Posted on:Tuesday 15th December, 2020
As established in Jane Desmarais and David Weir’s introduction to Decadence and Literature (2019), ‘decadence’ is a multidisciplinary critical concept that is relative to contemporary ideas about decline and decay. Discourse of decadence manifests most strongly at moments of unease about socio-historical transition and relates to extremes of taste, passing into the realms of the distasteful or the overly extravagant. Social decadence seemingly surrounds us in the West today, and the concept of decadence offers a way of understanding creative responses to contemporary anxieties over social, political, and environmental decline, such as the decadent paradox of decay and beauty in the catalogue for 2019’s 22nd Milan Triennial, ‘Our only chance at survival is to design our own beautiful extinction’.1 It is fairly safe to say that the prescience of this statement merely a year later was unintentional, and I don’t need to labour the point that we find ourselves, now more than ever, in a transitional moment, facing an uncertain and perilous future.
Decadence hit the mainstream in 2020 in more ways than one, but for the purposes of this blog post I will put disease aside in order to focus on the significance of decadent self-fashioning and performance. Charles Baudelaire wrote of dandyism in ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ (1863), ‘It is first and foremost the burning need to create for oneself a personal originality […]. It is a kind of cult of the self’.2 In February 2020 The Observer published an article on ‘The rise of the red-carpet dandy’,3 celebrating the recent vogue for blurring gender boundaries spectacularly exemplified by Billy Porter’s Christian Siriano tuxedo gown for the 2019 Oscars ceremony. Likewise, the Aubrey Beardsley exhibition at Tate Britain (4 March – 20 September 2020) was accompanied by a video discussion between art historian Stephen Calloway and drag performer Holly James Johnston on ‘The Art of Being a Dandy’.4 And most unexpectedly, in September, high street fashion retailer H&M announced that their Autumn/Winter 2020 ‘Refined Rebel’ collection would be based on the ‘radically fearless style’ of gender-fluid fin de siècle decadent writer Vernon Lee.5 What these examples reveal is that decadence, in today’s age of the ‘cult of the selfie’, can be found in the practice of self-fashioning and performance of (gendered) identity. Whether through the simple act of purchasing a ruffled blouse in the style of Lee or immersing oneself deeper into the world of dandyism as a spectator or drag performer, the body is the site from which contemporary decadence is enacted.
H&M Refined Rebel Collection
While figures at the fin de siècle – the most intense flourishing of decadence – largely adopted an apolitical pose, today’s decadence is more politically engaged and socially conscious. Nineteenth-century decadents were disdainful of progress and modernity, whereas twenty-first century decadence confronts the negative outcomes of progress, or at least points out where progress is lacking. As confirmed by recent scholarly efforts to (re)classify decadent work by marginalized or lesser-known figures – particularly women and people of colour – and to highlight expressions of non-normativity in decadent works, decadence has always been the domain of those on the peripheries of mainstream culture, even when they enjoy the relative privilege of the bourgeoisie.6 Think of J.-K. Huysmans’s aristocratic eccentric Des Esseintes shunning society in pursuit of solitary bodily experimentation against the grain of convention. However, decadence today might be considered as an act of resistance against sliding backwards into a less progressive, closeted, and bigoted worldview; it is performed and enacted by those who have been forced to the margins by the politics of conservatism, heteronormativity, whiteness, patriarchy, and wealth.
The parameters of who and what can be considered decadent are expanding, as exemplified by Julia Skelly’s Radical Decadence: Excess in Contemporary Feminist Textiles and Craft (2014), which describes decadence as a performative ‘sexed and gendered (and raced) act of interference’ achieved through the aesthetics of excess and the transgression of social boundaries.7 A particularly fertile way of considering decadence in a contemporary context is in terms of creative and personal responses to social decadence that engage directly with the concept of decline or can be classified as decadent in terms of their aesthetics, particularly the paradox of decay and beauty, as well as the use of excess to push the limits of taste to their extremes. Contemporary decadence in practice is not necessarily grounded in specialist academic knowledge of the critical concept. Indeed, I identify it in areas where the practitioners themselves may not define themselves as decadent at all (at least in the academic sense): namely, subversive performance in which those of us who share an appetite for decadence will recognize the taste for the distasteful, as Weir defines it.8
Decadence has always been perversely obsessed with the body, the senses, pleasure and disgust, and in the twenty-first century the body becomes the site from which decadence is enacted, as demonstrated by Adam Alston’s ongoing AHRC-funded Staging Decadence project which explores the ‘enactment and embodiment of decadence as a transgressive, subversive or anarchic practice.’9 For example, an Eco Trash performance club night held in London in April 2019 featured ‘Sticky encounters with hybrid creatures, antidotes to overconsumption in a technofuturist dimension’ including a live incarnation of Whitechapel’s ‘Fatberg’ performed by Miss HerNia & Co, extravagantly costumed to resemble the mass of congealed fat and waste discovered in London’s sewers, provocatively combining elements of striptease with grotesquery in a playful yet confrontational environmentally-conscious performance.10 As exemplified by the current fashion for dandyism, aspects of decadent counter- or subculture are now being commercialized for a popular audience. The mainstreaming of drag performance by RuPaul’s Drag Race (2009-present) has resulted in renewed interest in the Ballroom scene of decadent 1980s New York City dramatized in FX’s drama series Pose, which debuted to critical acclaim in 2018. Pose pointedly juxtaposes the lives of gay and transgender Latinxs and African Americans during the AIDS crisis with the new Trump Tower yuppies who use cocaine, visit prostitutes, and enjoy the empty hedonism of obscene wealth. This contrast reminds us that true decadence is to be found outside the privileged and prejudiced milieu. As the marginal becomes mainstream, we need to turn once again to sub/counterculture to encounter a truly decadent taste for the distasteful.
The Boulet Brothers’ Dragula: The Search for the World’s First Drag Supermonster originated as a low-budget YouTube series in 2016 and has since passed through the hands of Netflix on its way to Amazon. Using the format of the reality TV drag competition popularized by RuPaul’s Drag Race, Dragula unites contestants under the credo of ‘drag, filth, horror, glamour’, a quartet reminiscent of Holbrook Jackson’s four chief characteristics of decadence: perversity, artificiality, egoism, and curiosity.11Dragula’s contestants use aestheticized signifiers of degeneration, decay, and sacrilege to signify queerness within queerness, showcasing spectacularly decadent performances that deliberately confront conventional standards of taste while simultaneously promoting ideals of compassion and self-acceptance among marginalized figures in an increasingly conservative political climate. As Swanthula Boulet declares in the introduction to Season Two, ‘we pride ourselves on celebrating the strange, and the wild, and the sometimes dangerous side of queer culture.’12 The adorned bodies of Dragula’s drag performers are the sites from which they enact resistance to the mainstream and embrace their position on the margins. Season One winner Vander Von Odd has spoken of the ‘awful experience of growing up queer in a small, conservative town’; their drag is a direct reaction to this feeling of being an outcast.13 As Vander explains to the top four contestants before the Season Two finale, the title of drag ‘Supermonster’ is a powerful reclamation of pejorative labels attached to them by conservative society:
‘I think for me a Supermonster is very much someone who has personally witnessed […] the nasty of the world and the evils of the world, it’s the bullied kids, it’s the kids who are left out, and I think that’s why gay people or queer people as a community tend to have such a connection to horror films, or to the villains […] the ostracized, the weird, the ones who weren’t understood, but they took all the things that made them different, and turned them into their power. […] and that’s why so many people who haven’t experienced that don’t get it, they don’t get why we love this darkness’.
Vander von Odd (2017), photo by DVSROSS
Vander’s message is not one of true villainy. It is about cultivating self-acceptance and love for (similarly marginalized) others by performing the role of the monstrous and weird in order to reclaim power from those who use ‘monster’ as a derogatory term, and in this sense it is similar to the term ‘decadent’ which gains its power from its paradoxical positive and negative connotations.
Dragula gives a platform to drag performers regardless of sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation in a world where both cis and transgender women are largely denied visibility on the world’s highest profile drag competition (in a 2018 interview for The Guardian RuPaul controversially defined drag as a ‘big f-you to male dominated culture’, but simultaneously denied women the opportunity to appear on the show14). Dragula’s contestants take part in challenges that push the limits of taste, but also contain a message about self-acceptance and the acceptance of others. Through dressing up as flamboyant and outrageous versions of typical monsters – vampires, aliens, zombies, ghouls – or creating opulent costumes from materials that others would ordinarily discard, as in Season Three’s ‘Trash Queen Couture’ challenge, the contestants use their bodies as the sites from which to enact resistance to social norms via visually spectacular, grotesque and confrontational performance.15 Like the controversially self-feminized nineteenth-century dandy figure, today’s subversive drag performers carry an important message. As Vander states, ‘It’s a message of autonomy, of empowerment, of self, and of shamelessness. […] It’s a powerful statement of self.’16
Boulet Brothers (2018), photo by DVSROSS
However, as Dragula reaches a wider global audience via popular streaming platforms, the Boulet Brothers fiercely resist assimilation into the mainstream. ‘As the rest of the world begins to accept us, they’re also trying to squeeze us into a little box and make us conform, and that just won’t do’, proclaims Swanthula Boulet. Decadence is always relational to the mainstream. As Dragula becomes queerer and more radical in reaction to its growing success, it increasingly resembles the nineteenth-century model of aestheticized self-marginalization. As I have argued elsewhere, decadence as we know it today will be a profoundly different concept in a just and equal society.17 But until then, contemporary performance artists like Selina Thompson who engage directly with the critical concept of decadence interrogate ‘what decadence might be and should be in a world without inequity and try to think how I might imagine that, and put it on stage.’18 In my view the concept of decadence is most potent when its double meaning is most clear and its use in conservative political rhetoric is confronted by those performing the aesthetics of bodily excess in rebellion against those in power. What the above modes of contemporary decadent performance show is that today’s socially-conscious decadents are artists, not agents, of social decline.
Alice Condé is a member of the Decadence Research Centre at Goldsmiths, University of London. She is Deputy Editor of Volupté: Interdisciplinary Journal of Decadence Studies and Secretary of the British Association of Decadence Studies (BADS).
1 22nd Milan Triennial (2019) Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival. See https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/20/arts/design/milan-triennial-restorative-design.html
2 Charles Baudelaire, ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ (1863), in The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, trans. and ed. by Jonathan Mayne (London: Phaidon, 1995), pp. 1-41 (p. 27).
3 Priya Elan, ‘The rise of the red-carpet dandy’, The Observer, 2 February 2020 https://www.theguardian.com/global/2020/feb/02/the-rise-of-the-red-carpet-dandies-male-stars-are-dumping-the-tux
6 For contemporary approaches to decadence, gender and sexuality, see for example Sarah Parker, The Lesbian Muse and Poetic Identity 1889-1930 (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2013); for decadence from a postcolonial perspective see for example Robert Stilling, Beginning at the End: Decadence, Modernism, and Postcolonial Poetry (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018).
7 Julia Skelly, Radical Decadence: Excess in Contemporary Feminist Textiles and Craft (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017), p. 16.
8 David Weir, ‘Afterword: Decadent Taste’, in Decadence and the Senses, ed. by Jane Desmarais and Alice Condé (Cambridge: Legenda, 2017), pp. 219-28 (p. 8).
11 Holbrook Jackson, The Eighteen Nineties: A Review of Art and Ideas at the Close of the Nineteenth Century (New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1914), p. 76.
12 Watch The Boulet Brothers’ Dragula via Amazon here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B0767RRCFY/ref=dvm_uk_sl_tit_zzz_v1iamupUc_c419849972602
13 Vander Von Odd interviewed by Daniel Megarry, Gay Times https://www.gaytimes.co.uk/originals/dragula-champion-vander-von-odd-believes-theres-power-in-sticking-out/
14 RuPaul interviewed by Decca Aitkenhead, The Guardian, 3 March 2018 https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2018/mar/03/rupaul-drag-race-big-f-you-to-male-dominated-culture
15 For further details on the relationship between decadence, trash, and ruination in contemporary performance, see for example Adam Alston ‘Decadence and Ruination in Contemporary Performance’ https://bads.gold.ac.uk/bads-jeudis-2019. I am grateful to Adam for enlightening discussion about performance studies that contributed to this blog post.
16 Vander Von Odd interviewed by Daniel Megarry, Gay Times.
17 Alice Condé, ‘Decadence and Popular Culture’, in Decadence and Literature, ed. by Jane Desmarais and David Weir (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), pp. 379-99 (p. 397).
18 Selina Thompson interviewed by Adam Alston for Staging Decadence, 16 October 2020 https://www.stagingdecadence.com/blog/selina-thompson-interview