Just like Pat Robertson (watch this), I’ve got apocalypse on the brain. My Top Eleven for 2006 included two depictions of the End Days (The Road, Children of Men). Pat and I aren’t alone. “Apocalypse is on our minds,” Kurt Anderson wrote in New York Magazine, “Apocalypse is … hot. “ But Anderson goes on to say that this trend is nothing new:
Apocalypticism has ebbed and flowed for thousands of years, and the present uptick is the third during my lifetime…but this time, it seems, more widespread and cross-cultural, both more reasonable (climate change, nuclear proliferation) and more insane (religious prophecy), more unnerving.
The art critic and poet Peter Schjeldahl spoke about these waves of nihilism in his 1978 essay, The Hydrogen Jukebox, Terror, Narcissism, and Art:
The present widespread disarray and morbidity of the arts in Western civilization represent, it occurs to me, a long-term toxic effect of the atom-bomb terror of the last three decades…Most insidious of the terror’s by-products is what I’ll call the no-future effect. Conditioned to living on the eve of doomsday, we have lost the ability to conceive of a future stretching farther than our own most distant personal goals or responsibilities.
Schjeldahl goes on to explain how this has changed the role of the contemporary artist:
The personality type of our time is the narcissist. Obsessively self-regarding, self-referential, self-consuming, the narcissistic personality finds authenticity only in the moment-to-moment convincingness of bodily sensations and mental events. The narcissistic artist or poet offers to a shadowy public evidence of the dramatizations of these sensations, inviting that public to join in the self-contemplation. Anger, at world or self, alternates with a husky or antic seductiveness, a siren song of love and death or sexy fun, and with abject complaining, the cries of the abandoned baby within.
Nearly thirty years after Schjeldahl’s essay, not much has changed. Along with plenty of terror, narcissism in the arts is alive and well (note my recent post on Snow & Koh). But do artists have a choice? “Deprived of the anchor of the past and the rudder of a future,” writes Schjeldahl, “the new personality is as helpless as a paper boat on the ocean.”