Western culture has lost, altogether, its faith in an ennobling public art. New museums do not commission classical friezes to proclaim eternal truths; courthouses don’t ask for another version of the marble lady weighing the scales of justice. American society has simultaneously abandoned its dream of paradise—or at least the verdant Arcadian vision of paradise represented by the painters of the Hudson River School. The Brooklyn Museum once embodied both high-flown forms of art. It emblazoned the names of the ancients—Moses, Herodotus, Sophocles, and other greats, the mere mention of whom make children fidget—on its Beaux-Arts façade. Inside, it presented a superb collection of works from the Hudson River School.
Now, however, to celebrate its redesign and renovation, the museum has commissioned a mural that upends—some might say lays waste to—the conventions of such art with a kind of fanciful rage. Alexis Rockman’s Manifest Destiny, an 8-by-24-foot mural, depicts a sunrise over Brooklyn 3,000 years from now, after global warming has flooded the city. The climate is semitropical, the light a viscous yellow-orange. In this vast aquarium, viewers can see the ruins of buildings, bridges, tunnels, and stadiums partially submerged or entirely underwater. Resting on the bottom or in the sediment are wrecks, such as an oil freighter and a Spanish galleon. Ancient-seeming creatures—oceangoing sunfish, triggerfish, bulbous carp—swim lazily among the buildings. One toothsome snakehead is about to breakfast upon a paddling Norway rat. Harbor seals peek above the water line. Overhead, gulls, brown pelicans, and roseate spoonbills wheel through the steamy air.
Rockman is delivering a disturbing message about Homo sapiens’ abuse of the environment. The Manifest Destiny of this immodest species will not be the glorious one envisioned by nineteenth-century Americans, he suggests, but an abandoned, despoiled place. Even so, his mural is not quite as grim as its message. He enjoys himself too much for despair to take hold. Steeped in a boyish love of things apocalyptic and the astonishment of other worlds, Manifest Destiny should delight children, who will revel in its mad-scientist oddities. Like his Hudson Valley predecessors, Rockman relishes details, and he can make a large space come to life. An enormous lion-mane jellyfish with streaming tentacles animates the mural, giving the slow water a pulse. Rockman is also not without humor. Humans may have drowned Brooklyn, but the world survives, and here and there, life’s indomitable spirit prevails. On top of a floating oil drum, its antennae rapt with attention, is that ineradicable symbol of eternity—the cockroach.