“It is a peculiarity of the imagination
that it is always at the end of an era.”
—Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending
The convergence of the death of Arthur Danto, the invitation to write something for the Rail on the 100th anniversary of Ad Reinhardt’s birth, and the first anniversary of Superstorm Sandy has set me thinking about Ends. Danto, of course, was the proponent of the theory of The End of Art, which for him was the conclusion of art’s phase as a medium of philosophical speculation. Reinhardt saw himself as the sentinel of the End, whose black canvases were, he remarked, “the last paintings one can make.” Superstorm Sandy, meanwhile, seemed the harbinger of a more literal end—the physical ravages it effected on the Chelsea artscape were simply reminders of the potential of man-made climate change to sweep away the world as we know it.
In one sense, as literary critic Frank Kermode noted, it is always the end. On the other hand, there are times when notions of the end move beyond cyclical paradigms of death and rebirth and take on the more terrifying aspect of irreversible nothingness. One such moment was that doom-laden post war period when the specter of nuclear holocaust haunted a world still reeling from a devastating world war.
The “tragic sense” has become part of the mythology of Abstract Expressionism, and a certain dark romanticism remains part of its continuing appeal. In many ways, Reinhardt’s art-as-art was intended as an antidote to what he saw as the histrionics of artists like Pollock, Motherwell, Kline, and de Kooning. Dismissing the existential angst of his contemporaries, he maintained:
Art in art is art.
The end of art is art as art.
The end of art is not the end.
But Reinhardt was not immune to the mood of his moment. Despite his insistence that his black paintings not be read as symbols of death, the looming void or impending nothingness, viewers have continually detected in them the sense of an ending that spills out beyond art. Even as Reinhardt railed against Harold Rosenberg’s notion of “action painting,” his philosophical foe made what many interpreted as a swipe at Reinhardt, inveighing against the devolution of the existential impulse into “apocalyptic wall paper.” Meanwhile interpreters more sympathetic to Reinhardt have read his striving for the “ultimate” painting as a surrender to a silence that evokes the final hour.
Today we are in a different kind of apocalyptic moment where the end beckons, not in the form of a mushroom cloud, but of an environment so compromised that it may soon fail to sustain human life and a world economy whose inequalities are so stark that only violence may readjust them. A recent article in the New York Times by novelist Roy Scranton gloomily observes our current predicament alters the form of certain long-standing philosophical questions. He remarks,
‘What does my life mean in the face of death?’—is universalized and framed in scales that boggle the imagination. What does human existence mean against 100,000 years of climate change? What does one life mean in the face of species death or the collapse of global civilization? How do we make meaningful choices in the shadow of our inevitable end?
The response of the contemporary art world to these apocalyptic rumbles has been ambivalent. Most visible is what appears to be an almost pathological state of denial, characterized by the blithe surrender to carnivalesque spectacles for the well heeled and the well connected. But an undercurrent of anxiety runs beneath the glittering surface. Less trendy artists warn of ecological, social, and political disaster. Art shows devoted to art and ecology proliferate. And even among some of the today’s most celebrated art stars there is a sense of disquiet. What else is one to make of the joyless pornography of Paul McCarthy’s multi-gallery shows last spring or the bombastic banality of Koons’s most recent paeans to commercial culture?
In his meditation on the literary meanings of the apocalypse, Kermode quotes Augustine’s adage that anxieties about the end are always anxieties about our end. Today, one might turn this around and say that anxieties about our end are also anxieties about The End. How do we soldier on if we believe that humanity has no future? That is the issue posed by a recent study of people’s responses to the query—how would you change your life if you knew the world would end immediately after your natural death? Perhaps not surprisingly, researchers discovered that much human activity would be rendered meaningless without a sense that the world will continue without us.
Art didn’t end with Reinhardt’s last painting. Nor did the postwar world end in a nuclear conflagration. Will we dodge the bullet yet one more time? The End haunts us again with the possibility that this end may indeed be the last.
ELEANOR HEARTNEY is a New York-based art critic and the author of numerous books about contemporary art. Eleanor Heartney's Postmodern Heretics: The Catholic Imagination in Contemporary Art has just been reissued by Silver Hollow Press.