When did we decide that ‘decadent’ was a word of praise?
It started, predictably if not innocuously, with the advertising industry back in the 1970s hawking desserts, (Magnum, for example, describes itself as coming “in 11 decadent flavours” and even its vegan version in “two decadent flavours”).
The Collins dictionary defines decadent as “characterized by decay or decline, as in being self-indulgent or morally corrupt… synonyms: degenerate, abandoned, corrupt, degraded, immoral, depraved, debased, debauched, dissolute, self-indulgent.” The marketing shills are playing on that last, minor, connotation. And even then, it’s a bloody pejorative!
The use of decadent as a praise-word reflects the schizophrenic relationship of late-stage capitalism with food – excess is good/ certain foods are “bad” – by recalling the elite banquets held during the decline of the Roman Empire. Banqueters gobbled as many
jellied larks’ tongues and dormice stewed in honey as they could before bolting to a dark corner to shove their fingers down their throats, hurled the semi-digested muck up for a slave to clean, and tripped over their togas racing back to their couches to start stuffing all over again. Hold that image in your mind as you ponder choosing between those “decadent” flavours of ice-cream.
Philosopher Seneca noted: “They vomit so they may eat and eat so they may vomit”: eating disorder as political metaphor.
Today, the word “decadent” is employed to describe everything from paint colours to music. A month ago I received an invitation to “a decadent experience for your musical palette (sic).” I won’t name the poor jazzman concerned; suffice to say his music is thoughtful, thought-provoking and fresh – the complete opposite of what decadent means.
This weekend, I received another invitation, to the announcement of the 2020 Standard Bank Young Artist Awards.
The event is being held at Alice & Fifth, a supper-club in Sandton. One review describes it as follows: “it oozes decadence…a bottle of Louis XIII cognac is displayed in a cabinet…the bottle is valued at R240 000 and a shot costs R8 000…real fur from Iceland covers various chairs…the menu is meat-heavy, clearly catering to male patrons…There’s a members-only section and to play in this part of the club it will set you back R50,000 worth of alcohol for the year. Some of this – with your name engraved on it – will be kept in a beautiful cabinet.”
No doubt (er…male) members of our elites, eager to sit on dead, previously tortured animals with an absurdly high carbon cost, slurping R8K brandy shots, are queuing up to pay. Invitees to the Awards won’t have to. This once.
But, guys, these are the Young Artist Awards! One key aim is certainly not decadent; to give exposure and creative financial support to deserving artists. The awards have helped jazz players find time to compose and assemble major original music projects. Associated music education initiatives have genuinely improved access for multiple young jazz learners. None of that is decadent.
(Other aims perhaps merit closer scrutiny – for example, associating a finance brand with ‘culture’, thus wokewashing its image to make it more attractive to upwardly mobile customers and investors; and contributing to the commodification of cultural creations as lucrative investment objects for gallerists and collectors. And all major banks, not just this one, do things of this sort.)
The patronage system behind such initiatives is decadent, though: it’s as old and regressive as the Roman Empire itself, however benign its current administrators are. Artists should be able to survive decently in society and create without waiting for an accolade from a finance house. That was one plank of the struggle and the Freedom Charter: decent survival for all who live here. Handing the arts to the marketplace as official policy did here in the early 1990s, was literally decadent: a clear decline from the people-directed cultural initiatives with access for all of the struggle era –”The doors of culture shall be opened!”
So maybe siting the awards at Alice&Fifth tells us more than it intends to? “Opening the doors of culture? That’ll be R50 000 membership and R8 000 for your first shot, sir. Oh, and do try not to get paint on our Icelandic fur chairs.”