitable topics can be just as beneficial as identifying suitable ones. Thus, the Independent Study provides the occasion to cultivate advanced critical methods and scholarly writing skills.

803 ~ Seminar VI: Toward an Ethico-Aesthetics  Syllabus
Seminar VI, Part 1, begins with a seven-day January intensive residency in New York City. Museums to be visited include the Whitney Museum, Guggenheim, MoMA, Museum of Art and Design, and Judd Foundation, among others. Students will give seminar presentations on fall Independent Studies, with a view toward linking those studies to questions raised during the residency talks, lectures, and museum visits.

Seminar VI, Part 2, the virtual/teleconference section of the course, will allow us to re-ask the questions: “what is art?” and “what is art’s responsibility to society?” This conceptual move will allow us to consider the philosophical relation of ethics to aesthetics and vice versa as implicit in the term “representation.”

804 ~ Independent Study II  Syllabus
The IDSVA Independent Study program is designed to help the student develop particular scholarly interests and to integrate those interests with the overall curriculum. It is also meant to encourage exploration and extended research toward a dissertation topic. Finally, the Independent Study is meant to foster the skills and attitude necessary for successful scholarship. These include the wherewithal to plow ahead on one’s own as well as the willingness to seek advice and counsel from colleagues in the field. The student and Independent Study director work together toward the student’s professional development in the terms just noted.

901.1 ~ Seminar VII: Methods Framework  Syllabus
This residency seminar is intended to help students develop a comprehensive, in-depth understanding of the conceptual and methodological debates that have defined contemporary aesthetic theory. Most of the readings have been taken from the first- and second-year IDSVA curriculum, but several new selections have been added in order to clarify the issues at stake in particular areas of controversy. This is the time in a student’s graduate career when, in anticipation of the oral exam and the dissertation, it is important to look back and assess the meaning and significance of the debates to which the curriculum has introduced you. What are the theoretical causes and consequences of the major disputes in aesthetics today, how have they evolved, and what are the methodological and conceptual implications of these disagreements for the work ahead of you? A central goal of the seminar is to help students develop a clearer, more rigorous understanding of where they stand (and why) in these controversies so that they can better demonstrate their readiness to participate in them. The aim is to help students negotiate the transition from understanding others’ theoretical positions to articulating their own independent contributions to debates that will matter to their future work.

901.2 ~ Seminar VII, Part 2: Foundational Texts: Plato to Kristeva  Syllabus
The purpose of Seminar VII, Part 2, Foundational Texts: Plato to Kristeva, is to situate the issues covered in the Methods Framework course within an expanded field of earlier and more recent moments in philosophy and aesthetics. Starting with Plato’s Republic and ending with Kristeva’s The Powers of Horror, and traversing some twenty-five hundred years across the history of ideas, we go from the establishment of classical misogyny to the postmodern critique of patriarchy, from the critique of beauty as a corruption of truth to the celebration of corruption as an instance of the beautiful and the true. As we move across these philosophical horizons, taking up foundational texts as we go, we begin to see recurrent themes and emerging points of argument. Beyond the properly aesthetic question that asks, for instance, what is the relation between word and image, we now come to questions such as, what is truth, what is beauty, what is the relation between beauty and truth? While these broader questions arise as the main issues informing a centuries-long debate, the philosophical and ideological underpinnings of these questions shift from one historical moment to the next, often coiling back on themselves in surprising, even shocking ways. In the end it remains for us to ask, where do we stand in the history of ideas? What is our contribution to the on-going dialogue?

902.1 ~ Dissertation Preparation I, Part 1: Pre-Dissertation Seminar  Syllabus
This residency seminar will  prepare students for their third year of study, during which they will study for their qualifying examination and begin writing their dissertations (producing an outline in the fall and a first chapter or introduction in the spring).

902.2 ~ Dissertation Preparation I, Part 2: Launching the Dissertation: Topic, Outline, Bibliography  Syllabus
In this course students will begin to shape their field statements and reading lists into a roadmap for the dissertation. The aim will be to stabilize your list of 25 titles that will be included on the oral qualifying exam, while also establishing a broader bibliography of books to be explored in the process of research. We will work to hone the dissertation topic and to create an outline that will guide ongoing research.

903 ~ Seminar VIII: Contemporary Readings: Cage to Agamben  Syllabus
The purpose of Seminar VIII is to situate the issues covered in Seminar VII within contemporary issues in philosophy, aesthetics, and art theory. As with Seminar VII our problem remains to answer the question, What is our contribution to the on-going dialogue in contemporary philosophy, aesthetics, and art theory? 

904 ~ Dissertation: Work Planning, Sustainable Research, First Chapters  Syllabus
In this course we will generate a long-term work plan for dissertation research and writing. During the semester, you will write either an introduction or a first chapter of your dissertation. You will continue to read the titles on your list of twenty-five for the Preliminary Oral Examination. During one-on-one telephone calls and conference calls we will discuss techniques for efficient and sustainable research.


IDSVA: The World-Class Low-Residency PhD in Visual Arts