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Decadence, art and ideology

“Decadence” is usually a term used by right-wing people to castigate individuals and societies with whom they disagree, and whose lifestyle they disapprove of.


Steve Latham


The arts are frequently said to be in decline, embodied in paradoxical trends: a lack of originality and repetition of the past, but combined with constant searching for novelty.

Morally, a life of selfish luxury and self-indulgence bring together sexual deviance and a lack of concern for the family, with disinterest in the plight of the poor.

A decadent culture will therefore be one which oppresses the poor in order to fuel its own pleasures and material plenty.

Perhaps we can see signs of this in our contemporary postmodern artistic and cultural moment. As faith in modernity languishes, artists have reached into the past, recycling older forms.

Instead of the authentically new, what we see is the promotion of kitsch, and surface fixes which ignore deeper problems of creativity.

The playfulness of Jeff Koons, and the conceptual art of Damian Hirst, are both examples of this preoccupation with the immediate search for impact and impression.

However, although founded on concern for the poor and desire for true creativity, accusations of decadence also frequently target minorities, as the ‘cause’ of the decadence.

Photo by Hartwig HKDWhat later proved to be harbingers of new cultural developments have often been attacked as signs of decadent taste.

We can see this in the Nazi Party’s discrimination against modern art, identifying it with ‘Jewish’ contamination of their supposedly ‘pure’ Aryan racial ideal.

Strangely, the notion of ‘decadence’ is also a mainstay of some ideologists from the far-left as well. Karl Marx also claimed societies can become decadent.

When the relations of production, the class organisation and their ideological representation, fall behind the forces of production, then the ruling class will fail to keep pace culturally too.

Society and the arts become tired, worn out, failing to develop, or create genuinely new forms, instead repeating old forms although they have outlived the social conditions which birthed them.

In almost identical terms, far-right and far-left provide a category to describe the cultural exhaustion of western civilisation.

On the left, this nomenclature is unpopular, however, because it seems insufficiently optimistic about the chances of revolutionary change.

At the moment, it is only the tiny International Communist Current, which retains the concept of decadence, as in any way analytically useful.

Richard Gilman’s 197i book, on decadence also criticised the use of this epithet. He believed the explosion of arts and culture, lifestyles and sexualities, in that era were positive developments. Accusations of ‘decadence’, he saw as merely attempts to control people and prohibit their own self-expression.

Similarly, Frederic Jameson’s neo-Marxist study of postmodernism deconstructed notions of decadence. It is, he claims, of no scientific use at all in investigating contemporary culture.

Instead, he too sees the discourse of decadence as an ideological tool to prevent any opening up of alternative lifestyles.

But maybe their denial reveals that they too are simply apologists for the decadence of our culture.

(Photos: Pixabay)

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