THE MELANCHOLIC, even eschatological perspective that finds a brooding cloud in clear daylight may well describe a Nordic sensibility that needs to be retired as mere cliché—but curator Magnus af Petersens’s recent show titled “Eclipse: Art in a Dark Age” at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm suggested that that time has not yet come. An interesting choice for the museum’s fiftieth anniversary celebration, the exhibition was meant to capture the zeitgeist’s mood of cataclysm as a shared premise not only of life but of cultural production.

“Eclipse” was efficient in its task, including thirty-seven signature works by Lucas Ajemian, Michaël Borremans, Nathalie Djurberg, Ellen Gallagher, Paul McCarthy and Damon McCarthy, Mike Nelson, Anri Sala, Dana Schutz, and, brilliantly, the novelist Tom McCarthy. Tellingly, Petersens illustrated his catalogue essay with Goya’s mournful 1799 etching El sueño de la razón produce monstruos (The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters), a work not in the show, but one in sympathy with the smoky ruin of human dreams that he sees hovering everywhere. Yet unlike Goya’s blistering projects, the art in “Eclipse” hardly seemed intended as a catalyst for social change. In fact, while our age may be sinister and dire, the art here was not. True, there was Paul McCarthy and Damon McCarthy’s Pirate Party Photograph Portfolio, 2005, a Grand Guignol send-up of Pirates of the Caribbean, laid out in seventy-nine high-gloss C-prints of voguing sailors descending by route of pillage, sex, and death into orgiastic exhaustion. But this was an exception.

Consider the other McCarthy, Tom, whose Black Box, 2008, emitted a sound collage of phrases lifted from the Swedish media and broadcast on a Stockholm FM radio frequency. Its deliriously random poetry pays homage to Jean Cocteau’s great 1950 film Orphée, in which a car radio plays an endless gyre of obtuse yet hypnotic verses sent earthbound from the ether of the dead—the voice being one of creation, not destruction. Or consider Schutz’s painting of fictional cannibals eating their kind; and Djurberg’s stop-action animation Putting Down the Prey, 2008, a childlike rendering of a marionette huntress who guts a walrus in the icebound north, sews herself into its warm body, and disappears. Schutz’s work, by the artist’s own description, is about the evolutionary perfection of a species through incorporation; Djurberg’s similarly tells a tale of organic union and transformation, of bodies and spirits mysteriously fused. Both speak to evolution and growth.

I could go on with interpretations similarly tilted toward the light. The leitmotif of darkness canceled or reversed is quite literally seen and heard in From Beyond, 2006, Ajemian’s collaboration with his brother, Jason, a musician, in which they reverse every note and word in Black Sabbath’s 1971 proto-metal song “Into the Void.” Presented live during the show’s opening weekend and as a video, this amazing composition—whose liquid torpidity alters one’s experience of time—was meant to decrypt Black Sabbath’s wicked content in the tradition of playing songs backward for hidden meanings. (Anyone remember “Paul is dead”?) Yet by turning around the language and its supposedly malevolent omens, the duo transforms this flourish of evil into ecstatic noise. There were many other works in the show that tended toward philosophical contemplation instead of world calamity. Borremans’s lush paintings of mannequin-like figures, for example, with their jones for the surreal, masterfully poke a finger into the impervious hide of Being. They confound reason, offering a vital shudder of disorientation while asking recursively, Where are we? What are we? And just plain, Why?

The ultimate question, then, to ask about “Eclipse” is: To what end? Did Petersens simply mean to point at the darkness or to illuminate something prescriptive in the artists’ engagement with agency and community—two subjects bound to turn up, one would think, in any exhibition devoted to the ethically fraught matter of our “dark age”? Significantly, there was no substantial speculation here about the why of our contemporary predicament or about the social praxis by which it might be reversed. There is a difference between works that allegorize the strangeness and follies of our species and those—whether in Situationism, institutional critique, 1970s performance art, or more recent relational practices—that directly engage the polis and its struggles. Here it felt as if the seductiveness of melancholy had made Petersens cut his suit to fit the cloth, draping everything in darkness, while he hedged his bets with a secondary position that the aggressiveness of the artists’ images and ideas militate for change. In fact, the power of these largely hopeful works lies not in their address of social agency but in their various deployments of what Coleridge called the “willing suspension of disbelief.” That translated here as art that envisions alternative songs for existence, regarding the world in a mirror and reimagining both life’s scenes and the mirror itself. This places any critic of “Eclipse” in a curious position—admiring Petersens’s impeccable eye for compelling work, but concluding that it’s the wrong art to fit the downward slope of his vision. A case of mistaken (but brilliant) identities.

Steven Henry Madoff is a frequent contributor to Artforum.