Between Decadence and Renaissance

      I have been interested in trends ever since I was once a stockbroker. In another essay, "On and Beyond Symbolism," I suggested that aesthetic trends were cyclical, fluctuating throughout history between realistic (perspective) and abstract (iconography), and also between classical and romantic styles. I admit that often the perception of a cycle can be subjective. Correlations between cycles are even more difficult to verify or to explain - like wheels within wheels. For example, some people believe in a correlation between rising or falling hemlines and stock market performance.
     I believe that periods of decadence and renaissance fluctuate throughout history and furthermore, that they can be correlated with advances in technology which ultimately militate toward decadence. Late Roman revivals of classic Greek sculpture and architecture were wrought through a preponderance of technical ability but a diminution of simplicity, originality, and depth. This also coincided with the technological marvel of indoor plumbing.
     I am not sermonizing, and by decadence I do not mean simply a decline in moral values; I mean more a fixation on death and decay as opposed to birth and rebirth. I am using the terms "decadence" and "renaissance" in their most literal and etymological sense. To bring it home, I would say that Western culture is in a stage of high decadence as we enter the new millennium. Once again, this coincides with an era of technical innovation.
     Recently, the Mayor of New York threatened to shut down the Brooklyn Museum for exhibiting a depiction of the Virgin Mary, a collage of clippings from porn magazines and elephant dung. The artist may see excrement as the last taboo - blasphemy is old hat - but Marcel Duchamp brought the urinal into the museum in the early part of the century.
Another artist in the same venue displays a eviscerated cow's head complete with maggots.
     "High Art" is fixated on death and decay and dung. Excretion follows copious consumption. Bigger and more lavish bathrooms are always a sign of decadence as the fruits of technology and empire are disseminated ever more rapidly. Once again, I do not mean to say that something is excretive in the pejorative sense, and yet I  must observe that whenever shit or rotting flesh are put on display, the scent has been removed. Ubiquitous deodorizing or perfuming is another hallmark of a society in decadence.
     These correlating cycles of decadence and renaissance, and technological boom and bust, or advance and hiatus at the very least, are not restricted to art and economics, but also appear in other walks of life, such as government. The President's semen stain on a red dress, and its year long prologue, exposition, and denouement on television was voyeurism and the neuotic repetition reminiscent of soap opera. As always though, politics lags; art is the leading indicator.
     Every cycle contains its trend and its counter-trend. The counter-trend is always a reprise of the previous trend combined with a foretaste of the upcoming trend. It hobbles between two orbits so it cannot last. It contains both reactionary and visionary elements. We don't remember the reactionaries in retrospect. The visionaries are not recognized until they are borne out in a coming renaissance, like Galileo, who was persecuted in his own time by the Church. I will not presume to cite the visionary aspects of this present age, but the reactionary elements are numerous. Broadway has been staging mostly musical revivals for over a decade. Pictorial art for sale (as opposed to publicly or philanthropically endowed "high art") is purely decorative and restates schools of art that are a hundred years old. But, as they say in the stock market, "You can't buck the trend."
     That is why I do not attack the overwhelming decadence of today's art world frontally - neither "high art" which, like the Nazis in their ascent to power, used terror and shock under the guise of free speech in order to subvert it, nor "popular art," which in the main denatures beauty by taking away risk and independence replaces them with pandering and mere production values. Of course there is some trickle down effect with some "high culture" seeping into the mass culture. The consumer is set on the throne and flattered to his face in the popular arts and then insulted behind his back in the museums. I hope it is not the prelude to another reign of terror.
     Josef Geobells, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, said, “A lie, if repeated often enough, will be believed.” Goebells knew the power of words. This post-Guttenburg age is an age of image processing. Words are merely adjuncts to images.  Unfortunately, the tools which societies have cultivated to assess and judge words, tools which took thousands of years to develop, such as jurisprudence, various literary forms, and business contracts, to name a few, all of which serve to differentiate between truth and lies, between taste and tastelessness, between civility and barbarism, have not yet been developed to deal with such evanescent artifacts as  multi-media, screen-based imagery or installations.
     Since most installations insinuate themselves into the public sphere - many with the help of public funds - they often carry a message which is blatantly political, even topical. A follow-up to the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibit which included the aforementioned elephant-dung besmirched Madonna is a current exhibit at the Whitney Museum in NY. The installation includes garbage cans, the sound of marching jack boots, and quotations from demonized politicians, such as Mayor Giuliani (who attempted to close the Brooklyn Museum) displayed in the typography preferred by the Nazi party. One of the Whitney heiresses withdrew all support for the museum which bears her name.
    The producer of that installation has learned well from those he  emulates, notwithstanding his blatant use of irony. The Nazis raised propaganda to an art form through their use of “installations” and political theater such as Krisalnacht, the Night of Broken Glass.   I heard an interview once in which Dada was characterized as the artistic herald of the systematized absurdity and perversity which brought about, in its final political expression, perfectly efficient factories of death. Perhaps this is why others have said that there can be no art after the Holocaust.  However it is not I, but the producer of the installation at the Whitney who invokes the Holocaust to prove a point. (The trivialization of the Holocaust by using it for all sorts of comparisons, has become almost an industry.)
     These installations are not made to be seen, they mean to enter the public consciousness through hearsay and publicity. The real art form is public relations, free publicity. The “fifteen minutes of fame” has become the end which justifies the means. They subvert and sever the connection between art and beauty, art and artifact, art and pilgrimage, art and eternity, art and taste. Art in America has become what art was in Communist Russia or Nazi Germany, that is politics.
     It is political not only in the larger sense of civics, though so much of it does resemble a civics class project, but it is political also in its most petty form. When art is severed from taste, it is removed from seeking a connection to the individual viewer, for it is the individual who is, in the end the only arbiter of his or her taste. Instead it enters into the public sphere through intermediaries and speaks, or preaches, to "society," a vague concept.
     It is interesting to note the fact that some of the major political operators recent times, dictators, have fashioned themselves artists. Hitler was a painter and a frustrated architect, who collaborated closely with Albert Speer on projects. Stalin, according to historian Simon Sebag Montefiore,  micromanaged the Soviet theater and film industry and even wrote lyrics for Russian musicals such as this one, which Montefiore has translated in his book, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar:

     " A joyful song is easy for the heart.
       It doesn't bore you ever.
      And all the villages small and big
      Adore the song;
      Big towns love the tune."

     Saddam Hussein wrote a novel, Zabiba and the King,  which was produced as a musical in Baghdad. It begins: "What is more wondrous and delightful than heroines and the level of great deeds, and even miracles in Iraq!" A year before, he began a new national anthem: "Glory to martyrs... glory to mothers... down with hesitation and defeatism... glory to our nation and homeland." He then summoned a group of leading poets to finish it. Obviously, dictators' tastes run to the reactionary, but it goes to show that art is not necessarily enobling.

   On a recent visit to NY, I visited a prestigious gallery in Soho. In the main exhibit space was a pile of PVC pipe elbows such as one finds attached to, of course, a toilet. I thought to myself, who would possibly have such a thing in their home? Obviously the gallery, which pays high rent, expects to sell it. Then I consulted a reference guide to NY galleries and discovered that this gallery sells primarily to museums and corporations. The intended purchase is decided by  a committee, or a fiduciary chosen by committee. No one has to like it. If the gallery puts its imprimatur on it, perhaps causes some of the artist’s works to be accepted on donation by a museum or two, the value begins to escalate through a form of manipulated demand which in any other market might not even be legal. This too is politics. If I may coin a phrase, I would call it  Corporate Socialism. So art at the high end, as well as at the low end, is in fact transaction driven, just like the stock market.
     In finance there is a concept called “disintermediation” when the public invests directly in interest bearing securities as opposed to doing so with through the intermediation of a bank. This process of disintermediation takes some education and some sophistication on the part of the public. In art, the market is highly intermediated. Notwithstanding the recent proliferation on the internet of art clearinghouses, there is no clear dissemination, as in the stock market, of  “what the market will bear,” so one must rely on the experts. The experts have become like the Babylonian priests of old  who closely guarded the tools of reading and writing, or like the priests in Mediaeval Europe who similarly discouraged the possibility of “private interpretation” by banning the Bible in the vernacular.
     In a recent interview in “talk” magazine (April 2000, p. 184), Mary Brennan, the mother of Damien Hirst, the installation artist famous for his eviscerated animals, quoted her son as saying: “I love art but I don’t like the art world; I’m gonna play ‘em at their own game and then I can do what I want to do.”
     Regarding the “art world,” who does like ‘em?  The Norweigian artist, Odd Nerdrum, decided not to play the game and published an essay in the form of a paid advertisement in “ARTnews” (Oct. 1999). Summing up the contemporary art world, he writes: “For many hundreds of years, craftsmanship was also a part of the concept of “Art.”  This is no longer the case. Only ideas count.  And the predominant art world has been brutally uniform, either you go along or you are out... Critics and curators have been brought up into a stern clergy.  The question is not whether a work is well done, but if it carries the right ideas.  Preferably it should be poorly done, in order for the true message to reach through, just like in the Middle Ages.”
     This “stern clergy” of the art establishment, like the mediaeval Church, harshly discourages the dissemination of truth or beauty (Keats’ eternal diad), forbidding their vernacular expression and instead promoting a rigid, self-serving and self-referential system. Visual and artistic literacy is not widely taught or disseminated. The public is relegated to the consumption of the popular arts, and are alienated from “high culture.” This dichotomy did not always exist, nor does it exist per force in all countries. No wonder the people dwell in darkness with sentimental trinkets and pastiches on their shelves and walls, while the “priests” solicit contributions to cultural institutions like indulgences. Art has become the secular religion, and it is a highly orthodox one at that. Deconstructionism is the philosophical handmaiden of that orthodoxy, providing a context, a motive, a world view, a lens to flatten the world and make it coincide with whatever we currently believe. The revolution of science was the empirical method, letting observation prevail as opposed to preconceived “Truth.”  When beauty is removed from art, we are parading in the Emperor’s new clothes, and not believing our own eyes.
     In conclusion, I do not know if it is possible to transcend the age we are born into. Irony, despair, and anti-authoritarianism are legitimate responses to some of the phenomena of this age, but when they become highly stylized and mannered, as they have indeed become, then it is time for artists to search their souls and become, once again Renaissance people, reconciling the spiritual and the natural, the public and the personal realms, and creating beauty in the bargain.

by Chaim Bezalel