Since the mid-nineteenth century there have been two overarching narratives of decay in Western society: the decline of capitalism and the decadence of the arts. Though only Marxist critics insisted on making a link between the two, the narratives ran in parallel until the end of the 1980s. In Postmodernism(1991) Fredric Jameson could still claim that in late capitalism, “decadence compels by its absence, like a smell nobody mentions or a thought all the guests are visibly making an effort not to think.”
And then for two almost decades, until the financial crisis of 2008, discussion of both forms of collapse almost ceased, as the fall of Communism, the triumph of neo-liberalism, and the globalization of neo avant-garde generated utopian fantasies of a global network culture fuelled by the new economy. Now, although this confidence seems misplaced, the rhetoric of cultural pessimism has been surprisingly slow to re-establish itself.
In this lecture, Malcolm Bull looks back over this history, and disentangles the various strands of pessimism involved in narratives of economic decline and artistic decadence since the 1960s. What do they tell us about the relationship between art and the economy over the past fifty years? And how does the current crisis compare with earlier ones?