What is Decadent Art?

It's probably not the first topic of conversation among viewers what Alain David's digitally manipulated images actually depict. You can admire their color, their composition, their harmony, whether you recognize their subject matter or not.

David likes this. It means that collectors can hang them on walls, clothing buyers can wear them around necks, gentlemen can feature them on ties, and none but those who do so will know: they are hiding a one-time obscene image in plain sight.

Here is his only hint: The clothing line featuring this art is called Coochy-Coo.

"I always had a gift for composition," David says, his hand resting on a framed piece called Passion Flower. "I was told from an early age that the talent was innate."

David's manipulated photographs fill the small table before him, bearing names like Tears of Pleasure and Enchanted Longing. He has brought many today, each representing a manipulated variation on the same theme.

He produces them by starting with a photograph - where he gets them is a story by itself - then Photoshopping the hell out of it, regearing its colors, making a special shape of its subject if desired, then printing it on an Epson 3000 printer using special inks.

"Of course, keeping it flesh tone makes it more recognizable," he says.

The photos already showed in an exhibition called The Abstraction of Venus, held recently at Passional, a fetish store off South Street in Philadelphia. But larger things await. David plans to approach the Museum of Sex in New York City.

A few collectors already have prints by David hanging on their walls, disguised as modern art. And it's at least possible that the art world in large might briefly halt its random beatification of merely competent artists and embrace his enterprise just for its sly fun.

Or not.

"Art is a form of expression, of intellectual exploration. But mostly it's about passion," David says.

Probably, David's idea represents not just one man's flirtation with the secretly scandalous. It also shows that sometimes when the muse touches, she clobbers. Some artists she doesn't sing to, but throws to the ground and kicks.

Art has always gone to the edge, and very often over it. A crucifix in urine, feces rendered in ceramic, a portrait of the Virgin Mary containing elephant dung - all such works willfully skate the border where art turns into insult. The question is, When does art indicate things have gone wrong? When does art become...

"Decadent: that word scares me on all kinds of levels," said John Dowell, a professor of art at Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia.

"I think the function of art really is that it allows us to discover something about ourselves, and helps us pay attention to the ordinary, and perhaps become sensible that there is humanity in the world.

"But when I think of decadence, I think of the German artist who castrated himself in public, and the artist who had someone shoot him as some kind of artistic statement. That sort of thing seems to be moving, I think, a little bit far away for me."

The term Decadence has usually referred to a supposed decline in moral values, the deterioration of a culture that has passed the moment of its greatness. In the 19th century it came giddily into the language from the pens of critics eager to show how the art of Aubrey Beardsley and the writing of Charles-Pierre Baudelaire signaled the end of the civilized world.

After a while the artists so criticized adopted the term themselves and wore it in honor. Just as Baudelaire and Beardsley eventually got into the mainstream, so did a number of 19th century painters progress in status from dubious outsider to recognized force, as the upcoming exhibit of Cezanne and Pissarro, opening in June at MOMA, ought to show. Whatever starts as decadent usually doesn't remain so very long.

"What made Cézanne radically different from anyone else, was the fact that he was expressing his individuality in a way that appeared to be completely mad to everyone else, even to his best friends," said Joachim Pissarro, curator of the upcoming MOMA show.

"Many young artists were feeling stifled by the heavily tradition-oriented conventions that were being taught in art schools. Young artists were demanding to have more room to express their individuality, and innovate upon the traditions."

In mid-1930s Germany the case was not so mild. The Nazis mounted a full assault against art they considered not sufficiently heroic, not sufficiently exemplary of racial health and purity - in other words, decadent. This category turned out to include most of modern art, which presented sure symptoms of mental disorder in the people who made it.

Modern artists suffered from decayed brain centers and diseased genes, the theory went. Most modern artists were not racially pure, so the impure art they produced deviated from accepted standards of classical beauty. The abstract and distorted figures they sometimes used betrayed the distortion of their own minds.

The Nazis put together an exhibition to illustrate this. It was to be the state's official condemnation of degenerate art. In 1937 they gathered works, confiscated from the nation's museums, representing Impressionism, Dadaism, Cubism, Expressionism and many other influences.

On the second floor of the former Institute of Archeology in Munich, the works of Ernst Barlach, Max Beckmann, Paul Klee, Marc Chagall, and many others shared space with slogans designed to ridicule them: "Revelation of the Jewish racial soul," "An insult to German womanhood," "Even museum bigwigs called this the 'art of the German people.'"

It was probably not part of the Nazi's plan that the degenerate show drew five times the number of visitors summoned by an equally large show of Nazi-approved art, which opened in Munich at the same time.

After the war, art got back to its old business of pushing borders and breaking rules.

But even today, some hint of the disdain for that flouting-the-standards trait remains. At the Incamminati school in Philadelphia, run by world-renown portraitist Nelson Shanks, students work very hard to embrace traditional artistic values. Their work is a recognition that, even given the tendency for excess and outrage, art can still advance along channels already well known.

"Over four centuries ago," reads the school's mission statement, "the Academia del Incamminati was formed in response to absurd excesses in the art world and today again we respond to the same need in an effort to reconnect to the dept of purpose of great art."

And indeed, on the fifth floor studio of an old factory, accomplished students under Shanks's supervision touch at life studies, assess the juxtaposition of items in still lifes, and gesture with their work toward the Renaissance. Incamminati calls it Progressive Realism. What it stands in contrast to is an open question.

Because, in truth, when artists set out to push limits, when a crucifix in urine counts as legitimate, definitions of decadence remain hazy at best. Perhaps no such definition is possible.

Perhaps the idea of decadence in art has paled before the idea of excess.

"In decadence you have this term that equates effeminacy and homosexuality with social degeneration, but that drops out after the second war, and I don't think it has particular currency today," said Marcia Brennan, assistant professor of Art History at Rice University and author of Painting Gender, Constructing Theory: The Alfred Stieglitz Circle and American Formalist Aesthetics.

"But excessiveness is alive in very interesting ways. Excessiveness implies exceeding boundaries and going beyond limits; but sometimes it's used as a strategy in deconstruction."

Anyway, claims of decadence in art have so far always failed to herald the actual downfall of civilization. Rome lived on for hundreds of years after Nero and Caligula - to fall eventually after a long immersion in Christian morality. And western culture did not come to a crashing halt - according to most commentators - with the strange and often sensual expression of Cézanne and Beardsley. Yet cultures still use art as a kind of early warning system. Some see art as a weather vane showing the direction of morals - appropriately or not.

The current faith-based fervor seems intent on expunging every last clue of the sensual and erotic from the imagery of everyday life, including TV and movies - probably hoping that the human emotions they express will follow them into nullity.

But the thing that looks most like decadence today, art is saying little about - except in the prices being paid for it.

"Decadence can imply excessiveness not just in art, but in everything from the political situation to drug abuse," said Nancy G. Heller, author of Why a Painting is Like a Pizza, and professor of Art History at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

"In artistic terms I think of decadence as reveling, as using not just a few colors but many, and not one texture but a bunch of them. Decadence is really luxuriating in something. I don't see too much of that in modern art.

"But you can see it in a lot of other places. The excessive way we live, for example. I think of the matching his-and-her private jets advertised in Nieman-Marcus. And you see it also in the real estate boom, looked at from the point of view of someone having to rent.

"It's not just a boom, now; it's gotten to the point where it's decadent, where if you don't have $1.5 million for a condo that doesn't even have walls, you don't get to own a home.

"These things could be wonderful, viewed one way. Viewed another way, they could be the downfall of civilization."

© Rob Laymon for Bucks Magazine

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