TCS Daily

Apocalypse Not

By James Pinkerton - April 21, 2004 12:00 AM

Disaster movies have long been a staple of American popular culture. Now we have disaster art, too. And it's an irony that the spiffiest museums seek to showcase such destruction -- even their own destruction. What is it with the culture, both pop and high? Do the machers and mavens of Hollywood and New York want the world to end? Or do they simply think that it's fun and profitable to speculate about eschaton? Meanwhile, the Greens' cause, the alarmist warning of a new Ice Age caused by -- what else? -- global warming, will soon be in a theater near you.

A first case in point: the new and improved Brooklyn Museum, which unveiled its $63 million modernization last week. It's a true palace of translucence -- a futuristic glass entrance, plus fountains designed by the same company that created the fountains at the Bellagio hotel and casino in Las Vegas. The New York Times' Herbert Muschamp loved it: "With the completion of the Brooklyn Museum's new entrance pavilion, the city has gained one of the most attractive public spaces to be found anywhere in town."

OK, so the exterior is dyn-o-mite. But what of the interior? The Brook has one of the finest collections of Egyptian artifacts in the world; yet in a bid to gain visitors not drawn to mummies and scarabs, it has ventured far afield in search of larger audiences. Five years ago, it launched the "Sensation" show, which outraged Rudy Giuliani and many others by including the notorious painting "The Holy Virgin Mary" by Chris Ofili, in which the Madonna's portrait is adorned with little turds, all glued on to the canvas. Since then, the Museum has mounted shows such as "Hip-Hop Nation: Roots, Rhymes and Rage" and "Star Wars," an exhibition of costumes and drawings from those films. The shows may be good crowd-builders, even if their HAQ -- Haute Art Quotient -- was low.

But of course, if showmanship is increasingly present in museums, so is politics. Last Wednesday, James Polshek, the architect of the Brook's new front, took to the podium at a preview and spoke of the challenges in completing a multimillion dollar glass-and-steel fa├žade: as Toronto's Globe and Mail reported, "Building is a little like war. Once you get in it, you have to go all the way," Polshek declared. "But in this case, we did so successfully." The reference the Canadian paper made clear, was to the Iraq war.

Even more political -- and certainly more enduring than Polshek's anti-Bush jibe -- is the one piece of art specifically commissioned for the re-debut of the museum. It's a mural-sized--8' by 24' -- painting entitled "Manifest Destiny", by Alexis Rockman, a Manhattan-based artist. "Manifest Destiny," of course, was the earnest phrase term used by pioneering Westward Ho! Americans in the 19th century. But in the early 21st century, the phrase is laced with all the irony that Manhattanites can summon. And so it with Rockman's painting; it offers a panoramic view of the borough in 3000 years -- that is, 5004 AD.

But the borough must be seen through water darkly; the whole of Brooklyn is under 82 feet of water. And this is not some cool Underwater Oceanopolis of Tomorrow, but rather the ruins of today's Brooklyn, drowned by human depredation -- global warming. The art critic Holland Cotter, also writing in The Times, was moved to observe, "It seems slightly odd that the one piece of art specifically commissioned to make its debut this week is neither by a Brooklyn artist nor detectably celebratory."

But of course, some will deem it celebratory, if only because it "proves" their points about the environment -- especially Bush environmental policy. And Rockman is frankly political about his environmental advocacy. As the Times' Linda Yablonsky reported:

"At a dinner party in January 2000, Alexis Rockman used his napkin to outline a painting for Arnold L. Lehman, director of the Brooklyn Museum. Part naturalist, part dreamer, Mr. Rockman wanted to alert the world to the dangers of global warming, which he attributes to 'the history of human activity.' The image, he said, would be 'Angkor Wat meets Brooklyn Bridge.'"

As critic Holland Cotter notes, "Rockman's concerns are, and have long been, ecological. And his approach is basically that of 19th-century American artists like Thomas Cole, moralizing history painters who presented reality not as it was, but as it might be."

To be sure, many have disputed the global warming thesis. But the Green hits keep coming, in new guises. They include not only chic art, but also the continuing bipartisan efforts of Sens. Joe Lieberman and John McCain to "do something" about global warming.

And the latest twist is that global warming will lead to global cooling. That's the argument -- if that's the word -- of the forthcoming Hollywood disaster film, "The Day After Tomorrow", written and directed by Roland Emmerich, who destroyed much of New York City in "Godzilla," as well as much of the world -- before saving it -- in "Independence Day."

Now he's back, with a new conceit: New York buried, literally, in snow. Some might remember that this was the vision presented by a 1979 Robert Altman film, starring Paul Newman "Quintet" -- although the current filmmakers would just as soon forget that ice-bomb, even if they have the same idea in mind.

From the looks of the trailer, the "Tomorrow" film is propagandistically political. Dennis Quaid, playing a genius scientist, Professor Jack Hall -- that's plausible casting, right? -- gets a phone call: "We've found something extraordinary -- extraordinary and disturbing. You recall what you said about how polar melting might disturb the North Atlantic current?" Yes, Jack remembers, of course. "Well, I think it might be happening." Cut to the beginning of cataclysmic storms; in the realm of SFX, there's rarely a fit night for man nor beast.

Then, in what is surely intended as a homily for the 2004 election -- the film opens on May 28 -- Jack tells a colleague, "The government has to start making long-term preparations now." But he is told by that skeptical colleague, "It's only a theory." Cut to more storms.

Next, Jack yells out to a hunched balding man in a suit, surrounded by aides, "Mr. Vice President [get it?], if we don't act now, it's going to be too late to help." More of the dark and stormy night. Then we see the distinguished British character actor Ian Holm, pronouncing, oldly and wisely, "I'm afraid that time has come and gone." Jack asks him, "What can we do?" The answer comes, "Save as many as you can." Cut to rampant tidal waves, followed by the Statue of Liberty being engulfed by a storm.

Is this all b.s.? Sure it is. But maddeningly, the US government helped legitimize "Tomorrow." A Pentagon report, released in February, argued that global warming could disrupt the ocean currents that moderate the climate in North America and Europe. The report was not intended as a forecast, the authors insisted, but rather as a "plausible scenario." Needless to say, that distinction was lost on much of the media: a headline in The San Francisco Chronicle's howled, "Pentagon-sponsored climate report sparks hullabaloo in Europe." And Greenpeace trumpeted the Pentagon a "global warming red alert" on its website, adding, "Weather of mass destruction bigger threat than terrorism."

To be sure, many have made mincemeat of the Pentagon study, including TechCentral's own Robert C. Balling Jr., Director of the Office of Climatology Arizona State University, in a piece bluntly titled, "Pentagonal Poppycock".

And now, in addition, just in time to take on "Tomorrow," comes The New Scientist; its latest issue features an article headlined, "Scientists stirred to ridicule ice age claims". The piece scorns the 'science" behind "The Day After Tomorrow"; it quotes Andrew Weaver of the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, who snaps, "It is safe to say that global warming will not lead to the onset of a new ice age."

Will sound science be able to stop the onslaught of culture, low and high? That's one of those questions that conservative and libertarian intellectuals have been wrestling with for decades. In 1975, Pat Buchanan wrote a book entitled, Conservative Votes, Liberal Victories; the basic question he raised is still apposite today: can popular right-leaning majorities get their way in national politics, or will their votes be traduced by left-leaning judges, bureaucrats, and culture vultures? That's the way it's been going on the global warming debate. The US Senate voted 95:0 to reject the Kyoto treaty, and President George W. Bush has rejected it, too -- and yet the treaty still lives, kept alive in the culture, from the commanding heights of New York City to the ordinary cineplexes in Kansas City and Salt Lake City.

Which leads to the final point: there's an audience for death and destruction. Avant-garde artists can do whatever they wish, nihilism-wise, supported by their trust funds or by limousine-liberal patrons, but the Brooklyn Museum needs paying customers -- and it seems confident that the eve-of-destructionish "Manifest Destiny" will help reel 'em in. And of course, the makers of "Tomorrow" need tens of millions of ordinary Americans to buy tickets, and they can be reasonably confident they will get them, based on the past performance of disaster movies that have demolished everything from Manhattan to the planet itself.

Which is something for economic optimists to think about. All of us libertarians and free-marketeers, all of us who think that maybe the highest good is to plan ahead, do good things, build great works -- and then build more. That's a part of human nature, but only a part. There's another part of human nature that wants to end it all, or at least to watch it all being ended. The majority doesn't that feel that way, but as we have seen, a vocal and cultural minority can win as often as it loses.


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