Apocalyptic Art: Why We Love the End of the World

Depictions of Armageddon are nothing new—painters and sculptors have been obsessed with the idea since mankind first took up the brush/coal/poisonous berry and put their thoughts and feelings into a visual representation. But as of late, I’ve noticed the end of the world seems to be on everyone’s minds. Various popular art exhibits have focused on that theme and the film and television industries are certainly having a field day with apocalyptic fare (see NBC’s “Revolution” or last year’s Melancholia and Take Shelter). Lori Nix, James Hopkins, and Ricky Allman, just to name a few, have been creating art that is a meditation on death and impending doom.

Why is the obsession proliferating throughout art now? There have been many periods of time that seemed like they would be the last—many eras which were dark (the Dark Ages come to mind…) and even more when hope was never more than a glimmer in the eyes of humanity. Human beings survived the Bubonic Plague, the Great Depression, World War II, nuclear hysteria, and seven Saw movie sequels. We’re strong, aren’t we? So why is art reflecting such morbid hopelessness right now?

Part of it probably comes from the whole Mayan 2012 end of the world prophecy that says it’s all over on December 21. Beyond the probable buyout of guns, liquor and duct tape on December 20, this prophecy has affected the way people think, act, and express themselves creatively. I even know of two couples who were going to get married next June, but moved the date up to December “just in case, you know?” It’s not an uncommon phenomenon. And if it’s informing our decisions on when to tie the knot, it only makes sense that it’s contributing to our artistic sensibilities.

The other part is, of course, the economic recession that’s dominating the sociopolitical landscape of many countries. People are unemployed, underemployed, working too many part-time jobs and feel as though things aren’t getting better at any noticeable rate. With a veritable tidal wave of bad news bombarding viewers every single day, who can blame them? Twenty-four hour cable news networks aren’t built on fluff pieces and soft news; they’re built on danger, risk, intrigue, and yes, impending doom. Nothing sells like a good old-fashioned apocalypse.

All this still doesn’t explain the abundance of apocalyptic art at this moment in time versus similarly dark times, especially those in the earlier part of the 20th century. Beyond a small group of poets labeled as apocalyptic, most artists in the 1930s and 1940s weren’t dealing with end time themes to the same degree and scope that artists are today.

A possible explanation is that the feelings of doom generated by World War II or the Great Depression or even further back to the Black Death were feelings that you could take action to alleviate. Worried about Hitler? No time to make art; enlist and fight. Concerned for your well-being during the Grapes of Wrath era? No time to make art; move your family and find work if you can. The Black Death? Well, it pretty much was actively killing everyone you know, so get rid of the smell and try not to touch rats.

There was something tangible that everyone could do to stave off the coming Armageddon. But now? What can you really do to fight back against a recession? It’s not so horrible that you need to move to more farmable land, but it’s bad enough that you have to confront it. What can people do about the Mayan prophecy? Absolutely nothing (assuming it’s true…). It’s out of everyone’s control and we don’t even know what it would entail. Should we buy life rafts? Fire extinguishers? Pineapples? There’s no concrete danger, so there’s no concrete action to take against it. So given all this information and a glut of doom and gloom, what do we humans do?

 

We create art.