Magazine article The Spectator

Retreat into Decadence

Magazine article The Spectator

Retreat into Decadence

Article excerpt

One hundred years ago London was in the throes of a resurgence of wealth and extravagance and opulent living: the `heavy bohemianism of the "toffs" who swirled through the West End on a mysterious sea of sovereigns', as the art historian William Gaunt wrote. There was a millennial feel in the air, an atmosphere of climax `as if the date was also a spiritual terminus, and before the millennium of the 20th century should be reached the nation should have its fling'. London's restaurant culture was burgeoning, given its glamorous edge by the decadent artists of the time, led in spirit by Oscar Wilde, renegades from the middle class romanticising sin.

It sounds familiar, does it not? London again swims in a wash of money, Channel 4 advertises A Dance to the Music of Time as `five decades of decadence', and a group of situationist-style media art terrorists called Decadent Action are writing slogans on bank-notes - `Spend, Spend, Spend', `Shop Now, Riot Later' - and `campaigning' by handing out chocolates and champagne. In a PC-weary world, full of youthful cynicism and ennui, theirs is a logical progression. But most conspicuous of all is the decadent aesthetic ironically reflected and exemplified by the cult of the Young British Artists, busy rerunning the controversies of their forebears in a highly public, if not social manner. Their Wilde, Damien Hirst, has actually bridged the gap between art and cafe society by melding curating with cuisine via Marco Pierre White and Quo Vadis, the Soho restaurant where diners are overshadowed by Hirst's and his contemporaries' art. Gaunt's commentary on the Aesthetic Movement of the last fin de siecle seems startlingly applicable today: `Art was important enough now to be confused with fashion.'

Back then, Wilde and Beardsley, via Whistler and Pater, were riders of that aesthetic wave of artfully conceived outrage. Simeon Solomon sent pictures to the Royal Academy portraying `spiritual but physically complete beings, wearing aureoles round parts of their persons not usually submitted to public inspection'. Unlike their 1990s equivalents, the Academicians of the 1890s rejected Solomon's submissions. Solomon, imprisoned like Wilde for homosexual offences, was another victim of the decadence, dying abandoned and impoverished, selling matches in the Mile End Road, an exemplar of the darker side of the century's closing aesthetic.

The same themes are being played out today, as the half-life of our atomic time ticks closer to 2000 and global computer crash. Decayed, decade, death: the concept of time and mortality underpins the notion of decadence, and the l9th-century decadents' obsession with death -- displayed in all its lurid, symbolist depth in the timely new Tate show (Symbolism in Britain 18701910) - seems more relevant than ever when counterpointed with Sensation, in which every other exhibit appears to address the viewer with his or her own mortality.

But are we really living in a similarly decadent era, of moral vacuum and political apathy, a new pursuit of neurotic sensation? Theorists cite a consumerist culture in which shopping has been raised to the level of a minor art, and in which image and narcissism seem to dominate, while millennial fears exacerbate concerns about the status quo. Ever more nostalgic even for the recent past, we look backwards for security: the past is safe; the present disconcerting; the future worrying.

In J.K Huysmans's critical decadent text, Against Nature (the inspiration for Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray), the hypersensitive, cultural-obsessive aristocrat Duc Jean Floressas des Esseintes, unable even to look at the common people in the streets, retreats into a Parisian suburb, shutting himself off to live sensually in his imagination. There he lines his rooms in orange morocco, surrounds himself with the texts of decadent ancient Rome and decadent 19th-century Europe, a priest-like aesthete lecturing to his gathered tailors and bootmakers from a pulpit, with instructions `to conform strictly to his encyclicals on matters of cut'. …

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