The house my friend has built is about five steps removed from anything even resembling a road. Let me put it this way: if the house and a road were cousins, they would be related in a sufficiently distant manner to legally marry in states other than Kentucky. 

If you were to abandon your vehicle, as I did, at the head of the dirt track that leads down to the place and tramp down to the front door through the snow, you would find that the domed house, which resembles a concrete bunker on the outside, is more like a hobbit hole on the inside—the wood stove crackles, almost as if it is chuckling to itself in the corner of the long room. Everything smells of pine. The sofa is well broken in and robed in quilts. There is a plate of cookies on the table, because, of course, I am expected. This is one of those invitation-only places, totally off the grid. 

My friend, however, makes it no secret that she is preparing for the apocalypse. She has a huge pantry in one of the outbuildings, and we chat from time to time about the qualifications required of the people she will invite to come survive the end of the world with her. Essentially, everyone needs to have a skill—like farming, or carpentry, or medicine. I always smile. All my skills are artistic.

I can’t claim to have seen a lot of apocalypse movies, but I don’t get the impression that many of them spend much time thinking how we would preserve the arts at the end of the world. (This derives, of course, from a deep-rooted cultural predisposition to classify art as luxury, not necessity.) 

Yet, as long as there is humanity, there will be art. I wonder what art will look like at the end of the world? 

Will we revert back to the beginning? The earliest human art still in existence is mostly petroglyphs—carved and painted—and figures of gods, many of them female in shape. Decor and deities. We may not make gods-statues; that will probably seem “primitive” to us. But we will decorate and offer special care to the car that “miraculously starts.” 

We will make jewelry from objects that remind us of better times, lost people, and lost places. We will disguise our sentimentality with superstition and call these objects “lucky.” 

Those who cling to faith will raise Ebenezers—altars and towers to moments of God’s intervention, fortresses against the suspicion that we have been abandoned. 

Then we will make ordinary things beautiful. I would not be surprised if we adopted the philosophy of the eighteenth-century Shakers, or at least part of it. 

The Shakers’ official name was the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing. You see, the Shakers believed that Christ had already returned, this time in a female human body, to balance the Incarnation. They believed they were living in the last age of the world. 

Persecuted in England for disruptive worship, Ann Lee, a textile worker and leader in the Shaker movement, moved her followers to America. (In short, loud worship and a craftswoman—art—landed these odd-balls on our shores.) 

Though they may seem to have aspects of philosophy or practice in common with other Christian sects of the era, which tended toward stoic puritanism, the Shakers danced. And they crafted the objects they needed—chairs, homes, quilts—to be both useful and beautiful. If you see Shaker furniture, it’s sleek lines will remind you of mid-century style. Even at our most utilitarian, we cannot help but make art. It is who we are. 

Which is why I disagree with C.S. Lewis’s hot take on art after life in The Great Divorce. In that book, a painter takes a bus from hell to heaven, or at least its threshold, a place of literally painful reality and beauty. The artist itches to paint. But the spirit or angel who is attempting to guide the artist says, “When you painted on earth—at least in your earlier days—it was because you caught glimpses of Heaven in the earthly landscape. The success of your painting was that it enabled others to see the glimpses too. But here you are having the thing itself.”

Lewis implies that there is no use for art in heaven, and I cannot agree. To say that in heaven we will have no need of art is really the same thing as to say in the apocalypse we will have no time for art. Art is not merely testimony; it is also worship. It is the first evidence of worship. And art is not merely useful, though we cannot help but incorporate it into almost any useful thing we make. As can be clearly seen in the cookies on the table of my friend’s apocalypse cabin, the quilt on her couch, the spiral of the braided rug in front of the stove, art is how we survive. The steady indomitable presence of humanity is marked by a stubborn beauty. To be human is to make art.

2 Comments

  1. Geneva Langeland

    Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is all about art at the end of the world. It’s a striking novel and was just made into a TV show that I’ve been hearing buzz about. As a content warning to potential readers/viewers, it does deal with apocalypse-by-flu-like-pandemic!

    Reply
  2. Debra K Rienstra

    I love this piece, Emily. I love that you imagine art at the end of the world and then make a case for it. (Also, yes, the Station Eleven series is impeccably done.)

    Reply

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