11 May 2017


( Ronald Balfour - Illustration from the Rubaiyat ).

There will always be a subversive aspect to culture.  Within the glistening box of Man's collective expressions lies an agent provocateur hiding away in the cargo of the created forms waiting to spring out and disturb our equilibrium.  It seems that all calibrations of a cultural life through history have contained this hidden element; it is a part of the fabric of the imagery itself, and like all subversive aspects, it operates from behind the expression that hosts it.  

In the cultural spaces that are, by their very nature, populated with a wide plethora of artistic and intellectual vehicles that are hosts for the concealed element, its is a relatively easy to invoke such a trick, and the result can be either consciously or unconsciously inferred into a subject.  Modern propaganda is a noteworthy example of a deliberate and conscientious insemination of subversive intent into a creative system with the extended aim of seeding the minds that interact with them with new psychic proportions and perspectives that conform to a pre-destined outcome.  

Created images are a form of language.  When we speak, images are evoked; when we create imagery, language and concepts arise in the mind.  Artists are always inferring subliminal information into their work, whether they intend to or not.  Indeed, the artist, very much like the scientist, does not necessarily understand the implications of their efforts until they manifest on the outside, and by then, it is too late.

The subversive agent does not always convert into a context-negative.  Sometimes it can possess beneficial value in pushing a provocative subtext within a work of art that inspires strong discussion or, to cite another example, in a modernist writers' deliberate use of ambiguity to force intrigue into their writing, thus creating an atmosphere of creative doubt that likewise, provokes the mind into forming new strategies and solutions.  Art catalyses thought.  But this ability to infuse cultural works with ulterior elements has far wider consequences than creative intrigue, and due to the covert nature of its delivery, many cannot deduce its origin even after the effects have been felt.  So when the subversive element speaks directly to them, they do not notice its true voice, and even when it presents itself in the most explicit manner, they cannot discern its true nature.  The subversive power of its cultural influence is so subtle that most people will never qualify its existence either externally, or by the germ that it has left within their minds.

Beneath its undissected grasp we know something is amiss but cannot speak to it, and though we feel the entropy of its effects in the air, we cannot trace its patterns of origin.  It colours our thoughts and distorts the meaning of our language, in turn, influencing the way that we relate to the images and messages of the cultural ecosystem.  The culture of the Western world has indeed been subverted; not merely by any particular group or movement, but by the unchecked metamorphosis of its own language and relationship to being.  It is the aim of this entry to give voice to this predicament before we give shape to the sensuous imagery of its remedy.

Despite the complexities that confuse confident detection of this cultural subversion, the human brain still possesses an acute sensitivity to recognising patterns in external systems.  This is afforded by our bi-hemispheric powers of accessing both patterns of familiarity and association in the complexities of cultural arrangements that we are presented with whether they be aesthetic, behavioural or historical in nature.  This is a talent that we will now invoke as we steer our attention to the cultural conditions of late Victorian society.


(Arthur E. Grimshaw - The Strand)

It is always intriguing when we learn about the conditions and responses of people within a previous period of human history, only to then recognise them as reflections of our own.  There appears to be a discernable set of reoccurring responses to common conditions across time, lending itself to the proposition that human development is cyclical in nature.  It also speaks to the sensitivity of our human organism to adapt reflexively according to changes in the environment, and culture is certainly a type of environment albeit populated by the flora and fauna of Man's productive creations.  Despite some quite pronounced social and infrastructural differences between 21st century England and late Victorian England, there were indeed, certain patterns and sensitivities present in that period that map confidently onto similar conditions existent in our time.

As I made mention in one of my previous entries concerning the umbilical relationship between man and culture, as the prevalent conditions of human history provoke traceable reactions in the human system, they are then codified as cultural expressions that both seal and express their particular responses to the conditions of their time.  The artists of this period were no different.

Created images are the fingerprints of the human mind.  And they signify to us not only what the organism orientated its life to aesthetically, but also, a sense of how it orientated itself to the conditions of its age.  Works of art can be seen as creative crystallisations of the implicit sensitivities, tastes and reactions of an organism to its particular periodic climate.  Even as the men who made them die, the images continue to speak, and acts of human creativity are some of the best qualifiers of this cultural and historical conversation.

What is more, images never speak to us on one level only, they are the amalgams of a complex organism's response to life and should be awarded the same degree of sophisticated insight as a psychoanalyst would towards the dynamics of a patient's inner life.

With these things in mind, we are finally ready to map these treatments onto the pages of European history.  

The cultural conditions of late Victorian England were something of a convergence of powerful events.  On the one hand, Europe had already long passed through its great cultural and intellectual metamorphosis in the so-called 'Enlightenment.'  One of the major consequences of this period was the severance of Man's necessity for communion with the Absolute Principle of Nature.  This liberation produced in the European signal several new remedies and a thousand new ailments.  Many mainstream historians who are themselves offspring of the Enlightenment perspective, mainly treat the Enlightenment as a net positive to the European system, without seriously unpacking the deeper psychological and social consequences of being suddenly presented with the solution that the Transcendent force that upheld your national spirit, moral system, and to a large degree, its cultural dynamics, had been brought under major scrutiny.  Whatever our personal take on these matters might be, it must be brought to our attention that the human is a highly sensitive and sophisticated creature and that dramatic shifts in his external ecosystem of imagery and ideas will not go unfelt on the inside.

I posit, for the prosperity of this meditation on Victorian Decadence, that the resulting disconnect from the Transcendent created a new condition within the European subject that needed to be reconciled.  One cannot simply extract the nucleus from a cell and say: "now you are free!"  The organising element in human psychology has to be found somewhere, even if its solution is poisonous or feeble.

We all gravitate towards a central force that provides us with clarity and stability: the young see this in their parents and as we grow older we seek our locus in new ways.  The question as to whether the object of gravity is fully real or consistently beneficial to our condition does not always count, what matters is there is a point of centre and that this centre is positively effective enough to lend strength and support to a complicated organism within a complicated set of variables.  If there is a mast, we will cling to it; we do not possess the confidence nor the discipline to provide our own locus, it must come from elsewhere.

The Enlightenment project, very much like the liberal project that acts as its fulfilling agent to this day, has always considered itself tied up in the emancipation process of mankind.  It justifies its activity as a progressive attempt to emancipate humans from systems of suffering.  However, in its untrammelled aspect, it equates to a relentless quest to find new justification for the separation from all prior forms of ligament, forms of ligament that have been instrumental in the creation of the Western system and even biological systems of interface that bind us to certain sets of natural parameters are not safe from this endless quest for liberation from the bonds of life.

If we look into any system deeply enough, we will see people who suffer.  This does neither justify the suffering nor necessitate the abolishment of the entire system, only to draw deeper questions as to why that suffering exists and what might be done to effect a solution.  Western nations had previously jostled with the problems of power dynamics, questions of life and social physics ever since the great collapse of that bloated carcass called Rome, but the Enlightenment was more than a dethronement of the social order, it was the undermining of the very existential substrate that held all of those systems in harmony, and its supplantation with an artificial style of process that we are still experiencing today.

Since its inception, this process has become caricatured as an enlightened revolution, but in reality, it has been a catalysing force that has never stopped working on our prominent cultural organs, and I claim that this process of disconnect embodies the epicentre of our problem in this analysis.  The Decadent creative solution, however further along from this historical epicentre, was a long-term response to the earthquake that had been created in the soul of Western man.

Just as Man's spiritual condition had been scrutinised, so his external condition had also seen a significant alteration.  The Industrial Revolution that proceeded from the cultural revolution before it, altered the environmental landscape that Man had previously been in much closer proximity to, and this, I offer, influenced his mind greatly.  Huge numbers of people were forced from the countryside into the cities to work in the new factories that had been built to catalyse the mechanical process towards industrial and economic growth.  Machines and commerce were the Gods now.

As a result, urban sprawl erupted rapidly, encasing Man in a new sanctuary of brick and steel and sodden air that marked a stark contrast from the natural and semi-developed environments that many were familiar with.  And along with this came a new exposure to the algorithms of the factory city.  As industrial life complexified, new styles of process, education and custom had to be presented as constellators of the new minds that now occupied its artificial spaces.  Life was being remoulded and culture, as an extension of that life, morphed in tandem.

Though the great temples of the usurped God still remained, code, culture, law and human destiny had taken on an ever-increasingly artificial distinction.  Mankind was now embroiled with a life of machines and mechanical process; the soot of their skin and the oil of their blood now graced his garments and all of this progress mapped beneath a scientific edge that had seemingly cut the Transcendent out of the equation and made Man, like Nature, its slave.


(Caspar David Friedrich - Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog)

The first major creative movement that gave form to Decadence arose as a response to these burgeoning conditions.  The great European Romanticist movement was a true cultural counter-influence to the potencies of the Enlightenment project and the industrial unravelling that had made for Man his mechanical locus.  In response to the mechanised environment and the sterilising rationalism that had polluted the airs of both his space and his spirits, Romanticism glorified the supreme majesty of Nature, the significance of emotional power in art and was, as I see it, an attempt to address the fundamental problem that had manifested as a result of this Enlightenment "progress" -that of Western Man's emancipation from the Absolute and his new existential condition as a utility within a paramount industrial program.

It cannot be understated just how significant this bond between the human mind and its environmental systems influences our behavioural patterns.  Despite the way that it might have seemed in such an overbearing industrial atmosphere, whilst we are alive, we cannot be divorced from the pre-existent patterns that bind our flesh to the root.  There is no scientific program or political revolution that can truly abstract Man from his ultimate ligament to Nature and any continuous attempt to do so is to invite one's own folly as history will reveal.  We are, before all other considerations and vain proselytizations of superiority, a complex organism bonded to certain parameters and powerful effects that cordon and modulate our organic destiny.

I see Romanticism as the reflexive drives of a sophisticated creature kicking back against the artificial forces that had severed its umbilical connection to God and had transferred its being into an artificial incubator that further complicated its intuitive relationship to existence.

We have not evolved to exist in cities.  When historians of either a periodical or artistic description speak of these times, it is never within the wider context of the significance of what had actually happened.  They behave, as do we all as if this artificial incubator of a Metropolis and it's associative patterns of philosophical, cultural and fiscal concern are simply a given.  The matters of wider existential importance, of revolutionising an organism's relationship to life, transforming its living space and charging its destiny into a completely new process, the scale of which never before witnessed in the entire history of mankind, and whose thrall we still exist under, is never, ever questioned.  We exist as if this is simply the appropriate way that a human organism should live, despite the consequences of its artificial effects being continuously presented and despite millions of people feeling the contaminative entropy of its effects as it heaves and croaks under the stresses of its bloated mass.

In the same way that the fall of Rome announced the collapse of the ancient age, this post-Enlightenment project of relentless mechanisation and emancipation from existential suffering is on a similar course to oblivion.  Romanticism was a call to attenuate this process and reorientate our senses to those pregnant forces that had been obscured by the smog of modernisation.

The Victorians were experiencing fallout from the death of God and the effects of this new industrial-cosmopolitan existence were beginning to make their mark known on the psychologies of the people.  Keats dreamed of his "Life of Sensations" I think, as partly a desire to detach from this new rational mechanical ligament.

And from the concentrated social milieu, like steam arising from the factory machines came new apparitions to haunt the signal: alienation, claustrophobia and the moral stifling of this period would have compressed the psychic signal within barriers already oppressive due to the nature (or perhaps we should say anti-nature) of these forces.  The artistic response that arose in response to these conditions was understandable.

I must only implore what has already been stated concerning the significant pressure this modernising transference must have placed upon the human condition.  Human beings are not mathematical equations that can be abstracted and dissected at the whim of an organising intelligence with no major consequence to the components being manipulated.  The Industrial Revolution had forced the impression of men as cattle, units of economic concern concentrated into great batteries of industrial gargantua that had become the quintessential focus and trajectory for Man's cause to exist.  Mankind's organic body had now become fuel for the great machine body that charged the economic adventure forward, and all else was relegated to a position of lesser significance especially if it thwarted this great drive towards "inevitable" progress.  Was this the dream of emancipation that the Enlightenment was reaching for?

Romanticism, as I have already mentioned, was a powerful counterweight, both philosophically and creatively, against the machinations that had proceeded from Enlightenment spirit and found its host in the vessel of new God: the machine.  However, despite its impassioned protest, it could not prevent the forces that had already been set in motion.  Art and philosophy could now only provide remedy as an opiate to the anxieties of the age.  The mechanical solutions that had produced them were now a prominent and seemingly irreversible feature of Man's daily existence.

Another creative pattern that emerged in this timeline was the Aesthetic movement.  In a similar manner to the Romanticists, the adherents of this school forwarded their own line of reaction to the symptoms of their time.  Almost echoing the Romanticist surge against rationalism, Aestheticism, was in part, a reaction to the overt intellectualism of late-Victorian culture, and it sought to honour and adorate the visual rendering of form life as an artefact of worth, in and of itself.  Aesthetic beauty was to be regarded as the prime exemplar of the images' worth, and the impulse to search for deeper meaning or commentary within the art was displaced beneath the ideal of the image incarnate.  This Romantic celebration of powerful sensation against the triumphant intellect and the aesthetic ideal charged by the Aestheticists were both major contributors to the formation of Decadence.

However, there is more to this matter.  Here we see again, this underlying pattern of escape, of this desperate need for abstract reconciliation with existence that had been denied by the irresistible demands of industrial growth, thus forcing the creative hand of Man to invent new solutions of remedy against the world as poison.  And since the Transcendent ideal could not longer be so confidently discovered through divine means and the scientific intellect had sterilised the cultural atmosphere, a new world of impressions had to be invented to satisfy this longing for inner fulfilment.  This is a large part of the activity that I think art now fulfils in a modern society - especially so with secular forms of expression.  Art has become a seductive drug that we all consume to escape the anxieties of this condition of inhuman progress.

It should come as no wonder why the harshest critics of the modernising development came from the altar and the arts, those oldest of voices on the scale of human development had been sublimated and their very reason for existence now seemed enmeshed with the direction of this new force of life.  Modernity draws all life into it and makes it its slaves.


(Aubrey Beardsley - Illustration for Oscar Wilde's 'Salome')

I propose that the creative bodies of this period were not only in an organic stage of creative experimentation, but they were united in making sensitive responses to the prominent conditions of their age; defiant and potent in their own respects, yet utterly hopeless against the mechanical onslaught of progress.

How we dive into our creations to escape the sting of existence.  The brutality of Nature, as severe as she is, was not remediated by the Enlightenment project, instead, Man fashioned his own style of brutality in the shape of his progressive commercial Metropolis: a new, artifical world-above-a-world, with its own microcosm of laws and variables that have contained humanity within its vessel for the maturation and prosperity, not of Man's life, but of its own.  The Enlightenment project was the womb of the great industrial project, and its maturated system has been exported globally to colonise the organic systems of all nations and bring all beneath its wake.  The directives of our organism now bend to its directives.

The function of art, in a cosmopolitan society, does not merely serve a traditional purpose in the embodiment of the major powers that have defined the age, its function now has become a form of remedy against the existential effects of modern life.
Or could we say, if modernisation has become like an organism unto itself, then resistant strains of art are akin to cultural diseases within its system?

Why does sensory indulgence become more prominent as modernisation augments?  Because modernity is an alien feature of existence, and the sensual body knows this more acutely than the intellect.  The desire to retreat into a life of sensual indulgences becomes the major outlet in an environment that is both spiritually sterile and for most people, existentially unfulfilling.  The modern world, however, does not try to reject these creative contaminations, it is more than happy to facilitate rebellion, as long as a commercial license feeds back into itself.  Therefore, there is an unusual relationship between the artificial body of modernity and the germinating life of art: the modern world will continue its course into exhaustion just so as long as the creative element does not thwart its suicidal tendencies.  As modernity catalyses into tragic infertility, art remains as a Decadent cure.  Through industry and mass means of proliferation, the Western world has now become the biggest drugs cabinet ever created.

Victorian Decadence was the last strain of bacterial imagery to emerge in counteraction to the emerging features that we have discussed in this essay.  It was, like its forebears in Romanticism and Aestheticism, positive to the sensual variety of forms and indifferent to the persistent intellectual quest for meaning within them.  But by the same token, the way that it went about organising its responses to the cultural features of Victorian England was markedly different to both the Romanticists and the Aestheticists.  Decadence was the most subversive of all these responses to modernity.

Decadence can be characterised as an immersion in sensuality and exotica.  In tune with the Romantics that preceded its formation, the Decadents were certainly sensitive to the contaminations of their cultural environment and so they sought reconciliation through their own designs.  Despite drawing from certain artistic elements already presented, certainly via the Aesthetic movement, the Decadents infused their images with the design languages of remote cultures such as Persia and were especially fond of adorating Nature, not as a Romantic subject, but very much as an ornament.  

The Decadents celebrated the high brow and the exotic which they saw as being removed from the daily miasma of their metropolitan existence.  They longed for remote palaces and shisha parlours, of Arthur and his knights and the flowing robes of ostentatious regality, almost in the same manner that the young men of today find solace and satisfaction for their powerful imaginations in the activities of fantastic literature and video game worlds.  The art was acting as a simulation of their romantic persuasions to find a way out of their world and its industrial experience which certain Decadents viewed as a kind of secular spirituality.  Here again, we see the impulse for escapism and nostalgia for a missing variable; a variable I still maintain, that had its roots in the Enlightenment split and now the brain was searching for its transcendent locus in any, and all, solutions of escapist remedy.  

Whereas the Romantics had an almost restorationist policy of elevating certain aspects of the human condition they felt had been diminished, the Decadents were not really interested in becoming a "movement" of any kind.  They chose the underground life, not only to compliment the opportunities for personal expression but also because their art was not in any way whatsoever courting the acceptance of mainstream approval; it was precisely the claustrophobic energies of the mainstream that it was attempting to deliver itself from.  Decadence always had one foot in the world of forms and another in the realm of exotic imagination.  It was not concerned with making "statements" so much as it was trying to find a way out of the world that machines had made and into the life of sensuous imagery in the deep body.

The use of religious imagery in Decadence is telling of its willingness to sacrifice meaning for a heightened sense of aesthetic reward.  Whereas their Romantic forebears such as William Wordsworth would make subtle allusions to Christianity in their creative writings, the Decadents would do so with an ornate rendition of a sacrament or religious object, only to steal it away from its religious context so as to anoint the object incarnate.  It would be easy to mistake this move as a crude exercise in iconoclasm after the death of God, however, it was not done as a deliberate smite to established religiosity per say, but to discover in its sumptuous imagery, the post-Romantic and sensual escapism and nostalgia they were agonisingly searching for.  The holy object is adorated, not for its higher worshipful context, but for its pure and powerful ability to evoke sentiments of mood and sensual atmospherics - a Decadent 'spiritual' state.

Decadence was also marked by its aesthetic contrasts.  It was never going to be wildly popular, although it did arrive at a certain measure of short-lived popularity through its notoriety and charm.  Even though Aestheticism attempted to highlight the integrity of 'pure aesthetics' from the intellectual claustrophobia of the period, the Decadents took a playfully antagonistic stance towards the prevailing culture.  They denied modernity its 'pound of spirit' by spitting its own aesthetics back into its eye, laced with new fibres of subversive material that both shocked and intrigued elements of Victorian society.  We must also remember that this was a point in history where vulgarity laws were much more serious than they are today.  Such potent expressions could land an individual in jail so the Decadents were treading on dangerous ground.  And they probably liked it that way.

It is undeniably a very organic, monochromatic and ornate style that lends heavily from the Aestheticists re-rendering of Nature into stylised, flowing waves of form.  But what set it strongly apart from the Aestheticist style is the deliberate inclusion of grotesque and sexualised imagery into the frame.  Figures grimace even as they revel in each other, pudgy faces perv on baroque dancers, ghoulish apparitions serve tea to their opulent masters, and the whole visual procession is given to this strange contradiction, as if we shouldn't be seeing things represented in this way, that we shouldn't see the ugliness of life dressed up so prettily.  Despite its almost iconic visual spirit, this ability to make an ornament out of everything, even ugliness, has to be the defining factor of what makes Decadence is so interesting.

The major aesthetic progenitor of Decadence, Aubrey Beardsley, confirmed his views on this compound of ornate hideousness:

"I see everything in a grotesque way.  When I go to the theatre, for example, things shape themselves before my eyes just as I draw them - the people on the stage, the footlights, the queer faces and garb of the audience in the boxes and stalls.  They all seem weird and strange to me.  Things have always impressed me in this way." - Aubrey Beardsley.

The Decadents were one of the first to see art as a form of cultural subversion, albeit for more self-congratulatory and indulgent interests than malevolent ones.  This revelry in culturally subversive acts was later impregnated into the Modernist tradition and echoes of it can still be seen in even later pop-cultural references such as Madonna's exhibitionist prostrations before Christian iconography as a goad to entice media controversy.  The DNA of Decadence is still swimming in our cultural system.

Victorian Decadence: the ugly duckling of Romanticism and the bastard son of the Aesthetic movement.  A subverter of the predominant secular powers of the age and yet, in its own strange and unique way, called out to something transcendental in the sensuality and ornated ugliness of its specially crafted world.  It makes both worthy and accurate praise when premiere Decadent writer Oscar Wilde described this visual flower as: 

"A new and beautiful and interesting disease."


  1. Anonymous12 May, 2017

    Very informative article. Seems that as the continued atomization of man goes on the arts seems to go more extreme. Do you think the emergence of horror as a genre has to do with severance of god?

    1. Thank you for commenting here. Your question about the emrgence of horror is a very wide ranging one.

      First of all, we would have to admit to something quite fundamental. That the associated imagery and subject matter to which we would apply the modern mantle of "horror" is actually an incredibly old expression that manifests repeatedly over time.
      We could make speculations as to whether or not the material embodies features already present within the human system: his primordial fear of unknown variables; hybrid predatory manifestations of creatures that have plagued him in the past (a form of race memory); or even his existential angst of simply being alive! I think that the truth is likely a merger between all these influences.

      The extent to which it is present within a given culture is certainly an intersting thing to ponder. In the West, we have more than a few skeletons in our collective psyches, the cultural post-traumatic effects of two industrial scale world wars (a point I don't hink can be overstated enough) and also, a progressive liberalisation of the spectrum of imagery that is allowed within our cultural ecosystem. I don't think that there has ever been a more abundant and expressive range of creative imagery than the times we are experiencing now, so horror, as a genre is both facilitated within and without so to speak.

      The question of God though. There is a part of me that reaches for the solution that any diconnect from a transcendent principle will inevitably facilitate the release of new hybrid forms of imagery in the body system (not necessarily malevolent). The thing about religion is that it provides the visual systems of the body with powerful associative symbols that modulate the impressions felt within the psyche. If this process is corrupted, or, as is the case in the Western spheres, delegitimised and displaced by secular rationalism and materialism, then the body will produce its life unabated and that is potentially a dangerous road to go down since we do not know how that imagery will express itslef and what effects it will return to us before its too late.
      On the other hand, the relaxation of the symbolic orthodoxy opens a space for the creation of new myths, new saymbols and new artefacts of the cultural life that can potentially still cater for the old styles of reconcilliation that was lost. The problem again, is that we have every form of imagery available flushing into our systems randomly and uncontrollably now. The hybrids of hybrids of hybrids will be the result. Who knows for Man.

      I think that we are at the point of no return as a species. We are hurdling towards barrier after barrier and crashing them with no regard as to the medium-long term consequences. We will make our own horror manifest beyond mere fiction because we are not responsible or materure enough as an organism to deal with the horror within ouselves. It will emerge with or without our approval.

    2. I will also add to that I am a big fan of H.P, Lovecraft. A future exposition on his work is must, I think.

  2. Anonymous12 May, 2017

    Thank you for the response. Always found horror to have a sort of grounding effect so to speak. Looking forward to the lovecraft exposition.

    1. In due time, it will happen. I have so much to deliver on all sides of this project.

  3. Anonymous01 June, 2017

    Just wanted to expand on what I mean by horror having a grounding effect. That when confronted by the void horror offers something to latch on to, even if it burns the soul. Like the sublime, it alerts one to their smallness and horror kicks in their primal instincts to live. Also the repulsion felt makes one act as though their is a metaphysical ground, even if they don't believe in a ground. At least this is what I personally experienced when I was in a state of unreality.

    Sorry if my writing is poor, I've been socially isolated for a while that communication with others seems foreign to me.

    1. It is the primal ligament. It roots us to our animal selves in the deep body: the more visceral, sensual and instinctual responances that swim beneath the form life of the higher thought.

      It seems that you are describing an extreme consciousness alteration experience... the obliteration of psychic supports... the conscious fear that you experienced seems to have been of benefit, abeit a rather discomforting one - the last anchor before the fall.

  4. Anonymous01 June, 2017

    Also have you seen Angel's Egg, its a curious animated film that I believe you would enjoy.

    1. I have meant to watch that for a very long time. It looks both bizarre and beautiful.