Tag Archives: South London Gallery

Adorno and Art: Aesthetic Theory Contra Critical Theory

Dr James Hellings’s first monograph, Adorno and Art: Aesthetic Theory Contra Critical Theory, appeared recently with Palgrave Macmillan (2014). Hellings’s book shows how radical and revolutionary Adorno’s aesthetic theory of art’s double character remains, and how complex, imaginative and oppositional forms of art offer, perhaps, the best hope for overcoming damaged life. The caricatures of Adorno, his politics and his aesthetics, are well-known errors of judgement – widely repeated both by the academy and the Left. Adorno’s aesthetics have been accused of failing to keep pace with progressive artistic practices and for being socio-politically aloof. Despite the persistence of these caricatures, Hellings’s book shows how significant images and themes in Adorno’s theory remain relevant to the current situation of art, aesthetics, and politics. The Adorno on show in the book was no bourgeois mandarin, no arrogant aesthete, no esoteric mystic, no melancholy pessimist, and no academic expert holed up in the proverbial ivory tower.

Adorno and Art received a favourable (and unsolicited) review in the November issue of Art Monthly (2014). David Ryan wrote, “[O]ne senses throughout that Hellings is testing his own ideas and critical persuasions through, and with, Adorno, which is illuminating in the light of his rather good discussion of subjectivity and objectivity within both aesthetic theory and art making in general.’ ‘[Hellings] makes Adorno’s thought vivid for the present, especially in his attempts to think through contemporary artistic and political practices.”

Alongside his extensive teaching commitments between two art schools (Camberwell College of Arts and Birmingham School of Art), Hellings is currently researching and writing an article, which presents a clear and distinctive overview of Adorno’s materialist-dialectical aesthetic theory of art’s aura, together with Walter Benjamin’s critique thereof, in relation to contemporary art (Susan Hiller, Tacita Dean, Hito Steyerl). The article revises this important historical debate for the present situation of art and theory (Jacques Rancière, Peter Osborne, Jörg Heiser).

Hellings is particularly interested in working with progressive contemporary art practices and his research interests include: political (Marxian) social histories and theories of modern and contemporary art, aesthetics and continental philosophy (especially the critical theory of the Frankfurt school), the avant-garde, newness and contemporaneity. Hellings is interested in manifesting his ideas in a variety of forms and promotes the interdependency of art and theory through teaching and publishing.

Hellings will be launching his book and participating in a discussion event entitled Art, Aesthetics and Politics, Now! at South London Gallery on Friday 13th March. Professor Esther Leslie (Birkbeck), Dr Yaiza Hernández (CSM), and Professor Malcolm Quinn (CCW), will join Hellings in conversation about Frankfurt School legacies in contemporary art, aesthetics and politics.


Dr Malcolm Quinn, Associate Dean of Research and Director of CCW Graduate School, will be speaking at Stupidious at the South London Gallery on Saturday 8 Feb 2013, a day of talks and screenings that looks at stupidity as both a subject and a strategy of artistic production. This event follows the publication of Quinn’s article ‘Stupidity is Anything at All’ in a special issue of the journal Parallax, 19:3, pp. 70-82.

The event examines “the cultural importance of stupidity with a particular focus on its ethical and political effects as well as the challenges it presents to art making and critical writing. High culture is supposed to keep its audience from being stupid, yet artists and theorists have repeatedly turned their attention to this marginalised subject. Stupidity carries a number of significant associations and implications – questions of intellectual superiority, of judgment and understanding, of the nature of thought, of certitude and selfhood, of insult and exclusion, of legitimate and illegitimate knowledge.”  Further information and details for booking can be found on the South London Gallery website.

Dr Malcolm Quinn’s current research focuses on identity, taste and governance in the thought of Jeremy Bentham and Adam Smith, with reference to Jacques Lacan’s account of the ‘utilitarian conversion’ in ethics. He is the author (with Professor Dany Nobus) of Knowing Nothing Staying Stupid: Elements for a Psychoanalytic Epistemology(Routledge, 2005) and ‘Insight and Rigour: A Freudo-Lacanian Approach’ in The Routledge Companion to Research in the Arts (2010).  His book Utilitarianism and the Art School in Nineteenth-Century Britain was published in 2012.