Millennial Art: Reflections on a Hidden Dimension

Richard Landes May 1997

Millennial Art. The terms seems like a natural. But what does it mean? Art that illustrates the great millennial text of the Christians -- Revelation? Then Beatus illustrations, and Albrecht Durer's woodcuts, and songs about the coming Day of the Lord, would qualify. Can the category expand usefully beyond this without becoming a catchy phrase under whose rubric anyone who wants to promote their work in the next two years will seek publicity? I think so.

First let us define millennial. The current use of the term derives from the the Jewish and Christian messianic tradition of the sabbatical millennium, which expected an awesome (literally) Day of the Lord that would introduce the 1000-year messianic kingdom at the end of the sixth (current) millennium since creation (6000 years of travail followed by the 1000-year sabbath). Thus, especially in the West, the chronological thousand-year marker became a moment of intense messianic expectations of a peculiar type. As opposed to the more common form of such expectations, which focuses on a single messianic leader, tends to produce sectarian attitudes towards evil outsiders, and often leads to violent behavior, millennial attitudes tend to represent a more leaderless, demotic trend in which "all the nations of the earth" are expected to join in a vast flowering of peace -- "Nation will not lift up sword against nation, nor will they study war anymore." Millennial times are moments of mass peace movements, religious revivals in which tears of remorse and repentance mingle with those of joy and celebration. They are moments of strong currents from the grass roots, when little people believe that they are capable of being moral actors on the stage of history, when they find a collective voice, when elites (must) take notice.

Millennialism is a purely mental phenomenon. The messianic age never comes (at least not so far... for the Jews over 2500 years of waiting, for the Christians, almost 2000, for the Muslims, almost 1500). Whatever impact the image of a messianic millennium has, therefore, derives from the human imagination. So apocalyptic rhetoric is necessarily poetic language -- language that fires the imagination with possibilities, stirs the heart with terrible hopes, and moves the soul with images of a future one can almost taste. People in millennial mode become semiotically aroused -- for them everything has meaning piled upon meaning; the cup of their lives fills up with purpose and excitement. Millennial moments allow people to believe that they are living in mythical time, and give them the will and capacity to express themselves. They are moments when normal boundaries break down, when the divided mingle, the silent speak, the deaf listen. They are moments of vast potential on a collective scale.

How powerful they become, and what kind of a legacy they leave in the wake of their inevitable disappointment, depends a great deal on the ways they "incarnate" their visions. The Nazis represent one way in which mass collective enthusiasm for a messiah can present itself; but the peace movements of the Middle Ages, the Great Awakenings of past centuries in America, suggest alternative outcomes. Much depends on how millennial believers view outsiders -- as enemies of the faith, or partners in creating a new heaven and new earth. Modernity and secular commitments to tolerance pose a particularly great challenge to millennial energies: in the past, the most powerful movements have been denominational, and the urge to convert, to make over the world in one's own religious image, has led to bitter and recriminating disappointment. The challenge to the artist, then, is to articulate millennial aspirations that are at once passionate and tolerant, that recognize the irreducible nature of others whether as individuals or groups.

Millennial moments are an artist's paradise. With a public semiotically aroused - ie everything means something -- artists can pour meaning into their work with the reasonable expectation that their audiences will detect much of it. Furthermore, high collective energies, popular gatherings, individuals breaking down the normal boundaries that divide races, classes, religions, ready and eager to try new ways -- all these factors make it a propitious time for social art. Collective projects can engage people who never thought of themselves as capable of artistic statements. It makes it possible to move from the lone (and often solipsistic) effort to make one's own life a work of art towards notions that communities can become works of art. An art that marries aesthetics to meaning, and awakens the creative energies of a generation -- that is millennial art.

There is, however, a catch. The best millennial art is also the least egotistical. Often an artist (for example, some modern artists) lives in a private and desperately precocious world of understanding, isolated from society, articulating what others sense only darkly. Millennial moments offer artists a chance to bend their ears to hear the sound of those around them and gives them expression. As opposed to the great individual artists of 1500, for whom -- like Durer -- self-portraiture was apotheosis, the great artists of 2000 have a chance to give constructive expression to the feelings of others. The challenge now is not to shine but to let shine; not to tell a tale, but to give voice; not to exhibit but to join the dance.

Such reflections have important implications for the many millennial celebrations now in the early stages of development. Rather than the classic model of commemoration, in which the planners compete with each other to provide ever-more dazzling spectacles for a passive audience, a millennial celebration works best as a collective and participant activity, one that taps the grass-roots energies and creativities of the larger population, one where, rather than having one city or country compete with the others, cooperation and coordination. If, as historically they have always been, millennial moments mark a time when -- violently or peacefully -- the silent majority have spoken, then it lies within reach of artists, to give these voices the most constructive, life-affirming forces. William Blake, perhaps the most brilliant and frustrated millennial artist in the Western tradition, wrote of the difference between the two-fold world of dualities, of good and evil, of the spiritual and physical, which he called Newton's Sleep, and the four-fold world of Eden, where the poetic imagination elevates. Here in the two-fold world of Plato's cave, "a pretence of art to destroy art, a pretence of liberty to destroy liberty, a pretence of religion to destroy religion..." There in Eden: "the soldier who fights for truth calls his enemy his brother./ They fight and contend for life, and not for eternal death!/But here the Soldier strikes, and a dead corpse falls at his feet." (Jerusalem, II, plate 38:35-43)

* "I have given before you this day two paths, one of life, the other death. Choose life." (Deuteronomy 30:19).

* If we would have our children stop watching TV, we need to make life more interesting than TV.

* Let us not leave public space in 2000 to denominational zealots.


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