Decadence and Mediocrity

MEDIOCRITY, eternal and omnipotent, passing before Originality, mutters two words: “Decadent” and “morbid,” and then sweeps on in its complacent dulness, feeling sure that it has given birth to a supreme judgment.

We are sure that the Candy Kids of art here in New York who expose their vulgarity each Sunday in that Louvre of commonplaces, the Comic Supplement, in their soul of souls believe Manet and Degas, Rops and Geiger, Baudelaire and Mallarmé, to be poisonous spittle from the lips of Satan. And the Comic Supplement is the Holy Script of the People here in New York. It is the simper on the face of the Golden Calf.

And from the Comic Supplement to the painter with a Vogue is only the length of a stones throw. “A wholesome art,” “a sane art,” “a normal art”—that is, an art that is imitative, an art that is sprung from a poverty of brain and feeling, and art that glorifies its own impotency and plays the paramour to the dollar—they are the American shibboleths. For today artistic and political demagogy go hand in hand and you shall mouth the phrase that cows and be flunkey to Morality—Miss Morality, if you please, with a flat chest, high ideals and a low brow!

It was Paul Bourget, I believe, who said, succinctly, that a decadent in art was an individual atom that had revolted from the mass. For in art, as in society, the whole weight of the mass is brought to bear at each moment and at each point to crush the individual who is struggling to emancipate himself from the deadly dulness of group-standards and group-technique.

The decadent, the revolté, the man with a new vision, a new way, a finer perception, is always a danger to the community of dullards, to the stratified hierarchy of saintly academicians and embalmed mediocrities.

Originality wears the mien of Catalina and brings not peace, but a sword.

In this sense the brain that blossoms with the new idea, the new way—the brain of a Rodin, of a Baudelaire, of a Nietzsche—may be called a decadent brain, for it bears with it a principle of disintegration and dissociation. It provokes pain and life, and the new ideas that germinate there strike again and again at the fat face of Complacency. It threatens Routine and Habit with death; it demands a new adjustment. It is the Kill-joy at the banquet of fools and ignoramuses.

Morbid and pestilential? Yes! It threatens Stupidity with death and stands like a vision of Annihilation on the steps of the rotting rookeries of academic thought!

What mansions they build, these prophets of stale things, these dabblers of buckeyes!—all at last blown to atoms when they venture near the arsenal of an original brain with its “morbid” or “decadent” ideas!

The ancient gods awake again and again, and there is in art always one who stalks through the world weaving his filaments of beauty into concrete images and ideas; but the cabals of mediocrity are always in session discussing its aureoled cows. The New Dreamer stands there reversing all axioms; but the aureoled cow is immortal.

Benjamin De Casseres.


Source: Camera Work, October 1910, No. 32, p. 31-32



Reprinted in The Double Dealer, April 1921 (Vol. I No. 4), pp. 149-50