Prof. John Roberts

Prof. John Roberts

Professor of Art & Aesthetics in the Faculty of Arts, Business and Social Sciences, and leader of the Research Cluster ‘Art Philosophy and Social Practice’. He is currently PI (Principal Investigator) for the recently awarded Marie Curie Innovative Training Network (ITN) (The Future of European Independent Art Spaces in a Period of Socially Engaged Art [FEINART]).

His research has covered three main areas since the early 1990s: art’s critical autonomy, the possibility of realism in art (as a claim on ‘truth’ as opposed to realist ‘aesthetics’ or ‘resemblance’) and emancipatory technique. In this sense he sees himself working within a critical theoretical tradition, that sees art as a mode of becoming that defies the normative order of capitalist reason, without assuming that the special dispensations of art and creativity miraculously escapes commodity relations; art’s emancipatory logic is immanent, rather than transcendent. As such in his writing over the last thirty years he has placed a strong emphasis on the connection between this logic and negation and non-compliance (The Philistine Controversy [with Dave Beech] Verso, 2002, ‘The Amateur’s Retort’, CCA Wattis Institute, San Francisco, 2008, Photography and its Violations, Columbia University Press, 2014, Revolutionary Time and the Avant-Garde, Verso, 2015). Art can only remain art, if it constantly defies its own it is given or inherited predications as art. This is why Robertsholds to some notion of autonomy in art, and why he has given a great deal of attention to the writing of Adorno since the 1990s even though his theory of autonomy is largely post-Adornian. Art today is no longer attached to the aesthetic predicates of the art object; on the contrary, its sense of possibility is immanent to the heteronomous (the actual) itself. Art’s movement into the ‘expanded field’ is irrevocable. This is why recently Robertshas done a lot of work on sorting out where exactly art sits as art – as opposed, that is, to being a branch of the culture industries – in this new space of engagement (The Intangibilities of Form, Verso 2007, ‘Art After Deskilling’, Historical Materialism, 2010, ‘Art, Neoliberalism and the Commons’, The Art of Direct Social Action, eds. Karen van den Berg , Cara M. Jordan, Phillip Kleinmichel, Sternberg Press, 2019, and ‘Art, Value, and Value-Form Theory’, The Value of Critique, eds, Isabelle Graw and Christoph Menke, Campus Verlag, 2019, all address this question). It is imperative not to lose sight of the fact, after conceptual art, that the experience art is irreducible to the object – as Adorno himself realized, obliquely, in Aesthetic Theory.

Underwriting this approach is something more than ‘art theory’ as an autonomous discipline. His writing is indebted to a wider range of disciplines (the critique of political economy, psychoanalysis, cultural theory, political theory and political philosophy and post-war continental philosophy), that sees art, as one moment – if a significant and determining moment – in the constant cultural and political battle between the shifting demands of emancipatory technique, and those forces, that would destroy it, or reduce it to mere decoration or academic standing. As such, Robertssees his research, critically, in the post-Kantian tradition, as a commitment to notion of the production and reception of art, as form of Bildung. Art relationship to learning is not based on the knowledge it provides, as if writing and study were just hermeneutical exercises, but the space for a shared discussion of the problems of theory and practice. Recently, this has taken an expressly historical dimension, in his editing, with his colleague Alexei Penzin, of the first English translation of Boris Arvatov’s key Constructivist/Productivist avant-garde text from 1926, Art and Production (Pluto Press, 2017).

And, naturally, these concerns are carried into his research leadership. If the research cluster (‘Art, Philosophy and Social Practice’) provides a distinctive combination of art theoretical and philosophical work on a range of different forms of social engaged practice and performance, one of the strengths of the PhD programme within the research cluster, is the opportunity it gives to theorists and artists, or artists as theorists, to generate speculative forms of inquiry, and as such test ideas across disciplinary borders.

Since the writing on value and the avant-garde my concerns have also broadened into political philosophy, in the wake of the more expressly philosophical work he has continued to pursue over the last ten years, on agency, reason and epistemology (The Necessity of Errors, Verso 2011 [Die Notwendigeit von Irrtüm, Laika, 2015] and ‘Dialectic and Post-Hegelian Dialectic (Again)’, Journal of Critical Realism, 2013, ‘The Returns to Religion’, Part I and Part II, Historical Materialism, 2008). In 2018 Robertspublished the Reasoning of Unreason: Universalism, Capitalism and Disenlightenment (Bloomsbury) a rethinking of universalism and unreason, and he is currently working on a companion text to this on ‘self-love’ (amour-propre) and libidinal economy. In addition, his artistic and cultural concerns have expanded into dramaturgy and theatre and notions of the virtual-fictive, as part of his general work in the research cluster on socially engaged art and performativity and his continuing theoretical work on participatory art practice (‘Art, Neoliberalism and the Fate of the Commons’). In 2016 Roberts published a theoretical and historical reconstruction of the work of five imaginary artists supposedly working in the 1980s (Thoughts an Index Not Freely Given, Zero Books, 2016), and between 2016-2018 completed a cycle of seven plays addressing questions of desire and unreason, in different anti-naturalistic registers and historical and contemporary contexts. The first play, ‘Hölderlin and Marx in Tübingen’ has been translated into Russian, and published in the leading drama journal, Translit, Moscow, in 2018; other translations in Russian and other languages are being planned.

In 2020, working through some long-standing issues in his work around emancipatory technique and the ‘remaking’ of the popular, he published Red Days: Popular Music and the English Counterculture, 1965-1975 (Autonomedia/Minor Compositions), that refocuses some of the questions he has dealt with recently in his work on the avant-garde, but in relation to music.

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