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Foreword Afterall Journal Issue 14

Friedrich and August Wilhelm Schlegel published the first issue of the Athenäum journal in May 1798. Their intention was to create a platform from which the brothers and their circle…

There are so many critical journals of varying sorts and different intentions!
If only a society might be formed sometime with the sole purpose of gradually
making criticism – since criticism is, after all, necessary – a real thing.

Friedrich and August Wilhelm Schlegel published the first issue of the Athenäum journal in May 1798. Their intention was to create a platform from which the brothers and their circle (including Schleiermacher, Novalis and Dorothea and Caroline Schlegel) could express their views on art, philosophy and science. The material form of the journal seemed appropriate, because ‘publishing is to thinking as the maternity ward is to the first kiss’. 02

The journal was published twice a year (instead of six times as originally planned) and only six issues were produced (the last in 1800), but the model of criticism that was exercised and reflected upon in its pages shifted the understanding of what thinking (and writing) about art means. At the time, the cannon for the practice of criticism was Alexander Pope’s Shakespeare edition of 1725, in which the author ‘drew attention to passages he liked by asterisks in the margin, explaining that this system “seems … a shorter and less ostentatious method of performing the better half of criticism (namely the pointing out of an author’s excellencies) than to fill a whole paper with citations of fine passages, with general Applauses, or empty Exclamations at the tail of them”.’ 03

For Pope, the stress was on the ‘fine passages’, and the strategy was one of mere indexing. Against this celebration of the detail, the Schlegels proposed a consideration of the work of art as an organic whole, an individual work in the context of the author’s production and in relation to the recurrent revisiting of contemporary and classical works. Counter to Pope’s strategy, they stressed the need for analysis, which, perfectly compatible with an experience of pleasure, led to aesthetic judgement.04This judgement was not to be made according to general laws, but according to the work’s individual ideal – as an investigation into whether the work was consistent with the rules it imposed upon itself.

This injunction to what may today be called criticality is something we are currently trying to strengthen in Afterall, and this issue features the work of five artists and collectives we feel are worthy of such consideration. Each of them has set different types of rules for their work, ranging from Julie Mehretu’s choice of a ‘classic’ medium (painting) and a discourse that deals with the reflection of certain historical and political phenomena, to Bernadette Corporation’s attempts to blur the author’s position and play uncompromisingly with art’s formalities (formalities that are purely ‘artistic’ as well as institutional and financial). Somewhere in between, both Andrea Bowers and Ivan Grubanov apply craftsmanship to political events (mostly feminist activism in the former, and the war in the Balkans in the latter) in order to distil their current significance in a local and global context. Finally, geography and history are present in Ibon Aranberri’s work, not by way of fabrication, but as an attempt to temporarily reactivate locations, moments and symbols in order to rethink established narratives. Each of these different positions, both within the system of art production and in relation to the world in general, provides a specific measure for judging the artwork. As Lane Relyea reflects in his contextual essay ‘Your Art World: Or, The Limits of Connectivity’, the adoption of flexible strategies in the current political and market situation could be seen as an ideological embrace of the new capitalist subject. On the other hand, classical approaches might not be the best equipped to deal with contemporary conditions, and artists’ strategies are obliged to change as their context of production and reception does.

When Friedrich Schlegel distinguished between classic and modern (romantic) poetry, he opposed the completion of the former with the perfectibility of the latter. In Mark Lewis’s essay ‘Is Modernity Our Antiquity?’ – our (first) contribution to the documenta 12 magazines project – this relation to our past (classic or modern) is examined, concluding with a warning: don’t forget about the future. Engagement with history should not be about exercising nostalgia, but should allow for what Schlegel calls a ‘progressive, universal poetry’ – a poetry that, aware of its failures, continuously questions itself. Criticism, both internal (as self-reflection) and external (as critical analysis), is an integral part of this process. In fact, ‘one can never be too critical’. 05

— Pablo Lafuente


  • Friedrich Schlegel, ‘Critical Fragment 114’, Lucinde and the Fragments, Peter Firchow (ed.), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971, p.157.
  • F. Schlegel, ‘Athenäum Fragment 62’, ibid., p.168.
  • Hans Eichner, Friedrich Schlegel, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1970, pp.30-31.
  • People always talk about how an analysis of the beauty of a work of art supposedly disturbs the pleasure of the art lover. Well, the real lover just won’t let himself be disturbed!’, F. Schlegel, ‘Athenäum Fragment 71’, op. cit., p.169.
  • F. Schlegel, ‘Athenäum Fragment 281’, op. cit., p.202