Decadence at the Abyss’s Edge

One of my standard lines is that I thought we were working-class when I was a kid, but it turned out we were just kind of bohemian. Mom and Dad were both commercial art majors in high school, and quite a few of my dad’s friends were involved in fine arts — which wound up being one of Dad’s concentrations in college, along with English. While I only inherited half of that (the Spawn of Mondo seems to have both those talents), I grew up aware of art, and spent a significant chunk of one teenage summer reading Janson’s History of Art.

Not long ago, I mentioned Roger Scruton’s discussion of the ugliness of much contemporary art, with consequent spiritual damage that attends it. Along those lines, I ran across this article at Prospect, a British magazine that describes itself as “the most intelligent current affairs and cultural debate magazine in Britain.” That sets the bar rather high, but the article makes the case pretty well.

Art critic Ben Lewis argues that what we are seeing in contemporary art is simply the current trip through a familiar cycle, as an artistic movement becomes mannered and decadent. There is more than a chill of the Spenglerian winter in the argument, but Lewis effectively shows parallels between the contemporary art scene and the decadent phases of the Renaissance (mannerism), Baroque (rococo), and Romantic (academic/salon painting) eras of art. He uses the parallels to suggest that what we are seeing are the death throes of post/modernism in art.

Specifically, he notes that decadence in art is marked by a resort to formulae (as seen in the rise of photorealism, the neon-sign “wordplay” installation, and the dripping brushstroke), narcissism on the part of the artists (seen in artists becoming brands, e.g. Fairey and Banksy, and the proliferation of the readymade, which Scruton has observed is now a mere cliche, an antinovelty), kitschy sentimentalism (going for the cheap reaction), and a nihilistic cynicism (on which I’ve commented in previous installments) that celebrates its own empty gloss, reflecting our surface-obsessed, People Magazine popular culture. In crude terms, the arts and letters have largely become a sort of circle jerk — group exercises in cheap gratification with no risk of creating anything alive.

Lewis argues that we are more than ready for what’s next, and I agree, but I’d like to pursue this a bit further. I would suggest that what we have seen in the art world (and in literature and music as well) is indicative that postmodernism is a spent force. Postmodernism seems in part an embrace of Walter Benjamin’s contention that art in a modern culture, deprived of “aura,” is just one more assertion of mere power/control of the gaze, which brings us back to the Leninist “Who — whom?” dynamic.

The emptiness we now see in the world of arts and letters is the consequence of that dehumanizing worldview. A society that rejects the notion of a core — what Frye (who had also read his Spengler) would have seen as a set of mythoi — will produce art that is abysmal, in every sense of the word.

Lewis is not hopeless — he notes that even as the salon painters were engaged in their vacant efforts (supported in part by a bubble in the art market), some collectors were discovering the Impressionists — but I am perhaps less optimistic. I believe that, unless our artists, writers, and thinkers can find some Truth, we should not expect to find beauty in their art. Where should we look?

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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