The God of New Beginnings

The Editors

Georges Méliès, The Impossible Voyage, 1904. Still from film, 24:00 minutes. Public domain.

January 4, 2024

The double-headed Roman god Janus, who lends his name to the first month of each year, is privileged to see both the future and the past. In his 1939 introduction to The Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin quotes Maxime du Camp as writing that “history is like Janus; it has two faces.”1 The implication is that history should not be understood as the steady accumulation of facts along a receding timeline—“an inventory, point by point, of humanity’s life forms and creations”—but as the body through which past and future are joined. We do not study the past to escape the present but to see where we are going.

Looking at art is equally bound to the contemplation of artifacts from the past. An exhibition of even the newest work must—as recent months have again made clear—inevitably lag behind the news cycle (“to seize the essence of history,” writes Benjamin, “it suffices to compare Herodotus and the morning newspaper”). The upshot is that critics often feel as helpless as Benjamin’s angel of history, blown backwards into the future by the storm of progress, condemned to observe and comment upon the ruins of history as they pile up behind him while he yearns to stop and repair the damage.

In her forthcoming piece on the work of An-My Lê, Jacinda S. Tran argues that the museum might thus become, in Paul B. Preciado’s resonant phrase, an “archive of our own global destruction.”2 She identifies the danger that we go to museums to wander through the wreckage of previous catastrophes and to lament the conditions that produced them, in the process averting our eyes from the crises afflicting our own time. The warning is acute today, as the very public attempts of art and academic institutions to redress historical injustices meet campaigns of intimidation against anyone who speaks out against inhumanities in the present. The implications of failing to heed it are, for anyone who holds that art criticism might be more than sifting through the ashes, dire.

But what if the angel of history is himself Janus-faced? The Paul Klee painting (Angelus Novus, 1920) that Benjamin uses to symbolise his backward-blown angel is depicted from the front. It is easy to imagine that, like the god of time and new beginnings, he too has a second face directed towards the future. The question in that case is whether his eyes are open. In another feature to be published in January, R.H. Lossin reflects on the curious blindness that allows liberal critics to laud works of art representing working-class bodies in various states of dismemberment on the pretext that it constitutes critique, when it seems more likely that it satisfies the same unacknowledged desire to watch a spectacularized version of the real suffering of others.

Yet there remains the hope that art might be redeemed, however tentatively and partially, by the fact that, as Lossin puts it, “looking cannot be separated from thinking.” If our own second sight in this analogy is provided by the intellect or the imagination—the means by which we anticipate what is to come—then the responsibility of anyone visiting an exhibition is to use those faculties to relate what they see of the past to the future that they might portend. It might be pertinent to note, at the turn of this new year, that the temple dedicated to Janus in the Roman Forum was unique in having gates at both ends: they were locked during peacetime and only opened when the city was at war.


Walter Benjamin (trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin), “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century” in The Arcades Project (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 14-19.


Paul B. Preciado, An Apartment on Uranus: Chronicles of the Crossing (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2020), 111.

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January 4, 2024

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