Retreat into decadence
Are we living in a decadent era like the last fin de siècle? Philip Hoare investigates Oscar Wilde by Napoleon Sarony (1882), courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery 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 spir- it by Oscar Wilde, renegades from the mid- dle 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 'campaign- ing' by handing out chocolates and cham- pagne. In a PC-weary world, full of Youthful cynicism and ennui, theirs is a log- ical 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 café 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 com- mentary on the Aesthetic Movement of the last fin de siècle 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 aes- thetic wave of artfully conceived outrage. Suneon Solomon sent pictures to the Royal Academy portraying 'spiritual but physical- lY 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 deca- dence, 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 19claY, as the half-life of our atomic time licks closer to 2000 and global computer crash. Decayed, decade, death: the concept of tune and mortality underpins the notion of decadence, and the 19th-century deca- dents' obsession with death — displayed in all its lurid, symbolist depth in the timely new Tate show (Symbolism in Britain 1870- 1910) — 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 politi- cal apathy, a new pursuit of neurotic sensa- tion? 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 dis- concerting; the future worrying.
In J.K. Huysmans's critical decadent text, Against Nature (the inspiration for Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray), the hypersen- sitive, 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 instruc- tions `to conform strictly to his encyclicals on matters of cut'.
Shut up against the changing world, sur- rounded by his opulence, the appeal of des Esseintes seems all the greater as pollution and climate change threaten to alter com- pletely the outside world. We increasingly retreat into our cocoons, safe in an envi- ronment of our own, experiencing the world through cyberspace just as Huys- mans's aristocratic recluse travelled with- out ever leaving his room, preferring his imagination to 'the vulgar reality of actual experience'.
Our values seem inordinately superficial, and artificial; fashion determines the way we assess our peers and our betters (Vivi- enne Westwood at the Blair's summer celebrity party remarked that she preferred John Major because his suits were better cut). Sexual androgyny is so much the norm that Hard Candy market a range of nail varnish for men, including a green tint enti- tled 'Oedipus'; hedonism and drug abuse are no longer the cutting-edge of teenage rampage but the stuff of thirty-something lifestyle. Shopping is a major recreation, a cultural exchange carried out in airtight malls. For the 19th-century decadents of Paris and London, l'art pour l'art took the place of God; for us, lifestyle has replaced spirituality. We lavish care on our interiors, which increasingly become the stuff of fashion; contemporary or retro, modernist or minimalist, but ever more expensive to attain, ever more hermetically sealed, and ever less egalitarian than the precepts of their utopian instigators, be they Morris or Corbusier. Inside these sheltering caves, grown men and women gather round their television sets to extol the hyper-reality of four foam-stuffed characters created to entertain the under-fives. The ironic reac- tion has replaced the natural one, becom- ing a decadent sensibility.
In our own late Nineties culture, irony is all pervasive, from Pulp's pop to Hirst's art to Oliver Peyton's food. The inexplicable tying up of food and art consumption is an advalee"bn.' 1890s restaurant culture. In places like Quo Vadis and Peyton's Mash & Air in Manchester, the spectacle of eat- ing is underlined by art installations and 'ironic' gestures towards Seventies decor. The crucial factor is the knowingness of our time: a concept of seeing ourselves as acting decadent. The aristocrat art-dealer Johnnie Shand Kydd's recently published book of photographs, Spit Fire, displays Hirst, Hume, Lucas and Emin et al enjoy- ing their YBA status in varying stages of inebriation. The stark black and white qualities of the pictures refer directly to Brassai's photographic narratives of deca- dent 1930s Paris, and, by doing so, further set in stone the ironic hedonistic stance of this self-promoting metropolitan phe- nomenon.
Earlier this year, those supreme ironists, the Pet Shop Boys (though they'd deny the charge), set up an unprecedented season of performances at the Savoy Theatre, enti- tled Somewhere, the keynote of which seems to be cdPFarlE:nce', a notion quoted both in YBA Sam Taylor-Woods's pro- gramme notes and in the Warholesque films she made to be shown on either side of the silvered art deco stage, depicting BritArt lounge lizards disporting them- selves in an archly 'decadent' manner. The staging gave the presentation of the group's elegiac uplifting songs a modem darkness, seen from the perspective of the century's end and the defining experience of the Eighties that the Pet Shop Boys represent.
Meanwhile, lurking in the wings was the shadow of Wilde, a man who used and abused irony in a manner which still seems startlingly modern. Wilde's use of paradox and irony became, as it has done for the YBA, 'expandable almost to the size of a philosophy ...' as Gaunt wrote. 'And as truth is many-sided it sometimes looked as if in reversing the accepted he had made an important discovery.' Wilde's inversions apply as well now as they ever did: 'Noth- ing succeeds like excess.'
The modern predilection for irony marks the end of innocence in a world which will never be the same again, not even the weather. The summers will always be too hot or too wet; the winters too mild and the freak conditions of El Nino merely seem harbingers of doom, a Nostradamus quatrain come to pass. In such a world the retreat into decadence seems almost excus- able, where art for art's sake — the cri de coeur first sent up by Gautier and Baude- laire — seems a moral position in itself in a country where, at least for the last decade, consumption, if not greed, has been licensed.
But is the idea of contemporary deca- dence anything more than a convenient handle for articles like this? Wilde conclud- ed the decadent search for sensation by providing the movement with its ultimate martyrdom: 'If I were to survive into the 20th century it would be more than the English people can bear.' Ironically, this is part of the reason for his current revival. It is hard to think of our cynical age being moved to such objections; its commercial- ism saps subversion via Saatchi, taming the likes of Damien Hirst who, rather than being a Wildean rebel subject to prosecu- tion, is now a family man living in Devon while his art is on show in the capital's most Establishment exhibition space.
The 1890s decadence 'made romance out of exhaustion and excess' at a time when the reassuring values of the Victorian era were being challenged by the very advances it had fostered. In our own age of deca- dence the First World faces decline, eclipsed by the rise of the East. Post- Empire, post-colonial, buoyed up by the rewards of conquest and appropriation, we squander our wealth and pollute the world as a by-product. The heir to the throne tends his ornamental organic estate while drug abuse is endemic at every level of society. After the avowed decadence of the 1980s — never did so many champagne corks fly, or so much cocaine course through the Stock Exchange — comes the return of consumer frenzy and record FTS highs and Paul Johnson's apoplectic tirades against the degenerates of 'nightmare Britain'.
In 1997, decadence hangs in the air like a heady scent, noisome to some, delicious to a few. The era of New Labour, with its hard-edged compassion, its May victory combining with September's national expression of emotion (grief at one remove — a decadent emotion, perhaps), may seem set to dispel cynical hedonism, but out there, in the bars of Soho and the lofts of Hoxton, the pale-faced activists of Deca- dent Action are plotting nationwide out- rages of wanton hedonism.
Philip Hoare will be talking about his book, Wilde's Last Stand: Decadence, Conspiracy & the First World War (Duckworth, £16.95), at the Cheltenham Festival on 18 October.