Home | Essays List

The Smell of Decadence; The Look of Dung


This elephant dung thing, this discussion over the Brooklyn Art Museum’s "Sensation" exhibit, won't go away. On second thought there are some questions never answered by the most ardent from both ends of the discussion. One of these questions is practical, the other philosophical and moral.

The practical question, for the mayor of New York, is, "Rather than yanking funding, wouldn't a better act of leadership have been to proclaim how precious our various cultures are and how you wished all were respected?" As a politician, I'm sure he would know how to cover the appropriate part of his anatomy by saying he wanted to protect free speech and yet honor the religious traditions of all cultures — both at the same time. Instead, his grandstanding merely raised the shouting level of opposing camps to higher decibels.

Another question that comes to mind, this one philosophical and moral, is "When does sophistication become decadence?" The wonderfully sophisticated tastes of the French nobles before the Revolution are an example of how decadence can come from sophistication. For a long, long time, perhaps for hundreds of years since the Dark Ages had ended, the French nobles' tastes in food, clothing, architecture, and art arguably grew more elevated. At some point, however, they became decadent instead of inspiring. The root words of decadent mean dying. The root words of inspiring mean breathing in, living. When the French tastes stopped being inspiring, but rather focused inward upon themselves, they began to die and rot. They were decadent. The question is, at what point does this change from sophisticated and inspiring to sophisticated and decadent happen, and could it be happening now, compliments of Mr. Saatchi and the Brooklyn Museum? A rhetorical question from a Chicago Tribune op-ed piece suggests an answer: "Must the common masses, the poor, be forced to subsidize the tastes of the literati, the rich?" Does this not begin to sound pre-Bastille? It makes one wonder if the art world, like the French nobility at Versailles, has become too separated from the rest of society. Has it ceased to inspire, and instead become decadent?
Kandinsky wanted art to inspire, to breathe new life into society. Would he feel, attending art exhibits today, that he was seeing inspiration or breathing the close air of a funeral parlor? Let's not brush this off by attributing the question to prudishness or ignorance. Nor, on the other hand, should the question suggest a desire to produce insipid and unquestioning "uplifting" art. The question simply inquires whether art has focused so much on its own sophistication that it has become narcissistic and is heading towards decadence.

Interesting enough, dung is actually life-giving, not decadent. Supposedly, Offili's use of dung is meant to draw on the metaphor of fertilization. From the "death" of food in intestines passes that which fertilizes, brings new food, and therefore new life. It is ironic that this piece, this show, and this political brouhaha have brought out the opposite: what passes for life (sensation) in the art world seems mere sophistry, if not insult and decadence, to the mainstream.

What to do, what to do? There is no one thing. The problem of decadence seems akin to the problem of smoking. To change the smoking situation, things have happened in basic attitude, science, advertising, law, and politics. If the art world wants to reconnect with the so-called common man, a similar broad approach will have to occur, starting with basic attitude adjustment. We who make the stuff, those who exhibit it, those who publicize it, those who critique it -- all have plenty to do. What the Chicago Symphony Center is doing is notable, as it tries to draw in more people. It doesn't throw out its high art, but does those pieces along with more easily accessible works. Major art institutions could do more this way. Some are. Galleries could advertise in neighborhood papers rather than limiting themselves to safe venues where they preach to the sophisticated and converted. Artists could look around them and, far from snickering at others of lesser art exposure, create from that world. Creating art this way is quite the opposite of the "anti-elitist" act of elevating the common and vulgar to art status. Instead, creating art this way accepts the common, and then makes something that breathes oxygen into ordinary life. It inspires rather than being ironic, or mindlessly celebratory, or idealistically ignorant.

So, on second thought, the "Sensation" exhibit in Brooklyn, besides creating a metaphorical ton of dung, evoked admiration for free speech, suspicions of decadence, and hopes for impending inspiration.

(quotation from Ronald D. Rotunda, "Subsidized Speech for the Rich," Chicago Tribune, 12/12/99, sec.1, p.23)

©Robert Stanley 1999