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.
HENRY: And what would you generally consider the pre-Raphaelites, whose works appeared later in the century, to have been?
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
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
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
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
HENRY: Not to mention between Picasso's neo-pagan works and those of the fin-de-siècle academicians you mention.
FRANK: Oh, absolutely!