Art at the End of the World

4 minute read

It’s easy to poke fun at modern culture’s take on dystopia. Despite its foreboding depictions of what the future may look like if we continue down “this path,” much of it tells us that it’s already too late and we’re too far gone to be saved.  We’re no longer simply being warned to change our ways. Instead, we’re thinking about what life during and after the apocalypse will actually be like. In other words, this art’s not apocalyptic—it’s post-apocalyptic.

But long before humanity feared a warming planet or nuclear annihilation, artists were grappling with what was to come. As far back as the Renaissance, they warned of a future where humanity’s sin and depravity would catch up with it. 

So how did we get here? And more importantly, is it too late for us? Let’s look at some examples—past and present—of art set at the end of the world.

The Bizarre Premonitions of Hieronymus Bosch

The Dutch master Hieronymus Bosch was considered one of the premier artists of the Northern European Renaissance. Many of his works tackled religious themes in unconventional ways. One of his most prominent pieces was the triptych (three-fold panel painting) The Garden of Earthly Delights (1515), which depicts scenes of the past, present, and future of humanity.

It starts off simply enough with a depiction of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Then, things spiral out of control. The second panel (the “present”) shows humans partaking in all kinds of sinful behavior (the titular “Garden of Earthly Delights”). The final panel predicts a gruesome future in Hell (or Hell on Earth) for those who have sinned.

The Garden of Earthly Delights  (1515)

The Garden of Earthly Delights (1515)

While Bosch’s scenes may have succeeded in spooking 16th-century laypeople, the third panel’s imagery seems almost laughable today. For example:

  • The ghostly musical notes tattooed on someone’s butt.

  • The fish-monster eating a person, then excreting him into a cesspool filled with other people (from which someone else is drinking).

  • The guy making out with a pig dressed as a nun.

You know, future stuff.

Critics remain divided on Bosch’s intentions—unsure of whether he was attempting to save people from eternal hellfire or simply trying to amuse his audience. But to more devout viewers, the work was a cautionary tale of the consequences awaiting unrepentant sinners.

Today, the work serves as a ghoulish reminder of the dangers of overindulgence for believers and nonbelievers alike.

Going... Going... Gone!

English-born American artist Thomas Cole is best known for his vivid landscapes and captivating portrayals of nature. Part of the Hudson River School of painting, Cole focused on 19th-century American wilderness and advocated for an agrarian way of the life as the ideal condition for humanity.

A bit optimistic? Maybe. But no one would question his sincerity.

Desolation  (1836)

Desolation (1836)

In his 5-painting series The Course of Empire (1833-1836), Cole depicts various stages of civilization. He starts with a wild, pristine state, untouched by humans. After civilization eventually has its way, the series ends with an apocalyptic silence—the ruins of humanity.

Cole argued that technological advancement was the first step on the road to destruction. The painter felt that an industrialized America was on a slippery slope towards the same fate that befell the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations.

During the Industrial Revolution, men like Cole were considered Luddites. But with so much talk about the need to combat climate change today, his work seems oddly prescient. If we had only listened to Cole, maybe we would’ve at least started recycling sooner.

OMG Another Zombie Apocalypse!

Mention “the apocalypse,” and it won’t be long before someone else says “zombies.”

While there are scores of contemporary works where the undead terrorize the living (The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later, the list goes on), George A. Romero’s gruesome and satirical Night of the Living Dead series (1968-1985) was one of the first to solidify the genre in the public imagination.

Though these cult favorite movies can be enjoyed purely as popcorn flicks, cinema buffs are usually quick to sum up their larger meaning: we’re the zombies. Consumerism, technological distraction, the perpetual hunt for the “next new fad”... they’re all robbing us of our humanity.

But, according to the director, that’s not exactly true. In Romero’s own words:

"[the films] don't particularly represent anything except a new society threatening to take over, and in this case devouring, literally, the old."

In other words, the zombies are simply eating up what’s around to make space for the new and unfamiliar. Viewed in this light, the so-called “zombie apocalypse” isn’t so much a tragedy as it is a cultural inevitability. Our brains might not literally be eaten, but our current way of living will certainly lead down a dark path.

The Long, Unwinding Road

Still from the 2009 film adaptation of  The Road

Still from the 2009 film adaptation of The Road

In Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Road, a dying father escorts his son across an unnamed part of the United States—now a literal wasteland. The sun no longer shines through the clouds, the birds don’t chirp, and the crops have died.

We ruined it all. Sorry people. But there is hope . . . sort of:

“We’re going to be okay, aren’t we Papa?
Yes. We are.
And nothing bad is going to happen to us.
That’s right. Because we’re carrying the fire.
Yes. Because we’re carrying the fire.”

Among roving bands of cannibals and thieves, the protagonist’s only comfort is in human dignity and decency, because, when all's said and done, there is still value in holding on to the things that make us most human.

At Last...Progress?

And, finally, our most modern of art forms. The 2017 action/adventure role-playing video game Horizon Zero Dawn centers on a woman named Aloy, who’s living on earth one thousand years in the future, long after the collapse of civilization. While humanity hasn’t been wiped out completely, our present society has nearly been forgotten. People have reverted to tribalism, hunting with bows, arrows, and spears. (And did I mention there are mechanical dinosaurs? Yeah, there are.)

Mechanical. Dinosaurs.

Mechanical. Dinosaurs.

Oddly enough, this is the version of apocalypse that offers a light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe we are doomed, and maybe life as we know it will come to an end. But if it’s happened before, and we’ve survived, perhaps we can again.

It’s a common question to ask whether art imitates life or life imitates art. In the case of the apocalypse, let us hope it’s neither.