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Art World Wasteland: Apocalypse and post-apocalypse inspired art is on the rise

by Brian Sherwin on 11/16/2012 9:46:58 AM

This article is by Brian Sherwin, regular contributing writer for FineArtViews. Brian Sherwin is an art critic, blogger, curator, artist and writer based near Chicago, Illinois. He has been published in Hi Fructose Magazine, Illinois Times, and other publications, and linked to by publications such as The Huffington Post, The Boston Globe, Juxtapoz Magazine, Deutsche Bank ArtMag, ARTLURKER, Myartspace, Blabbermouth, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Conservative Punk, Modern Art Obsession, Citizen LA, Shark Forum, Two Coats of Paint, Vandalog, COMPANY, artnet, WorldNetDaily (WND) and Art Fag City. If you want your blog posts listed in the FineArtViews newsletter with the possibility of being republished to our 21,000+ subscribers, consider blogging with FASO Artist Websites.  Disclaimer: This author's views are entirely his/her own and may not reflect the views of BoldBrush, Inc.. You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.

The middle section of a triptych titled The Last Judgment. Hieronymus Bosch created the triptych after 1482 -- just one example of how long apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic themes have been explored in art (the history goes back further than this piece).

The art world is no stranger to the exploration of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic themes. In fact, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic themes can be found scattered throughout the pages of documented art history. There are examples from a number of civilizations -- ranging from religious inspired paintings to plague inspired etchings... and everything in between. The apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic inspired artworks of today often lack the hardline stances associated with the themes in the past. That said, these two themes have definitely been on the rise over the last decade. It is more than a mere trend -- and it deserves to be discussed.


Artist Steve McGhee has gained a lot of attention for creating digital artwork that explore apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic settings.


Themes surrounding visions of the apocalypse and post-apocalypse have long been a staple within the world of art. Additionally, the two themes have commonly been found in literature and music. Even the 'new kid of the block', film, has been used to explore apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic settings extensively. That said, the way in which these settings are embraced has drastically changed compared to the past. Thus, the public -- in general -- views these two themes with 'fresh eyes'. I, for one, find that shift in direction to be most interesting.


Fans of artist Matteo Massagrande often note that his paintings of abandoned buildings and interior decay remind them of what a post-apocalyptic urban setting would look like.


As suggested earlier, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic themes are no longer strictly bound by religious doctrines or ideological safeguards, if you will. These two themes can -- and often do -- have new meanings today. In a sense, there is a more diverse exploration of 'The End' compared to the traditional cautionary warnings concerning eternal damnation. Furthermore, the basic horror surrounding these themes is still common – BUT these themes can be interpreted as a twisted form of paradise instead of just pure Hell.


Artist Chet Zar has noted that thinking about apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic scenarios fuels his imagination.


With the above in mind, I would argue that current apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic themes, specifically in art, have become a form of escapism -- perhaps something to be desired... something that is eerily positive -- rather than scenarios to be feared. In other words, the two themes have become an 'escape' from the fast-paced, information driven age in which we live in. For example, I'm certain that most of us have heard someone speak of the 'what ifs' or the 'this is what I would do's concerning these scenarios in general... almost as if these settings are longed for. That is the 'shift' I mentioned earlier.


The Art of Video Games, an exhibit at the Smithsonian, featured the art and design of Fallout 3 -- a video game set in post-apocalyptic America.


In closing, this topic is not one that I can tackle in a single article. Consider this a call for a discussion about apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic themes in current art. These directions are clearly on the rise... and the familiar 'Good vs. Evil' interpretations of the past don't necessarily apply today (though it is not hard to find traces of those traditions). The themes have become far more complex - demons have been replaced by nuclear weapons, antiheroes break the traditions of old, lines are blurred. There needs to be more dialogue concerning how these themes are explored today in art -- and how they apply in a contemporary context.


Take care, Stay true,


Brian Sherwin


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Topics: art appreciation | art criticism | art history | Brian Sherwin | FineArtViews | inspiration | Think Tank | art and culture 

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Sandy Askey-Adams, PSA
Hello Brian..

I have been trying to write something in response to your article about the Apocalypse and post-apocalypse inspired art, but am finding it hard to do so. Have been deleting.

When the nation is facing such a horrible tragedy in Newtown, Conn., one wonders what is happening to this nation. There are no answers to all the questions. What happened to the law, "Thou Shalt Not Kill?"

Evil certainly exists.... and all over this world, seemingly more so than ever before. Tears stain most people's faces from yesterday and on into today. And those tears will continue.

Apocalypse? With all the violence and evil around, how far away can the Apocalypse be?
I could not paint art inspired by the Apocalypse. I would rather paint peace and love...because it is there too and is our most profound, vital defense in the war against evil.

No one can predict or even begin to know what/when the exact date of the Apocalpse will be, or when it happens (and it will), what it will be like.
But, according to the Bible, we are reminded that it will be horrific beyond our lowly imaginations.
Not even an artist...and, Not even the holiest of people in this world can find earthly words to explain.
I would think though when that time comes to be, there will not be time for the "what if's" or, thoughts of. . . "this is what I would do," etc.

I guess I can appreciate that the thoughts of the Apocalypse can stir some artists to paint what they are seeing and exploring in their imagination.
Yes, they are telling a visual story, but it is a form of interpretating horror. Horror and evil that I would rather not see. . . or have hanging in my home. When will the "talking of what to do" stop and those words put into action to stop all the horror. I am not sure that a horrific painting of the Apocalypse can open anyone's eyes.

Demons replaced by nuclear weapons? I disagree...demons still exist. They began the nuclear weapons, etc...and can still be found in the world.

There has to be more focus on good. More focus on loving and caring about one another.

People feel too entitled today, and that too must stop.

This United States has a lot of work to be done toward peace, as well as the entire world, and before the Apocalypse.

Should I apologize for going on like this?

Nancy Riedell
I don't think this article is appropriate right now.

Donald Fox
Post-apocalypse is an oxymoron. Apocalypse means the end of the world. There is no after as envisioned by artists or writers. If something or some people are left, there was no apocalypse - just some huge catastrophic event like the meteor impact that ultimately eliminated the dinosaurs. The concept, then, of a post-apocalyptic world is pure fantasy. The visionary art of Breugel or Bosch created imaginary pictures according to biblical predictions of the end event. There are lots of myths in many different cultures of the beginning and the ending of the world. Some of the myths have similarities and prallels as pointed out by Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell. As technology changes, many old myths are recast in the light of new technology. The world ends by nuclear holocaust, from the effects of nuclear winter, from pandemics, from collision with a giant asteroid, from accelerated global warming, from advanced alien invaders, from humans exhausting all natural resources, or the sun explodes and takes out the entire universe. Seems to me there's a kind of arrogance in any of these scenarios that might suggest some humans would survive. On the other hand, maybe there would be a post-apocalyptic world but unlike anything before since the old was destroyed. No humans but maybe some new world with a new life form that might evolve that would have more intelligence than our species has shown towards its home and each other.

Michael Cardosa
Hi Brian,

If your thought was to start some controversy you certainly picked a hot ticket item to start with. A you pointed out, art based on tragedy or apocalyptic themes has always been with us. I think the issue is when (if ever) is it appropriate. Hieronymus Bosch's Last Judgement was probably terrifying in its day but the evils and tragedy depicted would sad to say mostly go unnoticed today other than for curiosity's sake. Same can be said for artist's that depict Christ's crucifixion, emotional, yes but not something that will pull the scab off someone or a group that is still trying to heal.

I guess what I'm saying as my OWN opinion, is that tragedy viewed from the distance of history is one thing, tragedy that is fresh in everyone's mind is exploitation. I've heard the argument that in some ways it's the artist's way of healing themselves, fine, if that's the case do it, but it doesn't need to be displayed so that it effects others. Once it's shared its being used for something else. Apocalyptic renderings, who cares, that's just guess work and little more than science fiction no matter how it's depicted.



Jacqueline K
What I learned in my Art History classes is that those old paintings depicting heaven and hell were meant to be illustrative paintings not only because many were illiterate, but to display the horrors of hell compared to living a Godly life and ending up in Heaven.

As time has gone by, the artists who paint these illustrations seem to have been gradually adding their own twists and turns (using there artistic licence more frequently)...adding a bit more of their own interpretations. Just how much of the artist's own ideas have been added has been argued among expert art historians over time.

As for this being an appropriate topic at this time; everyone is trying to make sense of the senseless. Everyone is trying to fit what is happening in regards to violence in this round world, into their own little square box of a belief system. Its a coping mechanism. We're trying to cope with real life.

But this is not the first time, nor the last. Its a part of the human condition we find ourselves in.

People in the 1400's had to cope with terrible tragedies too. Now, with the freedom of expression we are permitted in the West (mostly), artists can and will express how they cope, what they fear, and in a world that at times seems to lose hope, some artists will prove to us that hope still exists.

Marian Fortunati
Perhaps artists are re-exploring the concept of that all that is "good" or "evil" lies within each of us. This currently is overshadowed with the depressing overlay of what seems to be happening all around us...

Sometimes it seems that the "evil" will become the norm.

Since the world is in constant flux there is no reason to assume that it will remain as we know it.

Fears of the future.. in paint.

Brian Sherwin
Sandy -- No need to apologize for expressing your thoughts.

You said, "I guess I can appreciate that the thoughts of the Apocalypse can stir some artists to paint what they are seeing and exploring in their imagination. Yes, they are telling a visual story, but it is a form of interpretating horror. Horror and evil that I would rather not see. . . or have hanging in my home. When will the "talking of what to do" stop and those words put into action to stop all the horror. I am not sure that a horrific painting of the Apocalypse can open anyone's eyes."

I think though... even with the horror of the subject, that many -- under the surface -- view it as a way of 'starting over', if you will. So with all the horror fueled by imagination (and potential reality) there is a sense that maybe, just maybe, we (society as a whole) will get it right next time.

In some ways we see that with the popularity of The Walking Dead TV series (and the popularity of the zombie theme in general)... the idea of starting over -- and hopefully 'getting things right' (getting back to the basics) IF the horrors can be survived.

You said, "Demons replaced by nuclear weapons? I disagree...demons still exist. They began the nuclear weapons, etc...and can still be found in the world."

I was thinking more of how the symbolism in painting has changed. In the past, demons were the go-to figures for representing evil. Today one could argue that depictions of nuclear destruction has claimed that seat, if you will.

Brian Sherwin
Nancy -- This article was written several weeks ago. It has been in the line-up for my Saturday posts. I'm curious though, why do you feel it is not appropriate to discuss at this time?

Brian Sherwin
Donald -- One definition of 'apocalypse' is -- any universal or widespread destruction or disaster: the apocalypse of nuclear war. It does not necessarily mean that all humans are dead. So it could mean the end of the world as we know it (not necessarily the death of all humanity)... or the end of civilization as we know it. The 'Post-apocalypse' would be what happens in that next chapter, if you will. Rising from the ashes, what have you.

jack white
Brian, A challenging idea. This time is as good as any to broach the subject. Evil will always be with us.

Sandy Adams,

We have always had mass murders, but now we know instantly. We have always had evil but now it's magnified in the movies and gamers.

Think more recently were Hitler killed six million Jews and Stalin killed millions more. No one talks about Stalin, but we all know about Hitler.

My current book is on the life of John Wesley Hardin. He killed 42 men before he was shot in the back at the age 42. He killed 19 before he was 20.

The American Government murdered thousands of Native Americans, women, children and braves. They were slaughtered for the land.

We slaughtered several million bison so the Indians would starve to death. That was evil.

Evil is as old as time.

William Quantrill killed the entire village of Newton Kansas of over 240 people. This happened in the 1870ies.

Last week a town in China a man killed 20 school kids with a knife. A few years ago before the new media no one would have known.

We are saddened for the families in CT. At the same time a man in San Antonio set fire to his home killing his wife and three small children. He took his own life when the police arrived.

There will be evil until the end of time.

Donald Fox is right, the end of time the final curtain is drawn. He said, Post-apocalypse is an oxymoron. Well said.


Brian Sherwin
Jacqueline -- You offered some great points here, "As for this being an appropriate topic at this time; everyone is trying to make sense of the senseless. Everyone is trying to fit what is happening in regards to violence in this round world, into their own little square box of a belief system. Its a coping mechanism. We're trying to cope with real life."

So would you suggest that is why there has been an increase? Because now, more than ever, the potential for a worldwide catastrophe is based more in reality than ever before? I mean, we can imagine ways that the world as we know it may end... ways that involve fantasy, and the like -- but we are also aware of ways it could end that are based in solid reality. We all know the Hell, if you will, that could be released if ever certain world powers released the fury of their nuclear arsenals. We all live with that knowledge.

Brian Sherwin
Jacqueline -- I forget to add... but even with that fear -- that acknowledgement of horror -- the public, in general, is fascinated by these themes... and the idea that a new, perhaps better, way of life could be found in the ashes.

I, for one, think a lot of that has to do with how far we have advanced technologically in such a short time -- people are living it... but still trying to catch up, if you will. Many long for the 'simple times'. So even in the most horrible of scenarios based in imagination... some people can 'see' a twisted form of paradise compared to the fast-paced world in which we live today.

Just look at TV... three of highest rated shows involve some form of the 'end of civilization of as we know it' scenario -- and how the survivors establish their own community based on the cards that have been dealt. Millions of TV watchers are drawn to these themes.

Brian Sherwin
I think a lot of symbolism is at play here. Just as symbolism was used in past art to explore aspects of humanity... I just think more should be done to explore the symbolism of current art involving these themes -- and why so many people, including artists, are drawn to them.

Jacqueline K
Brian, to answer your question, I will ask another; don't you feel like we are going down a path of destruction? Do you think we all sense it, like some sort of collective group, we see the signs, the end is coming and subconsciously we are trying to prepare ourselves. I don't know of course, nor do I believe in "the collective" conscious of humanity. I think we just observe and are reacting to what we 'see' around us, which btw is much more than we did 50 years ago, before internet and world news. We are getting a better global picture or view. It is survival of the fittest after all, isn't it?
Being a woman, I can relate to the need to feel I am prepared for anything. (Like when a woman needs two extra large suitcases while a man needs his overnight bag ;) I don't know how I got here from there! Ha ha!

And as for "the idea that a new, perhaps better, way of life could be found in the ashes" - that's just hope...there has to be hope.

I, myself, do long for a simpler way of life and have found some of it. Its still possible in the here and I think its more than that. I think we do somehow sense there will be an end to this, one way or another.

This has turned into quite the philosophical discussion!?

What was the question??? - just kidding!

jo allebach
WOW! What an article and discussion!I agree about not wanting it in my house, and the sheer scariness of it makes a hopeless point where we quit fighting for the best. People are inundated with fighting and killing on TV (I do not own one),games, movies ...And artists are throwing their share of carnage into the mix. I think it is more accepted because of views in other places.

I am sure that many artist are inspired by the theme. I like to paint happy paintings. It is just me no right or wrong way to paint. I do like to view art that has these views of the future I find then very interesting. If we all paintied still life's how boring.

Sandy Askey-Adams, PSA
Thank you Jack..

Yes, I do agree with all you have written..and know also of these horrible and evil happenings. I read about William Quantrill and was stunned.
And, of course the others.

I do know that I cannot allow myself to concentrate on all the evil you mentioned. Thank goodness for all the good in this world. It has to overcome evil because GOOD is stronger and made of love, and not hatred.

But, I still must say that I had not heard of as many schools being so visited with horror and evil as in this time of our lives.
While I was growing up, I just had not heard of it like it is now, or as many people being gunned down in the cities of today.

I agree that we rapidly get our news today. Good began when man and woman were created. . .but, Evil began when they chose to disobey God's Laws.

We can only have faith and Pray, Pray and Pray.

Brian Sherwin
Jacqueline -- Indeed. There is a lot of room for philosophical discussion here. For example, Jack mentioned several examples of good vs. evil -- but it can get complicated. The lines can be blurred depending on the individual, group, and in some cases... an entire country.

In some of the examples he gave... the stuff that we know was evil -- well, some of those people thought they were doing good. Jack is correct when he says that evil is as old as time. Disagreements over what is good or evil is as old as time as well.

Brian Sherwin
Now as for acts of pure evil... I'm not sure, as some have implied here and elsewhere, that it can be blamed on movies, video games, music, what have you. I think the person who commits a horrible act was likely capable of doing it before watching violent movies, playing violent games, or listening to violent music.

He or she may be drawn to such entertainment -- but millions more, who will never commit a horrible act of violence, are drawn to these forms of entertainment as well. Heck, I have Goodfellas on TV right now -- that doesn't mean I'm going to start a criminal organization.

I guess what I'm saying is... we should not turn this into a 'witch hunt' -- I don't think we should blame writers, musicians, game designers for the actions that others commit.

Sharon Weaver
If our reality comes about as a manifestation of what we think than these visions of the future could be the coming reality. There is so much of this in games, art, movies, literature and in the real world; look to the destruction in the northeast from Sandy, that these common images will start to be the reality. I for one prefer to add positive images to the world but I seem to be a vanishing breed.


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