Barbara Rose interviews historian Eleanor Heartney about her new book Doomsday Dreams that chronicles the history of the Apocalypse as a subject illustrated for millennia up to the present day.
Barbara Rose (Rail): What drew you to study and write about the concept of the Apocalypse, especially as it is illustrated in art?
Eleanor Heartney: Of course it’s pretty hard not to feel apocalyptic these days, what with the dire news on the climate front, the disappearance of the postwar order and the daily barrage of Trump news. But I have actually been thinking about this for some time. I have long been interested in contemporary art’s debt to religion and religious belief. As you well know, it hasn’t been the most acceptable subject in an art world that prides itself on on its freedom from superstition, prejudice and reactionary ideas. (Religion, at least of the Judeo Christian variety, is usually relegated to those categories). But it has long been clear to me as a lapsed Catholic that religion is not something you toss away like last year’s fashions. It shapes your vision of the world, even if you think you have escaped from it. Thinking along these lines led me to write a book titled Postmodern Heretics: the Catholic Imagination in Contemporary Art. I argued that America’s Culture War in the 1990s was sparked by artists from Catholic backgrounds whose sensuous, Catholic derived carnality clashed with the more puritanical Protestant imagination of the political and religious right.
Doomsday Dreams: The Apocalyptic Imagination in Contemporary Art
(Silver Hollow Press, 2019)
My new book, Doomsday Dreams grew out of that study of the interrelationships of art, politics, and religion. Doomsday takes on a broader swath of religious beliefs and a wider range of artists. I was first drawn to Apocalypse as a subject because of the way it kept popping up in discussions of subjects that deeply interested me. Our never ending Middle East wars, cast as the product of a “clash of civilizations,” are particularly well suited to apocalyptic imagery. So are the environmental crises whose consequences chime with the Book of Revelation’s Four Horsemen of Pestilence, War, Famine and Death. Even discussions of AI can take on an apocalyptic tinge as we discuss the potential absorption of our individual humanities into the Singularity, a nebulous godlike spectre of superhuman intelligence. And then of course the rise of Trump came along, only exacerbating an already very strong tendency toward the division of humanity into God’s army and its enemies.
Rail: Why use contemporary art to deal with these issues?
Heartney: I’m an art critic. Art is how I think things through.
Rail: How would you describe the imagery that can be identified as apocalyptic?
Heartney: There is a danger in defining apocalyptic thinking so broadly that everything negative begins to fit into the pattern. Social media is apocalyptic! Red meat is apocalyptic! That’s why I chose to stick more closely to themes that come directly out of sacred apocalyptic literature. Classic apocalyptic thinking as found in the Book of Revelation and related texts involves adherence to a historical narrative that unfolds as a battle to the death between good and evil. It requires the rise of a messianic figure (and the appearance of false messiahs who rally the faithful with the rhetoric of righteousness only to lead them to hell), the destruction of the old world and the appearance of a new purified order. Translated into more contemporary idioms, these appear today in manifestations like the clash of civilizations that underlies our geopolitical conflicts in the Middle East, the demonizing of political and cultural adversaries and the emergence of destructive ideologies that clothe themselves in the mantle of virtue and justice. Some things, like the terrors unleashed by the Four Horsemen of Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death barely need translation to seem current today.
Rail: Do you think the concept of the Apocalypse is lodged in the subconscious since the imagery is invented not observed?
Heartney: It seems to be a deeply embedded cultural construct. One of the points of Doomsday Dreams is that we in the West are deeply indebted to a sense of reality that originated three millennia ago in the now obscure theology of Zoroastrianism. It doesn’t really matter if you are actively religious or not, or even if you buy into the idea of a higher power. We have a tendency to divide the world along the lines of us versus them, good versus evil, knowledge versus ignorance, etc. We also tend to see history as a narrative whose end will be the outcome of these conflicts. The concept of the Apocalypse gives history an arc. How often do we hear pundits and politicians ask: Are we on the right side of history? But what makes us so sure history has a right side? Why do we reject, in our heart of hearts, the idea that history is just one damn thing after another? I think it’s because most of us still cling, although ever more precariously, to a belief in some kind of progress and evolution. Which is why there is something so unsettling about the idea that the Enlightenment and its embrace of reason and science may be behind the environmental collapse or that democracy is in retreat world-wide. It shakes our sense of history as a story.
Rail: I believe Ad Reinhardt limited himself at the end to all black square paintings because he came to the conclusion there was no progress, either in politics or in art. The concept of modernism itself is based in the idea of progress.
Heartney: When people talk about Apocalypse, they usually are thinking of spectacular scenarios of death and destruction, with or without a religious twist. But Apocalypse is not just about The End, although that is a big part of it. It is also about justice—the promise that in the end (or actually after the end) good will finally prevail, no matter how awful things seem right now. At the moment, that is a particularly appealing idea. The word Apocalypse itself means unveiling—it’s about revealing the hidden meanings of history. And we want history to have a meaning.
Rail: Religion was once the content and patron of art. Now we have TV and Marvel comics. Does religion still influence art today?
Heartney: There is an overwhelming influence of religion and religious beliefs on our subconscious. But I do wonder if there may be something more elemental going on as well. In the West, for reasons I have outlined in the book, our idea of time is intimately connected to our sense of mortality. The idea of apocalypse mirrors our concept of death. The trajectory of a human life from beginning to end is the model that we also apply to everything from the death of the cosmos to the plot of a novel. This is the insight of literary critic Frank Kermode in his remarkable book The Sense of an Ending (1967).
Rail: Robert Morris was very impressed by this book. Then here is T.J. Clark’s Farewell to an Idea about the demise of modernism. We seem to be facing an immense cultural change as hyper-capitalism replaces socialism. I recall Meyer Schapiro saying the greatest disappointment in his life was the failure of socialism. How do we make sense of what is happening?
Heartney: Our idea of narrative is teleological in that in any satisfying story everything is building toward an end that is prefigured in earlier events. It’s why we feel cheated when the conclusion of a novel or a movie seems contrived or arbitrary. Narrative is how we make sense of things. And of course next to our own deaths, the greatest narrative of all is that of the Apocalypse.
But as to whether this sense of time and history is innate, that’s another matter. We have to remember that there are other cultures in which time is viewed in a more cyclical manner. It’s not birth-life-death but birth-life-death-rebirth. I think that has an impact on how people think about the larger issues. On the one hand it may make you more passive, because you know this too will pass. But it may also make you more accepting.
Rail: Do we find the idea of the Apocalypse in all religions?
Heartney: Doomsday Dreams focuses on the three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. But in my research, I did discover similar Apocalyptic themes in various non-western belief systems. Tibetan Buddhism and Hinduism have Kalki, a destroyer who sweeps in at the close of the recurring cycle of human existence and ends everything. In these scenarios, everything then starts over again. There is as well the Norse Ragnarok, where the world is consumed in flames or water following a great battle of the gods. And let’s not forget the big Mayan Apocalypse scare of a few years ago when the end of the Mayan calendar was supposed to usher in the end of the world.
Rail: My degrees are not in modern art. I studied ancient art, which is animated by religion, and medieval art that is centered in religion. In the end, I kept coming back to the Apocalypse. I am writing a book on the influence of the Beatus manuscripts on modern art. I am against theory so it is all based on documents. You discuss the imagery of a number of important contemporary artists including Robert Morris, Robert Smithson, and Keith Haring, as apocalyptic. What do you mean by that in today’s context?
Heartney: One of the things I was trying to do was to look at well-known artists through a different lens. In the cases you mention, these were not figures generally associated with apocalypse, or even religion for that matter. But in fact when you delve into their work and lives, it turns out that religiously inspired apocalyptic ideas are key to their work. Keith Haring, for instance, was raised in the United Church of God, a hellfire and brimstone evangelical sect that traffics heavily in End Times scenarios. As a young man, Haring abandoned that for a brief fling with a more benign version of Christianity known as the Jesus movement that also believed in the imminence of the Apocalypse. These early experiences had an impact on his art that can be seen in the prevalence of symbols like crosses, haloes, angels, demons, bleeding hearts and mushroom clouds, as well as his signature emblem the radiant child. This latter is an ambiguous motif, which could equally represent a Christ-child-like figure and a victim of nuclear radiation. Haring did a number of paintings that directly represent images from the Book of Revelation, and he also did an Apocalypse collaboration with William Burroughs (1988). In what seems like a vision of his hope for his own future, his last work was a commission for the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine called The Life of Christ (1990) that depicts the Christ child ascending to heaven.
Robert Smithson was marked by a similarly powerful religious upbringing. He was raised Catholic, and went through a profound spiritual crisis as a young man during which time he did a number of mytho-religious paintings based on Dante and the New Testament. Although he left overt references to religion behind, I would argue that these influences underlie all his later work. From the perspective of apocalypse, I think you can see his whole idea of entropy as a version of the eschatological narrative. He takes the long view, chronicling how human and natural systems gradually wear down as they slouch toward an inevitable stasis and equilibrium. This is important because many of our more despairing visions of the eco-apocalypse are indebted to Smithson. If we see a dead planet as an unavoidable consequence of human civilization, we do indeed succumb to what Smithson referred to as “ecological despair.”
As for Robert Morris, I had been thinking about him since 1983 when I was newly arrived in New York City and saw an exhibition of his firestorm drawings at Castelli Gallery. They had a huge impact on me and may have even been one of the germs of this project. The firestorm drawings and the relief works embedded with casts of bones, skulls, feet, phalluses, and teeth at the Fattoria di Celle outside Florence are incredibly dramatic, full of swirling motion inspired in part by da Vinci’s “Deluge” drawings. They are a far cry from the more conceptual and minimalist work that we usually associate with Morris, and many writers and curators of his work chose to simply ignore them, as if they were a dirty little secret. But in fact one can see that they are related to Morris’s longtime preoccupation with violence, war, and death. And they seem ever more relevant today.
Rail: Are there any women artists who use apocalyptic imagery?
Heartney: This is a really interesting question and one that I struggled with in writing this book. I wanted to include a diverse range of artists in terms of religious background, ethnicity, and gender. But I really had trouble finding women artists who were dealing with the themes I was exploring. Until you get to the last chapter, it's pretty much all guys.
Rail: I found a nun, Ende, who illustrated the medieval Beatus manuscript of Gerona. What about today?
Heartney: In the last chapter I deal with the New Jerusalem, which is the promise of paradise for true believers following the destruction of the world as we know it. Here I was able to bring in several women artists, notably Shirin Neshat, Liza Lou, and Patti Smith. They, like the male artists in this chapter, are often equivocal about the New Jerusalem, seeing utopia or paradise as very fragile dreams. But even so, thinking about paradise is more hopeful than thinking about fire consuming the earth. It has made me wonder—are women by nature more optimistic than men? Are they more prone to world building rather than world destroying? (This latter possibility has sent me thinking about how much feminism and feminist thought contributed to the early environmental movement). Are women less prone than men to draw stark battle lines between good and evil? Are they more willing to live in the gray areas where the politics of us and them are less pervasive? Or is it just chance and in fact there are plenty of women out there dwelling on the apocalypse whom I just haven’t run into? So I don’t really have a good answer to the question.
Rail: Do you see themes of contemporary films as apocalyptic?
Heartney: Apocalypse is a perennially popular subject for Hollywood movies—all that massive destruction plays so well on the big screen, especially with the help of CGI. Such films are a gauge of our fears. In the 1950s and ’60s the end was usually a consequence of nuclear holocaust. Now preferred scenarios tend to involve environmental collapse or technological over-reach. These films tend to be at least nominally secular though they often have religious overtones. The secular apocalypse removes the hopeful ending that promises eventual paradise for the righteous. Instead in most films, the post apocalyptic world, if there even is one, is a place where a ragged remnant of humanity attempts to restart civilization with only the most primitive tools. I’ve also noticed an uptick in films and television series that play the idea of the end for laughs. Maybe it’s a way of whistling in the dark.
Rail: What does it mean to describe the imagery of the New York School as apocalyptic? Do you think that is an accurate description?
Heartney: One of my favorite quotations from Harold Rosenberg comes from his essay on the American Action Painters when he warns against the tendency to create “apocalyptic wallpaper.” I think he was acknowledging the way that the idea of doom hung over the whole era to the extent that it was becoming an easily digestible cliché. There is a dark thread running through much of the work created in the aftermath of the Second World War. Artists, like everyone else, were living with the memory of the war’s destruction and with the threat of nuclear annihilation. I think this comes out, not only in individual works themselves but also in a kind of artistic violence that manifested itself in the need to blast away all remnants of the past to create something totally new. And one sees this, not only in American artists like Pollock and de Kooning, but also internationally. In Japan, which experienced nuclear destruction first hand, you had Gutai. In Europe many artists were also pursuing an aesthetic of destruction. I recall being blown away by the Alberto Burri exhibition at the Guggenheim a few years ago. All those torn, burned, perforated and sutured canvases assimilate very poorly to the critical formalism that prevailed during the 1950s. Instead they feel like a cry of pain from a trauma that will not go away. Do you find the work of that era apocalyptic?
Rail: Yes, of course, although it is the opposite of wallpaper. The imagery is explosive. World War II and Hiroshima are the context of the New York School, although only Reinhardt, Kelly, Held, and Paul Brach saw action in World War II. Pollock was Section 8 and could not be drafted or enlist. During World War II the Surrealists came to New York fleeing Hitler. Why do you think so much Surrealist imagery seems apocalyptic?
Heartney: The answer probably lies in history—Surrealism presents a response to the horrors of the First World War and the subsequent upending of established social structures, the upheavals of industrialization and the shock of modernity. As I maintain in the book, each era refashions the apocalypse to suit its own needs. Surrealism is at least in part about the retreat from instrumental reason which seemed then (and seems again) to be tearing the world apart. And this may also be why surrealist imagery is so popular again.
Rail: I have been researching the Mozarabic illustrations of the Gospel of St. John, the last chapter of the New Testament describing the opening of the Seven Seals that reveal the events heralding the end of time and the world. These are illustrated in the mainly Spanish manuscripts of the 9th to the 14th centuries. Do you see any contemporary relevance of this group of illustrations of the gospel of St. John of Patmos?
Heartney: I guess I could turn that question around to you, as I know you have been studying these manuscripts in the light of 20th century political and artistic history. Formally these images feel amazingly contemporary in their use of space, color, and composition and you have made some pretty convincing arguments about their influence on some of our most important modern masters. But you also hint that their emergence and popularization in the 1940s may have been connected to larger political currents. That fascinates me, as I am also thinking a lot in Doomsday Dreams about how apocalyptic imagery and narratives serve as models for political and social conflicts. The things we visualize are the things that seem possible and plausible. Did these manuscripts help create a sense of common purpose among partisans? And do they help illuminate that hoary question about what it really means for art to be political?
Rail: No. The modernists I studied were interested in the imagery, color, and composition of the Beatus manuscripts although Picasso did steal specific images to use in Guernica (1937). Beckett’s friend the painter Avigdor Arikha made me aware of the importance of the Beatus manuscripts in the '60s when I lived in Paris. I have been figuring out their relationship to modern art ever since. It is critical.
Heartney: With the horrifying images of the Australian fires and the game of chicken being played out between Trump and the Iranians, people have been telling me how topical Doomsday Dreams is. I was of course thinking about current events and recent history when writing the book, but I also wanted to put apocalyptic fears and the kinds of occurrences that inspire them into historical focus. So much of what now seems terrifying has been building for a long time. One of the things I’m trying to point out is the pernicious effects of an erasure of boundaries between religion and politics. When religion’s notion of the apocalypse seeps into politics, we get these wars of ideology and this demonizing of the Other. And when politics seeps into religion we have the evangelicals championing Trump because he is their savior. One evangelical pastor actually announced recently that to be saved you have to love Trump! Of course there is nothing new about all this. When you go back in history, you see the use of apocalyptic imagery in support of nearly every consequential war the West has been engaged in. Which explains why at various points in Christian history some thinkers have attempted to redirect the apocalyptic narrative so that the battle between good and evil are configured as a struggle within the individual soul. But in the end the more dramatic and destructive interpretation always seems to win out.
Rail: Is apocalyptic thinking on the rise?
Heartney: Maybe it’s just because I have been immersed in this study for so long, but it certainly looks that way to me. So much of our politics revolve around a sense that the Other—politically, socially, or culturally—is inherently evil. Our sense of the future is increasingly colored by a fear that there may not in fact be one. But I tried to end the book on a more hopeful note, suggesting that habits of thought engendered by apocalyptic thinking are not hard wired into our consciousness. I’d like to believe that there are more fruitful and life enhancing ways to conceive of our place in the world.