The Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts Course of Study

The Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts course of study has 3 academic programs: Topological Studies, Seminars, and Independent Studies.

Course of Study

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


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, Paris, 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.

Year One

701.1 Seminar I, Part I: Topological Studies I (Europe Residency; Summer; 1 credit)

IDSVA Topological Studies is grounded in 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. 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. What’s more, to understand a given moment in a given place, we have to see that moment and place in light of other, interrelated places and moments. 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?” Residency sites include: Rome, Spannocchia Castle, Florence, Siena, Venice, and Paris.


701.2 Seminar I, Part II: The Twentieth Century: Art in Theory (Europe Residency; Summer; 4 credits)

Seminar I, Part II (re)introduces students to the major conceptual and practical issues that confronted artists, theorists, critics, philosophers, and aestheticians in the twentieth century. Through the readings, culled from Art in Theory 1900-2000, 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. This seminar takes place in residence at Spannocchia Castle in Tuscany, Italy, over a period of two weeks in May. Seminar I introduces new IDSVA students to the IDSVA Program in Critical and Scholarly Writing.


702.1 Seminar II, Part 1: Kant & Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud (online; Fall semester; 1 credit)

Readings in Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud prepare the groundwork for Art in Theory Revisited. In Kant, we see the critique of art as form; in Hegel, the critique of art as history. Marx and Engels extend the Hegelian project to the possibility of a social criticism of art as ideological discourse. In a similar vein, Nietzsche upends the logical schemes of Western metaphysics. Finally, Freud presents the possibility of a psychoanalytic critique of art.


702.2 Seminar II, Part 2: Art in Theory Revisited (online, Fall semester; 4 credits)

Seminar II, Part 2 revisits 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. Key words and concepts will be traced back to the five foundational thinkers and situated in the passage between modernism and postmodernism. Seminar discussions will be given over to intertextual analysis along the lines indicated above.


703.1 Seminar III, Part I: New York Intensive (New York Residency; January; 1 credit)

Seminar III begins with a six-day intensive residency in New York City. In the morning, students give seminar presentations on fall quasi-Independent Studies (i.e., research papers written for 702), with a view toward linking those studies to questions raised during the residency talks, lectures, and museum visits. These presentations are conceived as formal conference-style lectures and are also meant to prepare students to be effective speakers and presenters in professional academic environments. Afternoons are devoted to museum work. Museums to be visited include the Metropolitan Museum, MoMA, PS1, and the Whitney Museum, among others. Lectures by distinguished scholars and artists as well as guided tours offered by curators and museum educators supplement the weekly activities.



703.2 Seminar III, Part II: A Quick History of Philosophy (online; Spring semester; 4 credits)

Seminar III combines a critique of Western Philosophy from the ancient Greeks to the post-modern period with a quasi-Independent Study course, leading to a 15-page self-directed paper at the end of the semester. Coursework focuses on the close reading of one text, Rainer Schürmann’s Broken Hegemonies, lead by Professor Howard Caygill. In parallel, students also read Solomon and Higgins’ A Short History of Philosophy, a broader introduction to the various schools of thoughts not limited to Western philosophy. The final paper is meant to hone students’ critical thinking and writing skills and broaden their engagement with the history of ideas and artworks.


704 Seminar IV: The Subject and Object of Art (online, Spring semester; 5 credits)

Seminar IV focuses on subject/object relations as constituted and/or represented in philosophy and art in the last two centuries. Students learn to approach theoretical critique from the standpoint of close reading and intertextual analysis. After tracing the relation between subject and object in Kant and Hegel (via Jaspers and Kojève, respectively), we examine Bakthin’s theory of dialogical consciousness, Bergson’s notion of subjective time, Deleuze and Guattari’s critique of psychoanalysis, Virginia Woolf’s emerging feminist aesthetic, Jacqueline Rose’s reading of Lacan, and a different notion of the gaze in Levinas, ending with Amelia Jones’ important discussions of visual culture, art, and the relation between feminism and postmodernism more broadly.

Year Two

801.1 Seminar V, Part I: Topological Studies II (Europe Residency; Summer; 1 credit)

In this intensive residency seminar students reengage Kant & Hegel with a reading of Kant’s Third Critique, a good close reading of Hegel’s Preface, Introduction, and Chapter IV to the Phenomenology of Mind, readings from Hegel’s Aesthetics, Vol. I, and texts by Heidegger, Heraclitus, Plato, and Nietzsche. Consistently with the Topological Studies approach, students engage with these texts while immersing themselves in the art and architecture of cities like Berlin (Late Neoclassical/Early Industrial paradigm), Paris (Bourgeois/Modernist), Venice (Baroque/Global commerce) and Athens (East/West Transhistorical). Other readings reflect the contributions of Visiting Faculty, such as Howard Caygill (Kafka: In Light of the Accident), Santiago Zabala (Why Only Art can Save Us), and Jan-Luc Nancy (The Sense of the World), among others.


801.2 Seminar V, Part II: Continental Glissement (online; Fall semester; 4 credits)

Seminar V, Part 2 traces the Kant/Hegel divide into German Idealism and Romanticism, and then from Marx into Nietzsche and 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 French itineraries, such as Luce Irigaray’s feminist reorientation of psychoanalytic theory and Jacques Derrida’s project of deconstruction. 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, ultimately arriving at Lyotard and Foucault.


802 Independent Study I (online; Fall semester; 5 credits)

The IDSVA Independent Study program is designed to help students 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; and to broaden the scope of the core curriculum by applying the methodologies acquired in the seminars to issues that are germane to each student’s field of interest. Possible independent study topics are explored within the context of seminar readings and in light of guest lectures and museum visits, and discussed with IDSVA academic advisors. Examples include a research paper on psychoanalytic critique and Latin American found cinema; Maternal aesthetics and representation of otherness in art; Phenomenology and Afro-Futurism; a comparison of the Buddhist concept of ‘emptiness’ with Twenty-century continental philosophy; as well as studies in the fields of craft, sexuality, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, identity, etc.


803.1 Seminar VI, Part I: New York Intensive (New York Residency; January; 1 credit)

Seminar VI, Part 1, begins with a six-day January intensive residency in New York City. Mornings are devoted to IS presentations and seminar discussions. Afternoons are dedicated to museum work. Museums to be visited include the New Museum, Guggenheim Museum, MAD, Met Breuer, and DIA Foundation, among others. Students give seminar presentations, conference-style, on fall Independent Studies, with a view toward linking those studies to questions raised during the residency talks, lectures, and museum visits. Lectures by distinguished scholars and artists as well as guided tours offered by curators and museum educators supplement the weekly activities. The New York residency also offers the possibility to first and second year students to share many cultural activities and socialize across cohorts.


803.2 Seminar VI, Part II: Toward an Ethico-Aesthetics (online; Spring semester; 4 credits)

Seminar VI, Part 2, will re-ask the questions: “what is art?” and “what is art’s responsibility?” This conceptual move will allow us to consider the philosophical relation of ethics to aesthetics and vice versa as implicit in the term “representation.” This in turn becomes the signal ethico-aesthetic question in the work of Fanon, Arendt, Nietzsche, Nancy, Deleuze, Sloterdijk, Junger, Berardi, Foucault, Baudrillard, Lotringer, Heidegger, and Agamben. The course is divided into four themes of inquiry: “Race,” “Metaphors of the End,” “Ends of Man,” and “Art & Politics.” Core faculty and visiting faculty share teaching responsibilities via online lectures and seminar discussions. Final outcomes include two exam papers based on the readings.


804 Independent Study II (online; Spring semester; 5 credits)

Following Independent Study I, Independent Study II further develops each student’s individual research consisting in a long paper on a topic of their choice. Each student complete their IS in the course of the semester by working one-on-one with an Independent Study director — a faculty member whose scholarship may be particularly suitable to a proposed project. Independent Study papers must be of publishable level; students are asked to submit their papers to academic conferences or peer reviewed journals for publication. Often times Independent Studies provide the groundwork for the dissertation proposal to be developed in the Third Year.

Year Three

901.1 Dissertation Seminar I, Part 1, Pre-Dissertation Seminar (Dissertation Residency; Summer; 1 credit)

The pre-dissertation seminar takes place in the summer before students enter into their third year. In their lectures at Colby, core faculty lead discussions about the unfolding tensions between singularity and conceptualization in relation to theories of knowledge, subjectivity, form and formlessness, and the way ‘meaning’ happens in the work of art. Utilizing the in-campus resources of the Colby Art Museum, Visiting Faculty such as Dr. David Driskell speak about the perception and experience of the contemporary work of art from the perspective of an artist-philosopher. The Pre-Dissertation seminar also introduces a discussion on methodologies and approaches to thinking, such as phenomenological and post-structuralist perspectives, and selected texts by Russon, Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger, Lawlor, Foucault, Bois and Krauss. These studies prepare the ground for a more extended discussion on methodologies in the fall semester.


901.2 Dissertation Seminar I, Part II:  Methods/Developing Research (online; Fall semester; 4 credits)

This seminar continues the conversation started at the Dissertation Residency at Colby College and its Pre-Dissertation seminar. This seminar’s goal is twofold: on the one hand, it is intended to help students develop a comprehensive, in-depth understanding of the conceptual and methodological debates that have defined contemporary aesthetic theory (formalism, phenomenology, hermeneutics; Marxist, psychoanalytic and feminist theory; postcolonial critique; structuralism, post-structuralism and post-modernism). On the other hand, it aims to help students start the process of developing their independent researches into a roadmap for the dissertation, to be completed by the end of the spring semester next year in the form of a ‘Written Exam’ and corollary documents to be presented at the Qualifying Exams.


902 Seminar VII: Foundational Texts:Plato to Kristeva (online; Fall semester; 5 credits)

The purpose of Seminar VII is to situate central philosophical issues explored in the course of study so far, 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? 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?


903 Seminar VIII: Contemporary Readings (online; Spring semester; 5 credits)

Continuing the work started in Seminar VII, in Seminar VIII we bring those issues identified in philosophy, aesthetics, and art theory more squarely within a contemporary frame. To recall a passage in Merleau-Ponty, “We are never in a position to take stock of everything objectively or to think of progress in itself . . . . If no painting comes to be the painting, if no work is ever absolutely completed and done with, still each creation changes, alters, enlightens, deepens, confirms, exalts, re-creates, or creates in advance all the others.” Extending this view in different directions, the concerns in our texts will involve: (1) a demonstrative and critical relationship to Structure in terms of the matters they address and the methods they employ; (2) a skepticism of ‘given,’ ‘natural,’ or ‘totalizing’ foundations of Thought and Being; and (3) an inter-textual procession of ‘semblances in motion’ through which new orders of representation and new possibilities of Being write themselves into existence and the ‘sense’ of meaning.


904 Dissertation Preparation II: Introduction/First Chapters (online; Spring semester; 4 credits)

Dissertation Preparation II addresses how to plan for a long-term research project (the 80k-100K word dissertation), helping students to create reasonable deadlines, conduct efficient research, and balance the simultaneous advancement of writing and scholarship. Over this semester, students complete an introduction or first chapter of their dissertation projects started in the Fall semester. An annotated bibliography is also completed in this semester, in preparation for the Qualifying Oral Examination (scheduled in the summer). During one-on-one calls and conference calls faculty and students discuss techniques for efficient and sustainable research, and offer feedback on each student’s chapter-in-progress, focusing in particular on the development of an argument supported by adequate evidence grounded in existing scholarship and theoretical underpinning.


905 Qualifying Exams (online; Summer; 1 credit)

The Qualifying Examination includes two components, a Written and an Oral. The Written Exam must be completed prior to sitting for the Oral examination, and it consists of the paper and attending documents written in the Dissertation Preparation seminars I and II. Students take their Oral Exams in the summer at the end of their Third Year; after passing the Qualifying Exams, they obtain Permission to Proceed with the dissertation.

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.

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