Edgerton, an MIT professor, received a top secret contract from the US government to film the first bomb test in the New Mexico desert in 1945, as well as several subsequent tests. He invented the rapatronic (Rapid Action Electronic) camera, with a shutter speed of just two milliseconds, to capture the very instant the nuclear blasts ignited. These ghostly images were taken from seven miles away in the desert to protect the camera from being incinerated:
|The beast Extinction, unchained for the first time|
Edgerton's photos remind me of Phil Hale's skull paintings:
As nuclear weapons proliferate, it becomes more difficult to run the calculations on the Great Actuarial Table and come up with a happy ending. After all, we can never un-learn the science of how to inflict catastrophic harm. That knowledge can only become more widely disseminated, easier to use and harder to prevent.
The math suggests we're living in penultimate times. What role can art play under such circumstances? Can it raise our consciousness? Humanize our attitude toward nuclear technology? Provide us with solace for what appears to be an inevitable fate?
Art and death have been best friends since the very beginning. Our mortality is one of the greatest inspirations for art. Yet, despite all the effort that generations of artists have spent contemplating individual death, they have never quite figured out how to react to death's ugly big brother, total extinction.
Oh sure, there have been pretenders along the way. The Black Death in Europe had the potential to end the world, and it inspired artists such as Bruegel, Bosch, Chaucer and Defoe.
|The Triumph of Death by Bruegel|
As another example, the genocide of World War II was pretty damn impressive. At the end of the war, Picasso (who had painted the slaughter at Guernica a few years earlier) visited the extermination camp at Birkenau where 20th century technology had been employed to massacre over a million people. He walked the camp in stony silence and left oppressed by the inadequacy of art.
|The front gate at Birkenau, circa 1945|
Until now, even the worst slaughters have been redeemed by the possibility that a surviving audience could bear witness to (and perhaps give meaning to) the tragedy. That slender consolation may no longer be available.
Artist Ralston Crawford was commissioned by Fortune Magazine to witness and illustrate one of the first atomic bomb tests in the south Pacific in 1946. Perhaps his senses were damaged by the blast, for he came up with this laughable reaction:
Another artist, Enrico Baj, sensed that the jig was up and urged in his manifesto that traditional painting be demolished and that art be re-invented to respond to the new reality. However, despite the sincerity of his intentions, his art was not up to the challenge.
Today an occasional museum exhibition will work up the nerve to take on this biggest theme of all. Artists such as Isao Hashimoto make their point effectively with hard data, while artists such as Carol Gallagher take a very personal and emotional approach and Jonathan Fetter-Vorm has prepared a graphic novel about the first Trinity explosion. Some of these efforts are more successful than others, but they are all well-intentioned.
The ancient Greeks tragedians understood that even a doomed person retains enough control to elevate his or her fate from mere misery to the dignity of tragedy. That's not much, but if it's the only way to extract salvation from despair, it's important.