The Age of Decadence


The lone wintery tree.

Decadence.

I’m reading a rather long op-ed piece by The New York Times’ Ross Douthat. It is a take out of his upcoming book called, “The Decadent Society.”

The name is not what you are thinking.

He quotes Jacques Barzun, who says, “The forms of art as of life seem exhausted, the stages of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable . When people accept the futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent.”

I don’t know about you, but I keep saying that all systems are broken. They are broken to the point where I am thinking seriously about leaving the country in November if the worst possible thing happens.

That said, let’s limit this to what we do. Most of us either write, or make pictures.

There is no new or newly broken ground. There hasn’t been for a long time. In the book world, I have to ask how many new vampire books do we need? Seems like Anne Rice broke the mold on that one. Or, how many historical fictional novels do we need that feature a good looking bare chested guy squeezing the hell out of a beautiful woman?

It doesn’t get any better in the photo world. Sunsets, sunset and more sunsets. There are so many that they are loaded to Upsplash, the site that doesn’t pay photographers. Or, night photography featuring star fields? Or, slow motion water so that the water looks smooth?

I’m guilty of it too.

All these faux nature picture that I produce. are not new. I made the same thing eight years ago. And seven years ago. And, six and five and four and so on.

This work is easy to make. This work breaks no new ground. It doesn’t move my art forward. I’m not certain that I can move it forward, but I’d like to try. Realizing this is hard. Even though I love photographing Mardi Gras, I’ve been fighting to get myself to go.

Yes. The floats and themes change. So do the people. But, I’ve done it for how many years? A lot. This year I’m getting paid by one of my clients to set them up for next year. I’m incentivised. I’ll go. Once I get there I’ll have fun. It’ll turn magical. But, they are paying me for work that is yesterday’s. That’s the funny thing about showing portfolios. If the client likes your work, they want more of the same.

Ouch.

Think about this. How does it apply, or, not?

For sure, don’t confuse yourself with all the things you did to get to the picture. Often times the hardest thing about taking a picture is getting there. But, that ain’t the picture. The picture is the picture.

 

15 Comments

  1. It’s an interesting thought, about stuff not being new and doing it again and again being the sign of decaying society. One thing that is mitigating (for me) is that stuff can be old and trite, but new and exciting for a person who has never done (or made) it before. One of my favorite quotes of all time that lays this out (sort of) is: “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” ― Willa Cather, O Pioneers!

    But you’ve got me thinking. And I’m pretty sure that was the intent.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Douthat is coming here to Beantown in a few weeks, and I am going to see him with a friend.

    Also, I’ve been thinking about novelty, about a kind of novelty that breaks from the cycle of repetition and decay. Your reflections are welcome on this point.

    I am not sure what kind of foundings are possible that are not theological, at least in pianissimo. Reading Walter Benjamin and Martin Heidegger on these topics. Futures are what make the present, and what preserve the past. The past is never available as pure fact, but is part of a constellation of images that are only known from within a present moment. Our 19th century London here in Boston is an image that is not the same as the present of the people in 19th century London.

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    1. I’m not his biggest fan, He’s way more conservative than I am, but he is a persuasive manner. I’m pretty sure that he’s speaking as part of a book launch tour.

      I’m not sure that novelty really breaks a long, deep cycle of decadence. Novelty are things like Instagram, Tik Tok and all the rest. Innovation are thing like the Industrial Age, the arrival of mass transportation and the design of the internet. Novel fits within that.

      There was a discussion on NPR about looking at things in the present tense and looking at them from the future. Basically, the social scientists agree with you. I do too. Living in New Orleans is certainly a testament to that. We now are a one industry town. Tourism. As late as the 1960s, we actually made a lot of goods here. Coffee is an example. Raw beans were imported from South America. All processing was done here and shipped to the rest of the country. Today, there is one coffee brand — a regional one that comes even close. Meanwhile, the neighborhood in which that all was done — The Bywater — has become gentrified and a food destination.

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      1. Douthat is more conservative than everyone, but he is also persuasive, and persuasive because he is not trying to win a culture war, but accepts that it has been lost by his lights. This gives his conservatism a kind of license to honesty that is sadly lacking from nearly all quarters in the modern era; it is why people love to listen to him. He can really rip into, well, _everyone_, and try and articulate the worth of things that we’ve all abandoned, every quarter of the current war, and so we can affirm the tragic dimension of our existence when listening to Douthat. I think that’s why we all enjoy him, even when we don’t agree with him. He’s refreshingly honest, because he speaks as a man defeated, but unbroken.

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      2. He was broken from the minute he graduated from Catholic school and didn’t have a war to fight. But, now he’s on book tour which, I imagine, if it’s anything like music tours is a war.

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      3. Better still to wear it lightly, and not be an ass about it to everyone, and let it be a quiet underground stream nourishing you. The ones who take it as marching orders tend to want to make others step in line. If it doesn’t help you love better, or come closer to loving, or at least not be an ass, it’s likely shit. Many things can give us a sense of meaning – like an inquisition, or war. That doesn’t justify either. If the meaning that any given brand of Catholicism gives a person is not love and truth and some Tolkienian “eucatastrophe” about life and history, probably better to return that brand to the store. By all accounts, something like 40% of Catholic Boomers did just that (I’d need to check those stats). What does that say about postwar Catholicism? The wider culture can only be blamed so much before a subculture needs to look at itself…

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      4. It’s not so much Catholicism than it is the church itself. Or, maybe it’s sort of a Groucho Marx thing… “I wouldn’t join any group that would have me as a member.” As far as boomers dropping out of the church, remember we lived a life. We served in a war that tore the country apart. We protested in the streets. We changed sexual mores. We changed music a couple of times. We saw things that changed us forever. The Catholic Church didn’t change… well, it did a little. Mostly superficial things, like most masses switching from Latin to the language of the host country. And, then they are priests. Don’t get me started.

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      5. Sure. I can’t speak for book tours because it’s really only a couple of people. I can speak about music tours, which as a tour manager that we are close to says “I wake up in the morning knowing that for the next 16 hours somebody is going to screw with me.” Everybody wants something. From pases to if I could just meet…

        Keith Richards once famously said the “only time I get any piece is when I’m on stage.” It gets worse. Most fans are idiots. If you ask them not to take pictures because their phone uses a flash, they do it more. If you don’t play the one song they came to hear, the concert sucked. They figure out where the tour bus is parked and wait there after the show. If the musician doesn’t stop and talk to each and everyone of them and take selfies, she sucks.

        Venues resell tickets at prices higher than scalpers. Promoters always lie about everything. Airlines lose your luggage. But, it’s never the suitcase you don’t care about. It’s always the one with stage clothes and the microphones. It’s even better when instruments get lost or broken.

        Want more? I got more.

        One more thing. Your life is lived upside down. You try to sleep late because you go to bed later. That’s everybody, not only the musicians. You are so wired that it takes hours to come down.

        And, the show must go on. Just this weekend, Elton John was in tears because he was too sick to keep playing. Tom Petty died because of that. So did Prince.

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