Thursday, March 05, 2009


I like Gabriel's comment so I'll republish it here:

"I'm interested in the decadent, too. But, I think, less as an adjective that implies self-indulgence or as a platitude. I believe I bristle at its invocation in the same way I do when "avant-garde" is dehistoricized and implemented as a place-holder for any number of aesthetic possibilities. I'm all for the transformation of meaning and the mutation of words, so I'm not generally frustrated with But I do think that to use *decadent* as an indictment actually mirrors much of the Victorian backlash against the French Decadents and their off-spring (and predecessors). It's much more fruitful for me to think of the decadent as deeply involved, as décéder implies, in death, disintegration, and the dissolution of boundaries. More provocative to think of the decadent as a coda with a Hydra head."

I do think Gabriel's correct that Bob's critique of certain tropes as "decadent" is not entirely separate from the critique that led to the name Decadence in the late 19th century (it was a name that came from critics attacking certain poets). Although the "period style" defined by Bob's rules is not in my mind connected to the deathy French poets of the late 19th century, I think the critique reflects a similar notion: the idea that there is a natural, strong poetry and a weak, artificial poetry. And in some ways our recent discussion of the aesthetics of embarassment, softeness, cringyness has a lot to do with decadence (Ron Silliman's "Hard" avant-gardism seems its opposite).

Jon Spayde, a writer for Utne Magazines, came up to me at AWP and argued that Action Book, Guy Maddin and Juxtapoz Magazine are all part of a "new decadence" (but apparently Max beat him to the punch), and I took that as a great compliment (I love Guy Maddin and I know that Lara Glenum is a Juxtapoz-reader).

I think the most interesting tendencies and streams of modern art and literature can be said to carry on a certain decadence: For example, Mayakovsky's and Parland's Dandyism (and Mayakovsky's face paint), Sylvia Plath's and Kim Hyesoon's gothic montages, Bataille's expenditure, Bruno K Oijer's extravagant Surrealism Etc. And of course Lara's article in Action, Yes about Aase Berg's kitchiness.

(The strain of Modern art/poetry I can't stand is Minimalist Art and its quest for purity.)

As for "degenerate": I can only think of Hitler's exhibition of Degenerate Art. And that was indeed largely an attack on Decadence (most importantly, Expressionism). It implies the same worldview of a healthy original poetry that then decays.

We also talked about Edelson's "No Future" and that seems in many ways a kind of contemporary call for Decadence. And of course queerness is important to decadence (or the other way around).


Blogger François Luong said...

I'm totally down with Minimalism because it is seemingly sterile. Of course, in my view, this sterility has something to do with the abject.

8:44 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

An unorthodox but interesting view.


8:59 AM  
Blogger UCOP Killer said...

Hmmm. . .Where do you see "minimalism" as a quest for purity? Are you talking about modernist minimalism--Malevich, Mondrian--or 60s minimalism? As for the later stuff, purity isn't really the operative term for the artists. It *is* for the earlier people, but in a strange way that would actually require some argument to link it to, say, the anti-expressionist sentiment among Nazis. . . And, in any case, you find just as much proto-fascist sentiment among expressionists than you do among disciples of constructivism. . .

10:42 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


There was no transition in my entry: I was not implying that Minimalism had anything to do with Nazism. That was a new chapter in the entry.

Certainly Hitler didn't like either Expressionists (though some like him) or Constructivists.


11:06 AM  
Blogger UCOP Killer said...

Yeah, but still, what are you talking about? Which artists are concerned with purity?

11:11 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Don't you think there is an element of "purity" or "medium purity" in a lot of the minimalists work from the 1960s? Its critiques of subjectivity and illusions?


11:18 AM  
Blogger UCOP Killer said...

Not so much, not really. I think I'm closer to Francois in seeing a kind of Beckettian emptiness, or abjection, in a lot of that stuff--which might mean purity, but it's a weird purity. . .

It's more about a kind of phenomenology of the subject/object relationship. I guess purity would imply some kind of polemic against a dissolute, messy, debased world (or art) and you don't really get that. I mean, pop art is a big influence for a lot of the 60s minimalists.

11:38 AM  
Blogger UCOP Killer said...

I mean, just as much as you have Donald Judd's gleaming simple shapes you also have Eva Hesse's tangles and deformations, or Richard Serra's entropic scatters and piles of material. . .Those, too, part of the minimalist moment of the 60s. . .

11:42 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

See, I would not see Eva Hesse as Minimalist. Perhaps "minimalist moment" as you say. Which would then also include Robert Smithson etc. No, I'm not talking about them. More Ad Reinhart, Judd, those folks.

I love Eva Hesse. I have a bunch of homages to her work in my book Pilot.

12:01 PM  
Blogger UCOP Killer said...

Sometime she gets called minimalist, sometimes post-minimalist. I guess it doesn't matter. She's certainly doing her own thing--and I'll agree she's one of the most interesting figures of that moment (I've never had much love for Judd). But at the same time, it's really impossible to imagine her work, or Smithson's for that matter, not existing in relation to minimalism. . .

I think Michael Fried's critical account of minimalism, "Art and Objecthood," is still the best writing on that art. It's notable there that the art he opposes to minimalism would be "pure" in some sense, or at least medium-based in a Greenbergian way, whereas minimalism is theatrical, artifical, etc.. Most defenses of minimalism and post-minimalism have simply reversed the terms of Fried's argument--which is what Bernstein does--and endorsed its theatricality in opposition to the absorptiveness of, say, Frank Stella. . .

6:42 AM  
Blogger Archambeau said...

Okay! If anyone cares, I've made my big "mea culpa but here's what I really meant" over at


1:52 PM  

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