“What are we now?”

The Editors

View from Amol K. Patil’s workspace in Dubai, March 2023. Image courtesy of the artist.

March 2, 2023

Writing in these pages, R.H. Lossin suggested that the discipline of art criticism emerged as one way to answer a question that might be formulated either as “what is it that has happened to us?” or “what are we now?”1 We’ve recently been asking just the same thing. So, 250 years later, it might be time to revisit the question and to reflect on how art and its criticism might help us to understand the change through which we are living.

What strategies are available to us? It has become critical and curatorial cliché to say that we can understand the present by speculating on the future—see the art world’s periodic infatuation with science-fiction—or by reimagining the past—through the revision of those historical narratives that shape the societies in which we live. But amidst a deluge of exhibitions promising to excavate the past, it is hard to escape the feeling that in the current climate it might be easier to dedicate an exhibition to historically or geographically distant wrongs than to attempt to intervene in the issues playing out on the neighbouring streets.

To be clear: the impulse to look away from the present is not only understandable but frequently productive. Many of today’s disasters can be attributed to a collective failure of historical consciousness, and there is a clear need to imagine futures other than those into which our societies are sleepwalking. Not to mention that the ideological purposes to which western art has previously been put should make anyone working in that field cautious about presenting themselves as moral arbiters. Yet the tendency to introversion of critique and the fear of being misunderstood might be fostering an institutional culture of timidity, averse to the risk inherent in any real-time assessment of a rapidly changing and deeply conflicted historical moment.

Any critic can tell you that taking a position before a consensus has been established is liable to make a fool of you. This is the discomfort of attempting to make sense of the present as it unfolds, but it might also be its reward. The critic must get used to the fact they will always in the long run be judged to have got it at least partially wrong, but also comes to recognize that these are the means by which any historical record is written. The greater the number of people from different perspectives who contribute to the process, the more complete it is likely to be, and the less we might feel obliged to wait until that record has been set before challenging it. One (admittedly self-serving) conclusion to draw is that, in this especially disharmonious historical moment, we might need more criticism rather than less.

In that spirit we’ll be hosting a public discussion at the end of this month on the subject of criticism today. We’ve assembled a distinguished panel—Teju Cole, Ciarán Finlayson, Margaret Sundell, and the aforementioned R.H. Lossin, whose review prompted these speculations—who will no doubt be able to provide more intelligent answers than the above to the question of whether and how criticism might help us understand what it is that is happening to us, and what we are now.

For more details of the panel discussion at e-flux’s Brooklyn space, and a link to RSVP, click here.

Each month, to accompany the editors’ letter, we publish a photograph from an artist’s place of work. This month we feature the Mumbai-based artist Amol K. Patil. His installations, photographs, and performances have recently featured in exhibitions including Documenta 15, “Lumbung” (2022) and the Yokohama Triennale,”Afterflow” (2020). His work is on view as part of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, “In our veins flow ink and fire,” through April 10.


R.H. Lossin, “Dare to Know”: https://www.e-flux.com/criticism/524360/dare-to-know-prints-and-drawings-in-the-age-of-enlightenment.

Editorial, Art Criticism
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March 2, 2023

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