The Sight and Smell of Decadence

“Never have things of the spirit counted for so little. Never has hatred for everything great been so manifest – disdain for beauty, execration of literature. I have always tried to live in an ivory tower, but a tide of shit is beating at its walls, threatening to undermine it.” – Gustave Flaubert

This was Flaubert over one and a half centuries ago, and his words – the “tide of shit beating at its walls,” as he puts it – still resonate and reeks profusely to this very day. Nothing spells this out more clearly than the hundreds of looped viral videos flooding our social media networks, or that instance when a pair of glasses lying on the floor of a modern art museum was mistaken for a gallery piece. Yes, that really did happen. But the tide is so strong and high, that it truly is difficult to sensibly distinguish between artwork, what is presented as artwork, and what is really just a plain everyday mundane object. More so when the average time spent by the non-art specialist in front of an artwork amounts to no more than a minute, even if it’s a famous masterpiece (a recent study at the Louvre Museum found that visitors took an average of 15 seconds to take in the complex beauty of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, so even one minute might be pushing it!).

Quantity, simply put, has choked out quality. Yet this is not surprising and nor is it something that is only pertinent to our age. The same confusion and uncertainty was prevalent in the last two centuries when the language and aesthetics of art shifted from the familiar (largely figurative) to the unfamiliar (largely abstract) and, ironically, to the ridiculously familiar but de-contextualised object. It might here be worth recalling the episode wherein a group of masons working on the construction of Victor Pasmore’s house in Gudja (Malta), dutifully removed a few courtyard sculptures after having mistaken them for piles of unusable stones. But it is not with a condescending eye that we consider such anecdotes. Indeed, we find them funny…innocent, perhaps. Ignorance, in other words, was displaced by humour, and not only seeped into, but also oozed out of the realm of what was once exclusively reserved for intellectuals and visionaries who had something meaningful, prophetic even, to say.

We had then, at least by the turn of the 19th century, a situation wherein the old notion of universal beauty, the ‘noble’ mission of art, and the decades of thought and artistic activity that sought to define it in permanent form, had fizzled down into a delicate modern counter-concept: the beauty of ephemerality, of brevity, and instance. Art, thus, faced (and eventually became) a new contradiction of sorts. For the moment one replays or pins down that brief instance, wouldn’t the temporary nature of the artwork or what it represents be compromised, and therefore its intended ‘beauty’? Wouldn’t it be like capturing the sublimity of a single note or sound, and repeating it obsessively until it is completely devalued, or its original value transformed? How different is this from the machine-made product that emerges atop an endlessly rotating conveyer belt? The questions go on, but in most instances, they travel along a common route: the degradation of what we thought we knew about art. In other words, decadence.

And so, an impossibly complete, conscious and clean cut with the past was necessary if this new modern counter-concept of transitoriness was to stand for what it claimed. But, alas, here we must again walk into dangerously ambiguous territory. We find in the last two centuries (but this, truly applies to all the neat demarcations of art historical periods), artists and writers who at once wanted to move on from the clutches of the previous era, but who at the same time could not be completely free of it either. Marinetti, Beuys, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Yeats, T.S Eliot among others, sought to distance themselves from the previous generation by the denial of the emblems that signalled a decadent era.

A recent trip to the Renia Sofia museum in Madrid brought me face to face with a Picasso associated with ‘avante-garde decadence’ as well as with his apocalyptic piece, the Guernica, which in the words of Sandberg, stands out as a “pathetic symbol of the recent past and a warning for the future.” Indeed, inevitable linear connections between generations remained, so it is not at all surprising to find the name of revolutionary artists associated with both the end and the beginning of an era. In fact, it is more likely to be the norm rather than the exception. This effort to break with the past to give room to the innovations of modernism, could thus, only be successful if the break was not merely a linear one. It had to be a conceptual and technical break, otherwise the break would only serve to lead into another kind of decadence.

What a chore though! Because even if innovation could be theoretically without precedent, even if we briefly manage to reach that ivory tower, at some point or other we will soon hear that all too familiar sound beating at its walls. The best way to prepare is to remind ourselves not to look out…and not despair.

‘Decades of Decadence: Literature and Art in the 20th century’ is a two-part series of lectures which will be held at the Victor Pasmore Gallery in Valletta between November and December 2017.

A selection of Victor Pasmore’s creations, including drawings, reliefs, acrylic, oil and spray paintings, constructions and composite works can be viewed in the Victor Pasmore Gallery which is open to the public between Monday and Friday, 11.00am-3.00pm. Entrance is free of charge and gallery talks are provided daily at 1.00pm. The gallery is located just five minutes away from the Valletta main bus terminus, next door to the annexe of the Central Bank of Malta.

The Victor Pasmore Gallery is currently managed by Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti, in collaboration with the Central Bank of Malta, with the intention of bringing to light the importance of Pasmore and the Maltese modern art movement. Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti is a not-for-profit organization which aims to spread awareness on the islands’ extensive heritage, both locally and internationally, through museums, exhibitions and publications.

For more information about the gallery, lecture programme, workshops and other related activities, kindly visit or get in touch with us via email on or landline on +356 2250 3360.