Tuesday, October 9, 2012

What Song Would You Listen to as the World Ends? The Role of Art in the Apocalypse

We use art to capture what we imagine to be the end of the world. We read Revelation. We paint scenes of Armageddon. We create books and films like the ones I talked about in my earlier post this week on the role of intellectuals at the end of the world, things like The Walking Dead, The Road, or The Stand. Art plays an enormous role in allowing us to imagine what the end of humanity might look like and there are films that capture our imagined final moments like Melancholia or Last Night. Art is an outlet for our deepest fears and hopes, and there are even entire genres called Post-Apocalyptic or Apocalyptic Art.

See other Post-Apocalyptic paintings here.

But what happens to art in an actual apocalypse? Is there a point at which the role it plays in our humanity is no longer important? Or do we even know what that role is?

Art in the Apocalypse 

In settings where humanity as we know it has ended and the remaining survivors are clinging to life, art's a mixed bag. (Spoilers for the shows, books, and films listed below).

Melancholia and Last Night- Music at the End of the World

In both Melancholia and Last Night, music plays a function in comforting people in their final moments on earth. In both of these films, the characters know that the world is ending well in advance.

In Melancholia, a pair of sisters--one of whom has suffered from debilitating depression through most of the film--face the end of the world together. The one who has been the stabilizing force in the relationship breaks down when she realizes the world is ending. Sobbing, she tells her sister that she wants to do it "right," and her sister cruelly sneers at her suggestion that they have a glass of wine on the terrace. She sarcastically suggests they also listen to Beethoven's 9th before dismissing the plan as "a piece of shit." Instead, she creates a fantasy of escapism where they build a shelter to hide within as the world ends, a shelter built entirely out of sticks they find in the woods.

And while we, as the observing audience safe in our own homes, get to enjoy some nice crescendos of music as they meet their demise, they face the end of their existence with only the sounds of one sister's quiet sobs and the wind rushing past them. They have gone out of their way to avoid any man-made (save the clothes they're wearing) influences in their final moments.

Last Night treats a similar scenario (and with less pretentious over-dramatizing in my opinion, but I digress), but comes to a slightly different treatment of art in the final moments.

In Last Night, people have similarly been forewarned of the exact moment that the world will end, and they react in all different ways. Some become criminals who murder for no reason. Some hunker down alone. Some surround themselves with families and recreate the holidays. It's an exploration of our different personalities and what makes us tick as social beings. Several of the people who are shown in the film select songs to play in their final moments. What the Melancholia characters dismissed as a piece of shit plan was exactly what several people chose to do in Last Night.

Would you play music in your final moments if you had the opportunity? I think back to some of my most difficult and painful moments in my life, and I know that music was often a comfort to me. I think I'd turn to it if I knew the world was ending. (What song, though, is a difficult question to answer--at least for me. My husband had his answer within five seconds. ("Ambitions az a Ridah" by Tupac) I was a little jealous--and I guess if we're together when the world ends, his decisiveness will guarantee him the air time over my selection). 

Book of Eli- Music after the World Ends 

Of course, there's a difference between knowing that the world is going to end and planning your final moments around that event and finding yourself to be a survivor after a cataclysmic event. In Book of Eli, the protagonist often listens to his iPod, going so far as to put himself in danger just to get it re-charged. Here, music isn't playing some symbolic role of comfort in the creation of some perfect final scene, it's part of a day-to-day survival. Music makes the work of living in a wasteland more bearable.


The Walking Dead

So far, we haven't seen art play much of a role in The Walking Dead, even though we know that they have capabilities to produce it. There is a scene where Rick and Shane are considering letting their prisoner go, and they have him locked in the trunk of a car. To ensure that he can't overhear them, they turn music on loudly to drown out the sounds of their voices. Here, music has a utilitarian purpose, but there isn't much time spent showing art as a source of pleasure or comfort. 

The trailer for Season 3 devotes a lot of time to one of the characters singing around a campfire and the others watching her intently. Is this a sign that art and artistic pursuits will play more of a role in the future episodes? If so, what does that mean about art? Do we have to reach a certain level of stability before it becomes relevant?


The Takeaway

It's hard to say what role art could potentially play at the end of the world without determining what role art plays today, and that's a question as old as humankind. Is the pursuit of art merely a luxury that we turn to when we have our needs taken care of? It certainly seems that way as the humanities are the first thing to get cut in times of economic strife. Is art necessary for our humanity? There is evidence of art from every human culture stretching back for millenniums--doesn't that mean something? There's also the question of whether holding on to art from a previous world makes sense if that reality has been fundamentally changed by some world-shattering event.

That, I think, cuts to the heart of the question: If the world as we knew it ended and you were one of the survivors, would your job be to rebuild as much of your current world as you could, or would your job be to adapt to the new circumstances of your reality? 

If your job is to adapt to the new reality, then perhaps it makes no sense to carry forward the remnants of an art that no longer exists. Art, after all, has little meaning without the context in which it was created. Movies, music, and paintings are all forms of communication, and communication is never created in a vacuum. Is trying to hold on to those art forms once that culture has ended the equivalent of talking to ghosts? If so, is there any value in talking to ghosts? In symphony halls and art museums today, we value the artistic remnants of our distant past--is that only because we can see the value in the places we came from, or does the past have value in its own right?

This post is part of a series on what apocalyptic fiction tells us about our humanity. Check out the introduction and Part 1, which examines the role of intellectuals at the end of the world.


  1. I think the role of music would be different if you were dying or if you were in a post apocalyptic scenario. Asking "what is the last song you would listen to if you were dying" is different from "what music would you listen to to help you get through your day after society collapses." Having to choose one song is way harder than loading your ipod with the same range of songs you would listen to for the rest of your life (though I image having the same 50 songs for the next 30 years would get pretty repetitive).
    But I think the Titanic is a good example of "what would you do if you were going to die." While not post-apocalyptic, after the first hour, most people still on the ship knew they were going to die, so what did they do? The role of music was pretty important as it sank. While the very, very last song played by the orchestra is not known, it was at least a classical piece and possibly religious. The role of music was comfort and hope, not fear and foreboding.

    1. Excellent point and example. I also think the questions "What would you listen to if you were dying?" and "What would you listen to if the world were ending?" are different questions. If it's just you dying and the world is going to keep going on without you, I think that draws in some different type of reflection. But if everything is ending? That's something different entirely.

    2. I agree. I think that also, the circumstances of the end of the world would dictate what I want to listen to. If something just suddenly happened, with no forewarning, and I lost my husband and/or child(ren), I think I'd be more angry and sad, and wondering if there was even a point to my going on. When I get that way, very angry and sad about life, I listen to a lot of hard core gangsta rap and riot grrrl music. If it was gradual, ala "The Stand," I might be more introspective and in need of comfort, and probably listen to a lot of indie-singer songwriters.

  2. In the movie "Deep Impact," (a much better version of "Armegeddon"), the president reveals a hidden compound deep in the mountains where humanity can survive for however many years after the asteroid hits. He mentions that doctors, scientists, and poets and musicians have already been chosen to live in there. I think the take away from that, and from what you've said, is that with the (arguable) "luxury" of being warned of an apocalyptic event gives us the added luxury of art. More sudden events, like alien attacks or cataclysmic natural disasters, mean more focus on basic survival to get through, and the art - and all the introspection and thoughtfulness and community bonding that goes with it - comes in the aftermath and rebuilding.

    Wow, this was a short one for me! LOL!