There is a saying in French, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” It translates, roughly, as “don’t open your editorials with a quotation in French, if you want anyone to read them.” As such, it is among those critical principles that endure through even the most dramatic changes in the discourse surrounding works of art and the societies that produce them. Whether before or after the lockdowns, under Trump or Biden or Bolsonaro, in the midst of the climate crisis or a global reckoning against racial injustice, in the twilight of an old era or the dawn of a new, no one cares to read Anglophone writers showcase their imperfect French. The more things change, in this respect, the more they stay the same.

The most striking aspect of the gradual global emergence from lockdown has been, once the euphoria of seeing people and things subsides, how much of the old world has survived a series of events that were interpreted as paradigm shifts. This is particularly the case in the context of contemporary art, where the consensus was that a year of pandemic and protest would usher in a suite of dramatic infrastructural changes from which there could be no return: the migration of shows and sales online, the death of mega-exhibitions that rely for their artworks and audience on frictionless international travel, a renegotiation of the relationship between institutions and their constituencies, the decentering of money and power from its bases in the western metropolises, the dismantlement of barriers to access. Some of this is happening, but the abiding impression, whether you’re standing in the crowds at a private view or running an eye over the listings, is that it all feels a lot like it did before. This is by turns reassuring—it is still pleasurable to encounter objects in space, and to talk to people about how they might be interpreted—and disappointing, when some much-vaunted concessions to change seem designed to placate rather than to effect real progress. Didn’t we spend a year talking about how everything would be different?

And yet it remains the case that artists are among the most reliable bellwethers of wider shifts in society, and recent weeks have offered the first opportunity to see a substantial number of works executed during a year that we experienced as transformational. In the reviews we’ve published from around the world, some patterns have emerged—an emphasis on locality, the celebration of everyday intimacies, communal expressions of joy as political statement, a heightened attention to the body’s implication with the world, the social and environmental consequences of extraction, renewed concern over how history is made and deployed—expressed by means ranging from the anxious line of an abstract painter to a cedarwood pavilion modelled on Chinese folk architecture. Works of art express something of the tension between conservation and change that feels characteristic of this moment: they are always of their time, their meaning is always evolving. In the work being made and our interpretation of it, if not yet in the circumstances and contexts of its display, is revealed how the past year has altered our relationship to each other and the world. The question—another critical evergreen—is whether these are documents of a period passing into history or blueprints for the society to come. Is art upstream or downstream of our lives; does it reflect or does it reshape? We’re inclined to say that it does both, but the truth is that only time will tell.