Three Types of Decadence


HENRY: I have often heard the word 'decadent' used in connection with the arts and, in particular, the art of painting, but I am still not absolutely sure what it signifies.  After all, there are various interpretations of the decadent, including that which pertains to a turgid, obscure style of painting.

FRANK: Yes, though the most significant interpretation of it is undoubtedly that which suggests a falling-away from something higher, a decline in standards.  That is what I usually think of when I hear the word 'decadent'.

HENRY: And what type of art would you classify in this manner?

FRANK: Basically non-Christian art which has little relation with its time.

HENRY: I'm afraid that I don't quite follow you.

FRANK: Well, let's divide the history of Western art into three phases, viz. an aristocratic, a bourgeois, and a proletarian.  The first phase came to a head with the gothic, and resulted in the early-Christian art of the Middle Ages.  One thinks of Martini, Giotto, Van der Weyden, Van Eyck, Memling, Bosch, et al., as representative of the flowering of Christian art in the aristocratic phase of Western civilization, which stretched from approximately the 11th-15th centuries.  However, with the Renaissance we arrive at the first manifestation of Western decadence, and are accordingly confronted by a rediscovery of and return to ancient classical art.  The intrusion of paganism into the Christian culture marks the aristocratic decadence, which was to last into the sixteenth century and take the form not only of a partial resurrection of ancient Graeco-Roman paganism but ... a fresh interest in Old Testament themes as well.  One might cite Michelangelo, Botticelli, Raphael, Correggio, and Giorgione as leading practitioners of this first decadence, even though their work was by no means exclusively decadent.

HENRY: Yes, I agree!  The return to pre-Christian subjects or themes can only be interpreted in terms of a falling-away from the high achievements of early-Christian art, which you characterized as gothic.  But, presumably, we next enter a phase of bourgeois art?

FRANK: Indeed we do!  Now this phase, beginning with the Reformation and stretching into the eighteenth century, may be characterized as baroque and be regarded as a predominantly, though far from exclusively, Protestant phenomenon.  For there were indeed many Catholics of the Counter Reformation at work in this second phase of religious production, not the least of whom were Titian, Tintoretto, Poussin, and El Greco.  Yet even Catholicism undergoes modifications under the influence of Protestant criteria, so that it increasingly approximates to a Protestant humanism, and gives rise to a correspondingly optimistic art, eschewing the earlier emphasis on sin and death in favour of life and salvation.  However, it is primarily to the northern countries like Holland and Belgium that we must turn for the most outstanding examples of bourgeois Christian art, as manifested in many of the traditionally-inspired pictorial works of Rembrandt and Rubens, as well as in the uniquely puritan art of masters like de Witte and Saenredam, whose best works, focusing on church interiors, shine with the light of Protestant purism.  In Germany, it is of course the rococo which best illustrates this more optimistic phase of Western religious evolution, with the great pilgrimage churches, such as Wiesbaden, being especially prominent.  But religious art was to be superseded, during the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, by the inevitable decadence of the bourgeois phase of aesthetic evolution, resulting in the spate of works inspired by both Graeco-Roman and Old Testament themes which was eventually brought to a close with the lifeless academicism of fin-de-siècle decadence.  In the earlier stage of this second decadence one encounters the gently heathen works of Boucher, Fragonard, Watteau, and other such French masters, in which a perfectly legitimate eighteenth-century secularity is occasionally permitted to overlap with or relapse into pagan contexts and associations; in which antiquity is introduced through the back door, as it were, and therefore furtively, subtly, gradually, but nevertheless paving the way for the more unequivocally shameless paganism of David, Gericault, Delacroix, and their imitators.  In England, William Blake, a less gentle painter than the aforementioned masters of the fêtes champêtres, is exploiting not Graeco-Roman but Old Testament themes, calling up the shade of Jehovah to inspire fear into the souls of his protagonists, who are very often damned or in the process of being damned.  John Martin likewise concentrates more on Old Testament apocalyptic themes, thereby aligning much of his work with this alternative manifestation of early bourgeois decadence.

HENRY: And what would you generally consider the pre-Raphaelites, whose works appeared later in the century, to have been?

FRANK: Essentially bourgeois decadents, because so often returning to the Middle Ages in their rebellion against contemporary industrial civilization.  In a sense, they were misguided progressives rather than strictly decadent, since they wished to escape from bourgeois materialism and champion spiritual values.  But instead of progressing towards the higher, non-representational spirituality in art which an industrial society makes possible, they regressed to an attempted resurrection of medieval spirituality, albeit purged of gothic pessimism and elevated to the Protestant neo-gothic optimism of Victorian society, in which the pleasant side of medieval life, as envisaged through nineteenth-century eyes, tends to predominate.  But while their volte-face is preferable to a wholesale immersion in Graeco-Roman or Old Testament antiquity, it is certainly less good than the strictly contemporary spirituality being developed by, amongst others, Turner and the Impressionists, who were aligned not so much with bourgeois decadence as with the new proletarian phase of religious evolution in art.  With the development of abstraction under Turner and the nebulous disintegration of the material world which Impressionism presupposes, we are in the third and highest phase of aesthetic production, in which the religious tends to prevail over the secular.  The battle in France between Academicians and Impressionists was effectively a struggle between bourgeois decadents on the one hand and proletarian progressives on the other, with the latter ultimately victorious.

HENRY: And presumably in England, Alma-Tadema, Lord Leighton, Poynter, and other such painters of pagan antiquity were the Academicians' decadent counterparts?

FRANK: Indeed they were!  So you can see that bourgeois decadence is really quite different from what it is generally considered to be in countries, for example, where Soviet Communism has officially prevailed.  It is something that pre-eminently pertains to the nineteenth century, and then only to those artists who specialized in pagan themes, not to those who, like Turner, Constable, Monet, and Van Gogh, pioneered proletarian transcendentalism.

HENRY: A transcendentalism, I take it, which has subsequently become the mainstream movement of twentieth-century art?

FRANK: Yes, at any rate in the Western world.  In the (former) Soviet East, however, it is the secular, utilitarian art of Socialist Realism which has traditionally prevailed, as relative to the materialist side of proletarian revolution.  Because a political revolution occurred in Russia, Socialist Realism was the official art of that country.  In the West, however, Socialist Realism has remained unofficial - as, for that matter, has avant-garde transcendentalism which, despite appearances to the contrary, isn't strictly a part of bourgeois civilization.

HENRY: So an unofficial spiritual revolution exists within the West which is tolerated and even encouraged by the bourgeoisie because it doesn't directly threaten them, as would a political revolution?

FRANK: Yes, precisely!  This is why we have the paradoxical situation of avant-garde art being produced in the West and, on that account, mistakenly regarded in the East, traditionally, as a manifestation of bourgeois decadence.  Yet the fact that this art exists in the West is by no means a guarantee that it's bourgeois.  On the contrary, it testifies to a proletarian transcendentalism which co-exists with bourgeois civilization, but always in the role of an outsider.  Strictly speaking, there isn't any modern bourgeois art.  For with the decadence of a given class-stage of aesthetic evolution, one arrives at the end of the particular contribution of that class to the arts.  After the sterile academicism of fin-de-siècle decadence had run its dreary course, the evolution of art continued, with the twentieth century, in increasingly proletarian terms.

HENRY: Even as regards Modern Realism, which eschews the abstract in favour of contemporary representation?

FRANK: Yes, even then!  For the secular is no less legitimate than the religious, and consequently entitled to a place in the development of modern art.  Provided the artist concentrates on subjects or themes pertinent to contemporary industrial society, his art is relevant to the age and takes its place on the secular side of proletarian art as a kind of Western equivalent to Socialist Realism.  A lesser type of aesthetic production to transcendental art the result may be!  For, in any objective scale-of-values, the religious should take moral precedence over the secular.  But it is by no means irrelevant to the age, just because it takes a representational form.  If non-representational painting preponderates in the West, it is because we live in an unofficially religious age, one that was initiated, during the last century, by the spiritual revolution introduced into art by painters like Turner, Monet, Van Gogh, and Pissarro.  The political revolution introduced into Russia by Lenin, Trotsky, and the lesser Bolsheviks, early in the twentieth century, subsequently gave rise to an official secular age in which Russia existed until the collapse of the Soviet Union, and which caused the representational to preponderate.  In the East it was official means that prevailed.  In the West, by contrast, unofficial ends.  Consequently the one tended to contradict and castigate the other, each of them thinking poorly of the opposite type of art.  Just as representational artists in the East tended to be critical of avant-garde artists, so avant-garde artists in the West tended to have a poor opinion of representational artists.  Yet they were but two sides of the same coin - the coin of proletarian art in both its spiritual and materialist manifestations.

HENRY: So the modern age isn't decadent after all, at least as far as art is concerned, but intensely youthful and progressive?

FRANK: Not as youthful as 60-70 years ago, when abstract art was relatively new, but certainly maturing into a higher spirituality, as confirmed by the most recent experiments in light art - that quintessentially transcendental genre.  Indeed, with the acceleration of evolution which modern life has engendered, we have already witnessed the appearance of proletarian decadence in one or two exceptional cases.

HENRY: Such as?

FRANK: Oh, the neo-Christian works painted by Salvador Dali in his post-surrealist period, in which Christian themes are treated from a nuclear or molecular standpoint, and thus reinterpreted in terms of a partly representational and partly transcendental modernism.  Now just as bourgeois decadence presupposes, in a fall from Christian humanism, a return to pagan themes, so proletarian decadence presupposes, in a fall from transcendentalism, a return to Christian themes, though especially to those themes which lend themselves to a transcendental interpretation.  The very titles of Dali's neo-Christian works, such as Assumpta Corpuscularia Lapislazulina, The Ascension of St. Cecilia, Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus), and The Annunciation, suggest the connection of proletarian decadence with the more transcendent side of Christianity, which corresponds, on a higher turn of the class-evolutionary spiral, to the decadent bourgeois interest not only in pagan antiquity but also in the mundane side of Christianity, as evinced, for example, by various works of Gustave Moreau, including those pertaining to Salomé and the severed head of John the Baptist.  On the other hand, the strictly proletarian decadence should, besides concentrating primarily on the transcendent side of Christianity, treat it in an appropriately pseudo-transcendental manner - the molecular technique of Dali, who of all modern artists is surely the most decadent, aptly suited to the technical requirements of this highest type of painterly decadence.  Alternatively, certain mundane Christian themes may be reinterpreted in terms of the transcendent, and this is something which Dali also seems to have done, as for example with his Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus) which, contrary to traditional practice, is set in space, thus seemingly vindicating the proletarian bias for lopsided spirituality.  But the truly unique, progressive religious art of the age eschews representational commitment of any description, even when atomic, and thus remains loyal to proletarian transcendentalism in an absolute sense, with no reference to the past.  Mondrian's grid-and-square neo-plastic paintings are typical of this non-representational art and must surely rank among the finest works of our time, surpassing, by far, anything done by Dali.  For in all decadence, remember, there is a falling-away from something higher, an evolutionary regression or decline, and this applies as much to the proletarian decadence of Dali's neo-Christian works, in relation to abstraction, as to the bourgeois decadence of, say, Ingres' neo-pagan works in relation to the Christian art of the baroque.  Decadence may, in this sense, come after the mainstream unique contribution of a given class to the evolution of art, but it doesn't therefore stand above it, as a superior development.  On the contrary, a return to earlier themes, no matter how modern or accomplished the technique that accompanies it, can only signify a decline, a regression, and this whether the themes under consideration be religious or secular.  The production of an historical scene or battle some centuries after it has taken place ... is no less a manifestation of decadence than the return to former religious contexts.  In this respect, Salvador Dali once again serves to furnish us with a useful example of proletarian decadence when applied to history.  For the Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus is one such work, no matter how surreal it may appear on the surface.  Of course, Surrealism isn't in itself a manifestation of decadence, but simply one of the twentieth-century's unique contributions to the evolution of art.  Consequently Surrealists aren't bourgeois revolutionaries or decadents, as has been mistakenly assumed by Marxists.   When Dali's work is truly surreal, and thus pertinent to contemporary life or interpretations of the inner world, it is simply modern - one of the many types of post-dualistic art to have unofficially arisen this century.  Together with his surrealist colleagues, he is an essential rather than an apparent proletarian, which is to say, an avant-garde artist as opposed to a social and/or modern realist.  As I said before, it is easy for Social Realists and Eastern Marxists to regard avant-garde art, of whatever description, as a manifestation of bourgeois decadence.  But, in reality, this isn't the case.  Bourgeois art, in any definitive or significant sense of that word, no longer exists.

HENRY: And yet, when Western artists call themselves Communists but continue to produce avant-garde art, as did Picasso and a number of Surrealists, surely there is a contradiction involved?

FRANK: Of course there is!  For Communism pertains to a materialist society founded on the canons of Marxism-Leninism, and Communists should therefore eschew all contact with spiritual or avant-garde trends.  Being a Communist is, in effect, to be a modern barbarian, outside the pale of civilization.  But being a Transcendentalist isn't to be a bourgeois, as some orthodox Communists seem to think, but a proletarian revolutionary within the Western context.  For the only revolution to have occurred in the West, outside the domain of technology, is the spiritual one initiated by the leading painters of the late-nineteenth century, which has resulted in the development of an unofficial art in the avant-garde context.  Naturally, Socialist Realism would also be unofficial in the West.  But for most proletarian artists it is both safer and financially more expedient to remain in the avant-garde camp, without undue risk of bourgeois repression.  Also one could argue that, from the historical standpoint, it is more natural to do so, insofar as the development of Transcendentalism in the West is the obverse of Socialist Realism in the East, and follows as a logical consequence from the absence of a political revolution.  A Western social realist, like Lurçat or Fougeron, is by definition as much an outsider in relation to the tradition of revolutionary spiritual art in the West ... as an Eastern avant-garde artist, like Stepanov or Bitt, in relation to the tradition of revolutionary materialist art in the East.  Consequently it is expedient for a majority of artists to remain within the confines of their respective proletarian traditions, rather than to go against the grain of their particular society.  The fact that a number of avant-garde artists in the West have considered themselves Communists is just another of those ironical paradoxes of the twentieth century.  Obviously they weren't Communists in any strictly Marxist-Leninist sense, for their art betrays the fact.  They were simply Transcendentalists with communist sympathies, which isn't an uncommon situation among the Western revolutionary proletariat!  Considering that Picasso was at work in an avant-garde context long before the October Revolution (1917) and subsequent endorsement, by Stalin, of Socialist Realism as the only acceptable art in a communist state, one cannot be surprised if, having already gained a reputation in the West for his particular contribution to art, he continued to produce work of an avant-garde nature, in preference to Socialist Realism, during the latter part of his career.  One might say that habit and conditioning were against his doing anything else, as must also have been the case for most of his contemporaries.  Besides, when he did make a somewhat belated attempt at producing Socialist Realism in the rather benign form of a portrait of Stalin, the Soviet authorities judged the result technically inadequate and rejected it.  A man who had spent so much time distorting faces in his semi-cubist portraits could hardly be expected to produce one that matched-up to the eulogistic requirements of Socialist Realism!  So, despite his political sympathies, he remained a Transcendentalist.

HENRY: And what about his art in relation to proletarian decadence - I mean, did he produce any decadent works as well?

FRANK: Yes, but scarcely of a neo-Christian order!  Being in many respects a typically Mediterranean type, he preferred to relapse into neo-pagan themes from time to time, as confirmed by his drawings of nymphs, satyrs, and Graeco-Roman heroes.  Not that he treated this return to pagan antiquity in a bourgeois manner.  On the contrary, he always employed a modern technique - as, for example, in the series of drawings depicting pagan orgies and heroes, which are very minimalist.  Thus he remains, in these works, an exponent of proletarian decadence, even if a rather untypical and, as far as subject-matter is concerned, slightly bourgeois-oriented one.  However, the majority of his pictorial works aren't decadent but distinctly modern, especially the semi-cubist Expressionist portraits of his late period.  There is nothing decadent about distortions of the natural, irrespective of what reactionary philistines of an overly objective or autocratic nature may like to think.  Rather, such distortions correspond to a perfectly legitimate function of that branch of modern art which, whether in the context of Expressionism or Surrealism, would seem to be encouraging a break with the natural-world-order and consequently facilitating man's progress towards the transcendent.  Now this particular branch of modern art may not be the highest, but it is certainly far from being superfluous or irrelevant!  Time will, no doubt, vindicate its evolutionary status, in the development of proletarian art, as both an integral and progressive manifestation of post-dualistic criteria.

HENRY: That I can well believe!  Though, to be honest, I still find it difficult to reconcile myself to the view that modern art is essentially proletarian, perhaps because I regard artists coming from a middle-class background, like Dali and Picasso, as effectively bourgeois.

FRANK: It isn't the social background of an artist that matters, but the kind of art he produces.  If it is post-dualistic or transcendental, then it is proletarian art, and he should be regarded as a proletarian artist.  The age of bourgeois art, properly so-considered, has long since passed and can never be resurrected.  The present and the future belong to proletarian art, and in the ultimate civilization this art will be official, not, as is currently the case in the West, unofficial and therefore outside the pale of institutionalized proletarian religion.  Essential art will take its rightful place above apparent art, as the religious art of the future proletariat.  But contemporary artists won't be cheated out of their aesthetic contribution towards the formation of this transcendental civilization!  They shouldn't be mistaken for decadent bourgeois artists in their concentration on avant-garde art.  They should be seen in their true light - as Western revolutionaries.  And even proletarian decadence, to the limited extent it now exists, shouldn't be confounded with its bourgeois precursor.  For, in truth, there is a significant difference between the neo-Christian works of Salvador Dali and the neo-pagan works of Bouguereau or Gerôme!

HENRY: Not to mention between Picasso's neo-pagan works and those of the fin-de-siècle academicians you mention.

FRANK: Oh, absolutely!