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In conversation with Eleanor Heartney

In our discussion with Eleanor Heartney, we dive into the eerie relevance of her most recent book, "Doomsday Dreams"– an examination of the millennia old theme of the Apocalypse as it is seen in contemporary art.



To hear the audio of the interview version click here.


Marjorie Martay–


We are talking today to Eleanor Heartney, the contributing editor for Art in America. She's written extensively for Art News, New York Times, and The Washington Post. Eleanor is an amazing writer and she's also done some incredibly noteworthy books about art to name a few "Defending Complexity– Art, Politics and the New World Order," "Art & Today," and "The Reckoning– Women Artists of the New Millennium." Most recently, in the past year she did "Doomsday Dreams– The Apocalyptic Imagination in Contemporary Art." It's crazy amazing Eleanor, what you've written and what you have accomplished in your career. It's wonderful.


Eleanor Heartney–


Thank you.


Marjorie Martay–


How did you think about doing "Doomsday Dreams?" What what made you think about that?


Eleanor Heartney–


It's a culmination of things that I've been thinking about for a long time. "Doomsday Dreams" looks at the way in which ideas that come out of religion, particularly the Book of Revelation, but other religious texts as well have really shaped the way that we think about many, many things in our culture from politics to ecology. Now certainly the notion of doomsday, it's very much in the forefront. I came to it, because I was interested in the relationship between art and religion. I had done some other writing about Catholicism in contemporary art and the way that religion shapes our imagination and our worldview. I was raised Catholic and so I was very conscious of the way that impacted how I thought about the world and also how I understood art. I wanted to extend that further and thinking about doomsday, the apocalypse was a way to allow me to kind of broaden that inquiry into the way that religion impacts our consciousness today. So it started there. I've been working on this for quite a few years, and the book really pulls together things I've thought about for a long time– but all of a sudden it feels frighteningly relevant.


Marjorie Martay–


I can imagine, especially with this coronavirus happening. And by the way, how are you doing with that?


Eleanor Heartney–


I'm good. My husband and I are here in the city and we're doing social distancing and so far so good. How about you?





Marjorie Martay–


It's been okay. I've been pretty much staying in my house, my apartment and and taking some walks. I have been very much doing social distancing so then I decided to create this blog! It's been fun. It's been a great way to connect with artists in many disciplines and I've been enjoying that– just feeling more connected, as if maybe I can make a little difference. That's the reason I decided to do this!


Eleanor Heartney–


I think it's great. We're all kind of finding new ways to connect because we can't connect physically, but that doesn't mean we can't connect another way.


Marjorie Martay–


I do think that connection is a very important thing, especially when you're dealing with a crisis situation and you can't physically be next to someone, but it's amazing how the technology has made us feel so much closer.


Eleanor Heartney–


I don't know how we could have done this without the current technology. I think we would all be going mad really.


Marjorie Martay–


No question about it. How do you think this public thinking has affected the crisis and other disasters we have been dealing with recently? You touched on that in the book and I was curious as to what your thinking was on that?


Eleanor Heartney–


Part of what I was trying to get at was the way in which there's certain kind of structures of thought really that go back a couple of millennia. We've got this sort of apocalyptic mindset that runs through Western culture and it goes back to the Book of Revelation– it goes back actually way before that. What was interesting to me was that there are these ways of thinking about the future, about our possibilities, that are very much determined by these really ancient texts and ancient ideas. For example, the idea of thinking about any kind of crisis as a battle between us and them– or thinking a fatalistic notion that history is leading us in this one direction and that whatever we try to do in the end, it's all going towards this horrific kind of Armageddon. We certainly see that in terms of climate change. When we think about climate change, often we begin to feel very helpless because we feel like there's nothing we can do. In terms of the current crisis, one of the structures of thought that's been very detrimental has been this notion of us versus them– looking for the enemy. The idea of presenting this situation as a kind of war– "we're at war." Well that means that there is an enemy. So searching for the enemy, in the beginning it was, firstly we have to find them, we have to fortify ourselves against them– this sort of evil coming from outside–the Chinese virus or the people who are coming in, flooding in from the borders, etc. Thinking about it in a way that has to do with our own internal failures as well. We don't yet know what caused the virus, and it may end up being from environmental factors. We don't really know, but to try to frame it as being this incursion from outside. Not only did it slow our response to the virus in the beginning, but we also thought close up the borders and then everything will be fine. Then it just started turning up everywhere here. These kind of habits of thought can keep us from seeing more productive ways of dealing with these very serious crises that keep coming at us.



Marjorie Martay–


I know we're going through very difficult times. Do you think politics is playing an important role in this crisis?


Eleanor Heartney–


Again, this sort of us versus them. It's all about this political divide– because apocalypse is all about division of the good and the bad, the saved and the damned, etc– the divisions in this country, so that suddenly there's a division between whether we believe in science or not. I mean science should be neutral. Science shouldn't be a question of ideology, but it has become that in this country. Whether you believe in science or you don't believe in science becomes a kind of political litmus test, and that has also been incredibly detrimental in our ability to deal with this crisis.


Marjorie Martay–


Well, we've been so slow in accepting the crisis and from the beginning and then practical solutions not only for this crisis but also concerning climate change as well– that's the problem for us in the country.


Eleanor Heartney–


I know, I think there's a real parallel. It's the same. We've approached climate change in the same way that we seem to be approaching this. Again, you're looking for scapegoats. You're trying to see it as a political divide when in fact, it's about a reality and it's also that solutions then become questions of kind of keeping contaminants out, in terms of climate change, we're looking for– instead of seeing that we have to work with nature, seeing nature almost as a kind of adversary. All of these crises, the hurricanes and the earthquakes and the things that are coming at us, this is nature in an adversarial position to us instead of seeing us as working together. It's a mindset that we have and it really does keep us from being able to work out practical solutions and the divisions that are so rampant in this country now. In a way, they really do go back to these very fundamental frameworks that we find in the apocalyptic imagination.


Marjorie Martay–


I know it's quite incredible. Like when you think about some things from the past, how that has affected us now in the future and how we're carrying it out presently. As you said, not working together, not finding solutions, not taking things more seriously when we first hear about it.


Eleanor Heartney–


Yes, it does threaten us. The irony of the whole thing is that because we have this divisive, fatalistic, apocalyptic mindset, we may in fact bring on the thing that wouldn't necessarily have had to happen when we may have like bring on the apocalypse because, because we have these ways of thinking.


Marjorie Martay–


One of the things that you mentioned in the book, you made a lot of references to the Book of Revelations with "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse– War, Famine, and Death." What's the meaning of this tale and how does it impact this pandemic and why did you bring it as part of the book?


Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, an 1887 painting by Viktor Vasnetsov


Eleanor Heartney–


Well, I was thinking about a couple of things. One is in it's certain ways those four dreaded horsemen are kind of metaphors that again that we have carried with us. They're embedded in our imaginations. You hear references to "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse." Some times it's sort of very silly, but I remember years ago, there was a group of artists who were called "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse." But, it's also a very serious thing. The Four Horsemen are metaphors for these life threatening, earth threatening, kind of future threatening forces that in The Book of Revelation are seen as coming from the outside. It's basically the Four Horsemen are retribution for the sins of mankind. We are in a situation where we have pandemics, we have famines, we have wars, etc. The problem is then thinking of them as something that's external in a way that they are forces of evil that are coming at us instead of seeing them as things that in many ways, we have created the circumstances for them to happen. Again, going back to the kind of environmental crisis, I think that's been very detrimental to see these things as external threats instead of seeing them as something that really comes from inside, from us. The Four Horsemen can be metaphors and they can be useful or detrimental depending on how it's taken. If you take The Four Horsemen and you see them as this external embodiment of evil, then you're not going to do any sort of self reflection. But, if you see the Four Horsemen instead of the kind of metaphor for these cascading calamities that we're facing and use them then as an opportunity to self examine, then the Four Horsemen can be a useful metaphor. It's a question of how you use the metaphor.


Marjorie Martay–


That's really interesting. One of the problems with all this is that even if we solve this crisis, it could come back. So it's something that would be recurring that would affect our children and children's children. This is something that is so major for us and we really need to put so much behind both of these things. For example, I was reading that they're saying the vaccine most likely will take up to two years to make.



The four horsemen as featured in the “Bamberger Apokalypse” Folio 14 recto (ca. 1000 AD) - Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek


Eleanor Heartney–


I know, yes.


Marjorie Martay–


So the crisis will never completely go away without having people out there finding the vaccine that really works– so it's what happened with Polio. Wy do people die and who are really affected by it? But it was only once the vaccine came and worked that people could relax a little– they could feel like they could go on with their life. I have a feeling that's the same kind of thing that's going to happen with this. Same with the climate change problem. We need to be doing so much work against climate change. Look at all these fires, hurricanes and earthquakes that are going on. It's incredible and it's only going to get worse if we don't put a lot of real wonderful minds and money against it.


Eleanor Heartney–


Right, and also instead of assigning blame. That is so much of what the apocalyptic imagination does, you assign blame. No, we're beyond blame. Now we have to do something about this. We have to really change the way that we think. This pandemic that we're in the middle of, you're right, it could be really a long time before we are out of woods here. When we are, I think the world is going to see a very different place. I've been doing some reading about the black death in the 14th century and that actually went on also for quite a few years and there was the most intense period. But then there were recurrences and it really kept going on... it changed the structure of Europe and the structure of politics. It changed the way that people dealt with the world. In many ways it destroyed the feudal system. This is also a game teacher–how do we use it? Do we use this crisis to make things better or to make things worse? We're right now at the crux where I think it could go either way.


Marjorie Martay–


I think you're absolutely right. I hope that we can take it and do some positive things with it. One of the other things you spent a lot of time talking about in the book was different artists– you mentioned a number of male artists, Keith Perry, Robert Morris, Robert Smithson. But, in your last chapter you discussed the New Jerusalem, and brought in several women artists like Shirin Neshat and Liza Lou. Do you think women see the apocalypse differently?


Eleanor Heartney–


I kept thinking about that because I've written a lot about women artists and when I write, I want to bring in women artists. I was having trouble finding women who were doing the apocalyptic kind of imagination until I got to the last chapter, which is about the New Jerusalem. This is the hope in a way for the future after all the calamities, the destruction and the end of the world This new, hopeful place can appear, and it's true. That's where I found the women. I was thinking, what is that about? I think it ties into another interest of mine. I've done a lot of thinking and writing about art and ecology and I find that some of the most important kind of pioneers in ecological art are women. I think there's a significance there. Women and men are essentially different. But on the other hand, it is interesting women artists have been in the forefront of environmentalism in the sense that, they have been looking at the world holistically instead of seeing things in terms of as I say nature versus humankind. For example that nature is something to be subdued, nature is something to be dominated. The most important environmental thinking is really about seeing us as a part of nature. I think that goes back to the apocalyptic thing as well though, because so much of the apocalyptic imagination is also about this sort of divisive separation between the good and the evil and the saved and the damned, etc...and that seems to be a less female way of approaching things. It wasn't really until I got to the last chapter and I was talking about what might come after and what kind of better world might appear that you begin to see a lot of women artists dealing with this issue. It was very interesting to me because I didn't really expect that and I did keep looking for more apocalyptically oriented women artists. It was very hard to find them.


Marjorie Martay–


Yes, I was so curious. Women are just naturally more optimistic than men. How they look at these things and the environment in politics. I think that very right on and, maybe there is more optimism out there– possibly in the women, how they look at things and how men compartmentalize...we do a lot of things differently than what men do because of that, and it's helpful.


Eleanor Heartney–


Well, I'm writing about the apocalypse and on the apocalyptic imagination, and especially in these dark times. But no, I think we think more positively as well. It is about this idea that we need to pull together, we need to change the systems and we need to have more of a sense of connection and community. I hope that that is one of the things that may come out of all of this. I don't want to say that that is the female way of thinking, but it does feel when you look at the history of art, the history of environmentalism, the history of apocalyptic thinking, that women tend to be much more connective and community oriented. I think that that's the thinking that we need to take us out of this.


Marjorie Martay–


I think you're absolutely right. How do you think women artists will come out of this crisis in the end? We're starting to see some people starting to work on new projects, which is one of the reasons I'm doing the blog. From your perspective, what do you think will change?


Eleanor Heartney–


Well, I think art is going to change.The systems that support are going to be really different. Who knows how many museums are going to be left. Who knows how many galleries. There's going to be a whole kind of reshuffling of that. But, deeper than that, this may be a period where the financial investment strategy focus on art goes away, which I think is very likely. In fact there's going to be kind of a restructuring of the whole art system. It might be going back more to the seventies and in certain ways that was an amazing period where there was a lot of experimentation. But there was also, again, there was a lot of interesting art that was communal and connective. I think we might see a lot more of that again and going back to kind of the ecological artists. Already there's a whole kind of model for that more connected thinking and I am feeling that art will change. I think there is an opportunity and if we're wise enough to take it, that art will change more in that direction.


Marjorie Martay–


Well, this could be a very good thing. Some very good things can come out of this. I think that there tends to be the more expanding and more of this idea of connectivity and how does that materialize? I think that could be very positive.


Eleanor Heartney–


I hope so.


Marjorie Martay–


It's hard. Well, I want to leave this on a positive note–are you spending time outside? Are you seeing the beauty of spring? I was in central park and I've been so taken by how phenomenal it looks right now. Even given what the surrounding is with all of us, but still the, the city and the park looks phenomenal. Have you been experiencing that as well?


Eleanor Heartney–


Oh ys, absolutely. I'm in Jackson Heights in Queens hoping to get out. We have a house up in the country, but haven't been able to get up there yet. Hoping to do that, in a couple of weeks. So we'll see spring awakening there. Of course I'm observing social distancing and masks and all of that. But every day I go for a walk. One of the things that's really lovely about Jackson Heights is that there's a lot of trees and gardens here. It's different than a lot of the other neighborhoods in the city. Every day we go for a walk, and I've been watching the first of the Magnolias come out, then the forsythias, and now the cherry blossoms and the tulips. Yes, there's something about the cycles of nature and the fact that even though we're going through all this hell, it's still out there happening. It just helps to give me courage throughout this whole thing. I think it's essential to get out there and to feel nature– to feel that it's still there and it's happening. That there's beauty and the world is not all reduced to our screens, which sometimes feels like it could be.


Marjorie Martay–


I think it's so important for us to feel that our surroundings are beautiful and that we can return, we can see it, we can experience it, but we will be back in that. This will end, this will be over and we just need to have strength and the courage to keep on going. I so appreciate you taking the time to talk about your book and how important this book is for right now especially.. that's very much why I wanted to have this interview with you so I thank you for that.


Eleanor Heartney–


I want to thank you also. I mean it's great to have a chance to talk about it and it's great to talk to you also. I'm glad you're doing okay.


Marjorie Martay–


I think it's wonderful to be able to connect with exceptional women in all disciplines and that's my whole vision for my not for profit, Art W and now doing the spinoff with "Women We Create." The more we can do generate connectivity, the more we can come out of crisis situations like this and feel like we are connecting with each other. I also think what's so interesting that you said is having our art having that connectivity thread to it as well. A very strong thread through it all, and the importance of being there to support each other. I think that absolutely!


Eleanor Heartney–


Very good. Keep healthy and keep sane!

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