The decline of decadence - Malcolm Bull

'Feneralia', Frank Stella.

From Nietzsche to Lukács, decadence was a matter of cultural disintegration and social atomization under pressure of capitalist modernity, but such talk has dwindled. Malcolm Bull asks whether the private languages of conceptual art are decadent or undecadent. And is the market a substitute communicator of shared values?

Violet: Have you chosen a topic for your paper?
Fred: Uh, ‘The Decline of Decadence.’
Violet: You think decadence has declined?
Fred: Definitely. Big time. Major, major decline.
—Whit Stillman, Damsels in Distress (2011)

Was Fred right? Take a look at Figure 1, below. It is a graph showing the frequency of the occurrence of the words ‘decadence’ or ‘decadent’ in editorials and letters in The Times of London by decade, from the 1840s to 2009. It is a potentially useful data set, not only because it permits like-for-like comparisons across almost two centuries, but also because it is in these columns of ‘The Thunderer’ that one might expect to find writers railing against the decadence of the age in which they live. The graph shows that the incidence rises steadily from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1890s and remains high until the Second World War, when it descends to a lower plateau, only to fall again in the 1980s.

A year-by-year analysis of the data since 1900 (Figure 2) provides some revealing detail. There are peaks before the First World War, in 1910 and 1913; at the time of the Wall Street Crash in 1929, and again in 1939, immediately before the Second World War. A testimony to the prescience of leader-writers and readers alike? Not necessarily. In 1939, there is much discussion of British national decadence, but in 1929 it is the decadence of the tin industry, of fishing, agriculture, the telegraphic service, the design of postage stamps, the music on the bbc, the national football team—not to mention the decadence of learning in the fourteenth century—that preoccupies both editors and readers. Even in 1913, talk is of the decadence of the Chinese, of the London theatre, of modern art and poetry, of sport, of the Byzantine Empire. Nevertheless, in retrospect, the collective vocabulary of The Times’s editorial and letters pages seems to indicate something that individual contributors never seek to state—some sense that things may be falling apart, that the centre cannot hold.

If so, what are we to make of the fact that after the Second World War, decadence is never as salient again? There’s an upturn in the chatter in the late 60s and early 70s, but after that it drops to a murmur. The Times was not published for a year in 1979, and from 1981 there is a new editor and a new proprietor, but the downward trend predates these events. By the late 1970s, talk of decadence had already dropped to levels not seen since the 1860s. And it has never recovered since. It is still possible to find correspondents complaining about the ‘ferocious decadence’ of the government in promoting lgbt education in schools, but talk of decadence has in general moved off the editorial and letters pages to the lifestyle section. You are more likely to find a celebrity chef describing the best way to make a ‘decadent’ bittersweet chocolate and cardamom tart than an editorial about the decadence of contemporary culture or political institutions. [1] Andrew Schofield, letter, 11 March 2009; Gordon Ramsay, 4 April 2009. By this measure at least, Fred is right. Decadence has declined, ‘major, major decline’. But why?

There is no easy answer, but looking at a much larger but less focused body of the data, the Google n-gram (Figure 3) for ‘decadence’ and ‘decadent’ across two centuries, it is apparent that the changing vocabulary of The Times’s letters and editorials reflects a wider phenomenon. In the books in Google’s database, the use of ‘decadent’ continues to rise while that of ‘decadence’, with its historically specific links to the Decadent movement of the 1890s, decreases after the First World War; but usage of both falls from the Second World War onwards, except for the 1960s’ uptick in ‘decadence’ (also discernible in the data from The Times). The 1970s represent a final turning point, with both ‘decadence’ and ‘decadent’ declining sharply to a level from which they have never since recovered.

From these graphs, it appears that one possible answer to the question of why decadence declines might be the rise of neoliberalism, for talk of decadence trails off in the 1970s just as the economics of neoliberalism take hold—a change consolidated by the 1976 imf bailout in the uk and the 1979 Volcker Shock in the us. And there are reasons for thinking this could be significant. 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. And though only Marxist critics of ‘capitalist decadence’ insisted on making a direct link between the two, the narratives appeared to run in parallel, with the economic depressions of the 1890s and the 1930s together marking two upswings in the discourse. Each of these downturns was associated not just with analysis and commentary on economic decline, but also a large volume of cultural criticism on artistic decadence. On this interpretation, there would seem to be an inverse relationship between decadence and capital growth, and so the resurgence of capitalism might be expected to have suppressed the chatter once more.

But that cannot be the whole story. It is true that, for three decades, discussion of both forms of collapse almost ceased as the fall of Communism and the triumph of neoliberalism generated utopian fantasies of a global network culture fuelled by the new economy. Since the financial crisis of 2008, that confidence has seemed misplaced. And yet the rhetoric of cultural pessimism has not re-established itself. In 2008 there was no upturn in the talk of decadence in the editorials and letters pages of The Times such as there had been in 1913, 1929, and 1939. Somehow, the triumph of neoliberalism appears not merely to have suppressed talk of decadence but to have permanently uncoupled it from the fortunes of the capitalist economy.

From Nietzsche to Jameson

How might this have happened? It is helpful to look more closely at one particular strand in the discourse of decadence—used by Marxist critics and cultural conservatives alike—that sees decadence in terms of cultural disintegration. The classic statement of this view can be found in Nietzsche’s The Wagner Case (1888):

What is the sign of every literary decadence? That life no longer dwells in the whole. The word becomes sovereign and leaps out of the sentence, the sentence reaches out and obscures the meaning of the page, the page gains life at the expense of the whole—the whole is no longer a whole. But this is the simile of every style of decadence: every time, the anarchy of atoms, the disgregation of the will, ‘freedom of the individual’ . . . [2] Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner, New York 1967, p. 170.

The analogy between the disintegration of the text and the atomization of society was not original to Nietzsche, but taken directly from the French novelist and critic Paul Bourget, who had picked up the cellular theory of society from mid-nineteenth century scientists and applied it to literature in his 1881 essay on Baudelaire. [3] Reprinted in Paul Bourget, Essais de psychologie contemporaine, Paris 1883. For further background, see Matei Călinescu, Five Faces of Modernity, Durham, nc 1987, pp. 149–221. Both Bourget and Nietzsche characterized this atomization as a breakdown of hierarchy. But organicist theories of sociology were not the preserve of political conservatives. They lent themselves equally to socialist interpretation. [4] As Durkheim quotes Edmond Perrier as saying, a community of polyps in which one cannot eat without the others is ‘Communism in the fullest sense of the word’: Division of Labour, London 1984, p. 140. In Marxism too, decadence was understood as an excess of individualism. Plekhanov, for example, argued that in the era of bourgeois decadence people had ‘lost all capacity of communication with other people’ and ‘the idea that there is no reality save our ego’ had become the theoretical foundation of the new aesthetics. In his view, this art was ‘characteristic of the decay of a whole system of social relationships, and . . . therefore quite aptly called decadent.’ [5] Georgi Plekhanov, Art and Social Life, London 1957, pp. 201, 204.

Acknowledging Nietzsche as the ‘cleverest and most versatile exponent of this decadent self-knowledge’, Georg Lukács developed his own account of decadence in similar terms. [6] Lukács, The Destruction of Reason, London 1980, p. 316. Whereas great literature shows individuals interacting with each other, and with society, in decadent literature every character has ‘a particularized, isolated and unique existence from which there can be no bridge of communication to other men’. [7] Lukács, Writer and Critic, London 1970, pp. 150, 169. The human type portrayed is ‘the individual, egoistic bourgeois isolated artificially by capitalism’, whose consciousness ‘is an individual isolated consciousness à la Robinson Crusoe’. [8] Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, London 1971, p. 135. In these circumstances, dialogue is not the expression of encounters between people, but rather shows ‘how men talk past each other without actually communicating’. [9] Lukács, Writer and Critic, p. 174.

The epigraph to Lukács’s essay ‘The Intellectual Physiognomy in Characterization’ (1936) is a quotation from Heraclitus: ‘Awake, men have a common world, but each sleeper reverts to his own private world.’ The basis of all great literature is this ‘common world of men’, so writers must rouse themselves:

To portray what men have in common emotionally and intellectually in general experience and in their personal lives and finally to awaken them from the sleep of decadence in which each man revolves in his ‘private’ world, in his own narrow impoverished subjectivity. [10] Lukács, Writer and Critic, pp. 161, 187–8.

Lukács’s emphasis on the privatization of experience influenced later generations of Marxist critics as well, and Fredric Jameson united it with the Wittgensteinian term ‘private language’ in his characterization of modernism. In Fables of Aggression, his study of Wyndham Lewis, he argues that in the Anglo-American context modernists ‘set out to reappropriate an alienated universe by transforming it into personal styles and private languages’, only ‘to reconfirm the very privatization and fragmentation of social life against which they meant to protest’. [11] Fredric Jameson, Fables of Aggression, Berkeley 1979, p. 2.

This ‘proliferation of private languages and private philosophies’ reflects the disintegration of traditional values that Jameson elsewhere links more specifically to the atomizing effects of capitalism. [12] Jameson, The Ideologies of Theory, vol. 1, London and New York 1988, p. 125. However, Jameson distances himself from Lukács’s ‘notorious’ concept of decadence, on the basis that it implies ‘works of art . . . are conceivable which have no content’. Modernism did not so much avoid social content as conceal it ‘out of sight in the very form itself’. The greatest aesthetic productions of capitalism therefore turn out to be ‘the cries of pain of isolated individuals against the operation of trans-individual laws, the invention of so many private languages and subcodes in the midst of reified speech’. Rather than being contentless, the fragmented forms of modernism reveal a social malaise. When we ‘dissolve the reification of the great modernist works’ we return them ‘to their original reality as the private languages of isolated individuals in a reified society’. [13] Jameson, Ideologies of Theory, vol. 2, p. 138; vol. 1, pp. 148–9; vol. 1, p. 179.

This emphasis re-emerged on both sides of the political spectrum in the debate about postmodernism, which many saw as ‘awash in a sea of private languages’. [14] Hal Foster, ed., Postmodern Culture, London 1985, p. xii. Daniel Bell identified the new era as the coming of a ‘post-industrial society’, in which ‘high art itself is in disarray, if not decadent’. And although he did not explicitly identify it as the cause of decadence, he argued that specialization created so much tension between culture and society that it had become difficult even to speak of ‘the culture’ when there were so many ‘sub-cultures or private worlds’ which in turn created ‘private languages and private signs and symbols’. [15] Daniel Bell, Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, New York 1976, pp. 136, 95.

Jameson too took his essentially Lukácsian analysis of modernism with him into his analysis of postmodernism. But though Jameson makes much the same diagnosis as Bell, he does not identify the outcome as decadence. In postmodernity,

the immense fragmentation and privatization of modern literature—its explosion into a host of distinct private styles and mannerisms—foreshadows deeper and more general tendencies in social life as a whole . . . each group coming to speak a curious private language of its own . . . each individual coming to be a linguistic island, separated from everyone else. But then in that case the very possibility of any linguistic norm in terms of which one could ridicule private languages and idiosyncratic styles would vanish, and we would have nothing but stylistic diversity and heterogeneity. [16] Jameson, The Cultural Turn, London 1998, p. 5.

For Jameson, the disappearance of the shared norm must be taken seriously; if there is no norm, there is nothing against which decadence can be measured, and so the claim that the culture has become decadent because it has lost its bearings is necessarily meaningless.

So where does that leave the concept of decadence? Jameson concedes that decadence is in some ways ‘the very premonition of the postmodern itself’, and that postmodernity could ‘pass for ripely decadent in the eyes of any sensible Martian observer’. But he maintains that because postmodernity lacks the sense of the normativity of the past which the moderns still possessed, the concept of decadence has lost its raison d’être. It rather ‘compels by its absence, like a smell nobody mentions’, until such time as it ‘fades away’ and is ‘no longer available for characterizing our reactions to the postmodern’. [17] Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, London 1991, pp. 382, 377, 383.

The argument is never systematically articulated, but it is worth examining further. If each individual were to become ‘a linguistic island, separated from everyone else’, what would be the consequences for the culture? Would it, as Jameson claims, become meaningless to think in such terms at all, or might there be other ways of co-ordinating these private codes and idiolects?

Private languages of conceptual art

The references to private language in both Bell and Jameson highlight the way in which the concern with specialization, social isolation and solipsism so evident in Lukács’s discussions of decadence in the 1930s was now fed by another source, Wittgenstein’s remarks on private language from the Philosophical Investigations (1953). This had shifted the emphasis from the ‘highly personal’ to the ‘logically private’, and within the avant-garde of the late 1960s and early 70s, there was at least one movement, conceptual art, that self-consciously played with the latter as an expression of the modernist impulse toward the former. This makes conceptualism a particularly interesting test case for theories of decadence based on privatization. By no means all conceptual art was immaterial, or devoid of publicly accessible content, but within conceptual art practice, as nowhere else, it seemed possible that artists might indeed become linguistic islands.

In a long article entitled ‘Art Teaching’ published in the fourth issue of Art-Language (1971), Terry Atkinson and Michael Baldwin (two of the founding members of the Art & Language group) described how this worked in the context of the average British art school at the time:

An art student X does some work
And this is an 'object'
A teacher Y says 'this is good'
Now X may not be aware of this aspect of the object that Y judges to be so good, and Y himself may not be clear as to why he judges the object good
[So] Y adds something like . . . 'that's the "magic" in art'. [18] Atkinson and Baldwin, ‘Art Teaching’, Art-Language, vol. 1, no. 4, 1971 p. 34.

The exchange might serve as an example of how, in Lukács’s words, people ‘talk past each other without actually communicating’. But in the art school, according to Atkinson and Baldwin, it is assumed either that everyone ‘can more or less “know” what everyone else “means” by these terms’, or else, given that it is far from certain that they do, ‘that one need not know what others mean by these terms and that this is the essence of art.’ However, to hold the latter view would be to commit oneself to the idea that the ‘public character of the art-educational domain’ can be realized through dialogues that are no more than an exchange of private languages. And this, Atkinson and Baldwin contend, is ridiculous, for (after Wittgenstein) it is clear that the idea of a private language is itself absurd. [19] Atkinson and Baldwin, ‘Art Teaching’, pp. 35–6.

Rosalind Krauss made a very similar point a couple of years later in an Artforum article that tried to differentiate post-minimalism from conceptualism and establish the former as the heir to the minimalist (and modernist) legacy. Though ‘dematerialization’ was common to both, Krauss argued that it was ‘over the notion of privacy or private languages that the division between these artists [the conceptualists] and minimal/post-minimal art arises’. The former betray a ‘deeply planted traditionalism with respect to meaning’ which involves the ‘construction of the work of art around the notion of intention’ in such a way that it ‘points directly inward: to the privacy of a mental space’. That is what is implied by Rauschenberg’s telegram saying ‘This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say it is’, just as much as by Douglas Huebler’s claim that ‘it’s perfectly fair to say that time is what each of us says it is at any given moment’. [20] Krauss, ‘Sense and Sensibility’, Artforum, vol. 12, November 1973, pp. 45–6.

In fact, the privacy involved in conceptual art extended beyond meaning and intention to the very existence of the work itself. Robert Barry’s work Closed Gallery (1969) was composed solely of invitations (to gallery shows in Amsterdam, Turin and la) which stated that ‘During the exhibition the gallery will be closed’. Even less tangible was Barry’s contribution to the exhibition Prospect 69 which, as he explained in an interview, consisted of ‘the ideas that people will have from reading this interview’, with the result that ‘Each person can really know that part which is in his own mind’. And more inaccessible still was Barry’s Telepathic Piece (1969): ‘During the exhibition I will try to communicate telepathically a work of art, the nature of which is a series of thoughts that are not applicable to language or image.’ [21] Krauss, ‘Sense and Sensibility’, p. 45; Robert Barry quoted in Alexander Alberro, Conceptual Art and the Politics of Publicity, Cambridge, ma 2001, p. 207 fn 22.

What the conceptualists appeared to be doing, albeit with a knowing sense of irony, was acting out the solipsism and indifference to communication that Marxist critics had long attributed to the decadent productions of capitalist culture more generally. But, thanks to Wittgenstein, there was now a philosophical as well as a political argument against such practices, for his model had, according to Krauss, severed meaning ‘from the legitimizing claims of a private self’, undermining the very idea that there must be ‘a private mental space . . . in which meanings and intentions have to exist before they could issue into the space of the world’. Unlike the conceptualists, minimalist and post-minimalist artists had absorbed the implications of Wittgenstein’s argument, and committed themselves to exploring ‘the externality of language and therefore of meaning’. The real achievement of Frank Stella’s paintings was, Krauss claimed, ‘to have made meaning itself a function of surface—of the external, the public, or a space that is in no way a signifier of the a priori, or of the privacy of intention’. [22] Krauss, ‘Sense and Sensibility’, pp. 47–9.

Secondary information

As it turned out, exploring the ‘externality of language’ was not the only option. Private languages that lacked ‘externality’ themselves could be represented by other means. As Carl Andre once said: ‘The beef stew cooking on the stove doesn’t need any advertising. It has advertising. It has aroma. You can smell the beef stew on the stove. But the beef stew in the can has to be advertised.’ And this, as the gallerist Seth Siegelaub realized, was what was needed for the private languages of conceptualism: ‘When someone painted a painting what had been done and what you saw were the same thing . . . it was all there in front of you . . . With a painting on the wall, the art and the presentation of it is the same.’ But with conceptual art, ‘the presentation of the art and the art are not the same thing’. What this meant in practice was a separation between the art, or the ‘primary information’, and its presentation, the ‘secondary information’. In this way, even private languages could have a public face. [23] Alberro, Conceptual Art, pp. 6, 55–6.

There were different ways of doing this. Barry’s Inert Gas Series, in which the artist went out into the California desert and released inert gases into the atmosphere, was represented by a mailshot with a poster giving the title of the work, and an address and telephone number. The address was a po box in la, and the telephone number an answering-service voice message describing the work. The exhibition was therefore split between the release of the gases (invisible and virtually inaccessible) and its presentation as an ephemeral audio recording and a publicity poster. The exhibition was ‘accessible to the public solely in the form of advertising, as pure sign’. [24] Alberro, Conceptual Art, p. 118.

A more fundamental way of translating the private into the public was through making a sale. This approach had already been used by Yves Klein for his Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility (1959), in which the artist sold one of these immaterial zones for gold with a receipt that proved that a formal sale had taken place. Each buyer had two options: if they kept the receipt, Klein kept all of the gold, and the buyer did not acquire the ‘authentic immaterial value’ of the work; if the receipt was ritually burnt, the buyer would be left without proof of purchase, Klein would throw the gold into the Seine, and a more definitive immaterialization would be achieved. [25] See Thierry de Duve, Sewn in the Sweatshops of Marx: Beuys, Warhol, Klein, Duchamp, Chicago 2012, pp. 37–57. Between 1959 and 1962 eight such zones were sold, five without the ritual and three of them with.

Advertising, documentation and sale were not mutually exclusive strategies. But of the three, it is the last that is the most surprising, as it involved acquiring legal rights to things that had no tangible existence, and which, in some cases, could never be shown to have existed at all. In many cases, ‘the only visible aspect of the work was a certificate of authenticity and ownership on a piece of paper’. [26] Alberro, Conceptual Art, p. 120. Nevertheless, the market for conceptual art developed quickly. As Lucy Lippard noted, although in 1969 it seemed that ‘no one . . . would actually pay money, or much of it for a Xerox sheet referring to an event passed or never directly perceived. Three years later, the major conceptualists [were] selling work for substantial sums here in Europe’. [27] Lippard, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object, Berkeley 1997, p. xxi.

Although they were, in some cases, quite literally paying money for nothing, buying conceptual art brought a lot of satisfaction to the enterprising early collectors. Barry’s Closed Gallery was acquired by Herb and Dorothy Vogel, who boasted that ‘We have without a doubt the greatest piece of conceptual art that was ever done in the world’. [28] Anthony Haden-Guest, ‘A New Art World Legend’, New York Magazine, 28 April 1975. Giving the work a monetary value also proved to be an effective way of ensuring that collectors did not throw away their acquisitions and kept conceptual work in circulation. A secondary market developed, and Barry’s Closed Gallery was subsequently acquired by the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

For some of the artists, particularly those associated with Art & Language, this development appeared ambivalent. Ian Burn complained that market values were distorting all other values, so that ‘even the concept of what is and is not acceptable as “work” is defined first and fundamentally by the market’. As a result, the artist became alienated from his work: ‘Once entering the market it becomes foreign to me—but without the market I don’t recognize it, because it is defined via the market which I have internalized.’ [29] Ian Burn, ‘The Art Market’ (1975), in Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson, eds, Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, Cambridge, ma 1999, p. 327.

The paradox that the artist depended on the market not just to sell the work, but also to define it, preoccupied another member of Art & Language, Mel Ramsden:

This is the mode of existence in which we become prices on the media-market, in which we become commodities, a mode of existence in which what counts is the demand for what the market defines as your talents . . . The products may change . . . but the form of life remains the same: the ruling market provides the standard of intelligibility. One question to raise about this standard of intelligibility is whether market relations are really separate from what we do? That is to say, just how far has market-standing been internalized. [30] Mel Ramsden, ‘On Practice’ (1975), in Alberro and Stimson, eds, Institutional Critique: An Anthology of Artists’ Writings, Cambridge, ma 2009, p. 171.

But how exactly do you price an invisible artwork? Indeed, how do you know it is an artwork at all? A work whose content cannot be communicated, like Ramsden’s Secret Painting (‘The content of this painting is invisible; the character and dimension of the content are to be kept permanently secret, known only to the artist’) of 1967–8, and purchased by the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2003, exemplifies the problem posed by Wittgenstein in the Philosophical Investigations:

If you say he sees a private picture before him, which he is describing, you have still made an assumption about what he has before him . . . If you admit that you haven’t any notion what kind of thing he has before him—then what leads you into saying, in spite of that, that he has something before him? Isn’t it as if I were to say of someone: ‘He has something, but I don’t know whether it is money, or debts, or an empty till.’ [31] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, § 294.

It is another way of describing the problem posed by Siegelaub. But if art and presentation aren’t the same kind of thing, what is the difference between them? And what is the connection?

In an interview in 1971, Art & Language interpreted the private/public dichotomy in terms of Marx’s theory of value, claiming that ‘Marx’s categories of use value and exchange value can transform the production of art by pitting private use (private language) (use value) against public use (exchange value).’ [32] Catherine Millet, ‘Interview with Art-Language’ (1971), in Alberro and Stimson, eds, Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, p. 264. They had good grounds for aligning the Wittgensteinian terminology of private and public languages with the Marxist concepts of use value and exchange value, for in both cases the argument hinges on the potential creativity of an isolated Robinson Crusoe figure. In Capital, Robinson is described as generating value which can be worked out simply by collating the objects of utility he has produced with the labour time necessary for their production. According to Marx, ‘those relations contain all the essential determinants of value’ and provide the model for ‘an association of free men, working with the means of production held in common’. [33] Karl Marx, Capital, London 1976, pp. 170–1. In this context, making private could be seen as a return to use value and the socialized production of utility—a way of defeating the market. And yet, as Ramsden acknowledged a few years later, the opposite turned out to be true. It was the market that was giving value to private languages by making them intelligible.

The market for private language

Art & Language were not the only ones to note the similarities between Wittgenstein’s private language argument and economic theories of value. In Vienna after the First World War, Robinson Crusoe, the ‘individual isolated consciousness’, stood for three seemingly distinct problems: in Marxist literary criticism, the problem of decadence; in philosophy, the problem of private language; and in economics, the problem of market co-ordination. As Saul Kripke first pointed out, there is an obvious analogy between the private language argument and Ludwig von Mises’s socialist calculation argument. [34] Saul Kripke, Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language, London 1982, p. 122, fn 89. In Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth (1920) Mises had argued (against the Marxist Otto Neurath) that even Robinson Crusoe ‘cannot operate solely with subjective use value’ because ‘valuation can only take place in terms of units’, and it is ‘impossible that there should ever be a unit of subjective use value for goods’. [35] Ludwig von Mises, Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth, Auburn, al 1990, p. 9. In Durch die Kriegswirtschaft zur Naturalwirtschaft (1919), Otto Neurath had argued that socialist economic planning could operate on the basis of calculation in kind. However, he later accepted a version of Mises’s argument not in his economic theory but in his philosophical essays, ‘Physicalism’ (1931) and ‘On Protocol Sentences’ (1932), where, in a precursor to Wittgenstein’s private language argument, he argues that a Robinson Crusoe cannot self-verify his own protocol sentences but ‘must use clocks and rulers’, in other words ‘intersensual and “intersubjective” language’: Neurath, Philosophical Papers, Dordrecht 1983, pp. 54–5. Ironically, Marx and Engels influenced Neurath here, for he twice noted the statement in The German Ideology that ‘language is practical consciousness that exists also for other men and for that reason alone it really exists for me personally as well’. See Thomas Uebel, Overcoming Logical Positivism, Amsterdam 1992, pp. 262–3. Subjective use value is neither calculable nor comparable as a purely individual phenomenon; it becomes so only ‘in exchange value, which arises out of the interplay of the subjective valuations of all who take part in exchange.’ [36] Mises, Economic Calculation, p. 10. The early Marx might actually have agreed with Mises on this point. For in 1859 he had argued that ‘Production by a solitary individual outside society . . . is just as preposterous as the development of speech without individuals who live together and talk to one another’: A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, London 1971, p. 189.

It is perhaps in this context that the paradox of conceptualism should be interpreted, because it helps to explain how, contrary to the expectations of those involved, private languages turned into exchange values. Artists may have thought that in using private languages they were creating subjective use values, but insofar as those languages were private they proved to be unrecognizable, even to their creators: ‘Once entering the market it becomes foreign to me—but without the market I don’t recognize it.’

Following the economic analogy, it can be argued that taking something to market potentially provides a lot of information about a work of art that would otherwise not exist. In the case of an invisible painting, for example, the market may not reveal what it looks like, but it will tell you how much it is worth compared to other paintings, both visible and invisible. That price will embody market assumptions about the nature of the work, providing ‘the standard of intelligibility’ to which Ramsden refers. Indeed, if the work is otherwise inaccessible, its exchange value may be the only information available about it. We may in fact sometimes need the market to tell us whether a work exists or whether it is art. Without the market we would not know how many Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility there are.

The situation is easily caricatured. Andrea Fraser, in her 1991 performance piece May I Help You?, plays the role of a gallery staffer walking round an exhibition of Allan McCullom’s Surrogate Paintings, saying to a prospective client:

You know, some people come in here and they want to invest and then they haven’t got the time. Imagine! They haven’t got the time to be personally interested.

On the one hand investment and on the other, total incompetence. If you stuck a piece of shit on the wall it would be all the same to them as long as someone told them the shit was worth money. That’s the nouveau-riche approach. [37] Andrea Fraser, ‘May I help you?’ [performance script].

But what Fraser calls the ‘nouveau-riche approach’ is not necessarily irrational. If someone says something’s worth money, then that’s the price, which tells you what someone is willing to pay for it, and so registers information about size, medium, authorship, subject, style, date, quality of execution and preservation, provenance, and so on. Price alone does not reproduce specific information of this kind, but it is sensitive to whatever is known, or assumed, about all of these things, and anything else that might conceivably be of relevance. Thus price is liable to include more information about the work than any one person is likely to have at their disposal, including a great deal of information that would be unavailable on visual inspection.

It is not just that, as so often in art, aesthetic value and price are ‘entangled in an ongoing dialectic, whose unravelling can only partially be accomplished’. [38] Olav Velthuis, Talking Prices: Symbolic Meanings of Prices on the Market for Contemporary Art, Princeton 2007, p. 178. In cases where the work is either, of its very nature, unavailable for inspection, or of a kind that yields little to the eye (or the other senses), price may actually be the best lens through which to view it. As Hayek and his followers argue, the most significant fact about the price system is ‘how little the individual participants need to know in order to be able to take the right action’. [39] Hayek, ‘The Use of Knowledge in Society’, American Economic Review, vol. 35, no. 4, September 1945, p. 526. And not only is very little knowledge required, but that knowledge may be of an unformalizable kind, ‘contextual knowledge that cannot be put in language’. In this way, price is a form of communication that might even be said to ‘surpass the limits of language’, by aggregating and communicating tacit and contextual knowledge in the absence of linguistic information. [40] Steven Horwitz, ‘Monetary Exchange as an Extra-Linguistic Social Communication Process’, Review of Social Economy, vol. 50, no. 2, 1992, pp. 206, 212.

Perhaps conceptualism turned to the market because the market was the form of communication best suited to generating a language for it. Although private languages cannot be communicated, because their meanings can never be established, the market potentially provides a medium for exchange of the meaningless—like people buying and selling boxes with ‘beetles’ in them. No one is in a position to know what a ‘beetle’ actually is, but the price of the box will communicate the market’s assumptions about what’s in it, which is not only all that’s needed for an exchange to take place, but as close as anyone will get to discovering what they have in their own box as well.

Interpreting conceptualism

In a famous critique, Benjamin Buchloh argued that by effacing ‘all residues of representation and style, of individuality and skill’, conceptual art had paradoxically transferred judgement from the sphere of aesthetics to that of administration:

In the absence of any specifically visual qualities and due to the manifest lack of any (artistic) manual competence as a criterion of distinction, all the traditional criteria of aesthetic judgment . . . have been programmatically voided. The result of this is that the definition of the aesthetic becomes on the one hand a matter of linguistic convention and on the other the function of both a legal contract and an institutional discourse (a discourse of power rather than taste). [41] Benjamin Buchloh, ‘Conceptual Art 1962–69: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions’, October, vol. 55, 1990, pp. 143, 117–8.

In other words, the very radicality of the critique enacted in conceptualism created a lack that could only be filled by something external to it, a vacuum that was filled by institutions which served to align art with the instrumental rationality of administration.

Oddly, Buchloh makes no mention of the art market, but other writers described the same developments in market terms. Krauss, reflecting many years later on Marcel Broodthaers’s Department of Eagles exhibition of 1972, noted the way in which the artist’s manic labelling of every object in the exhibition with a ‘figure’ number reduced everything, irrespective of medium or function, ‘to a system of pure equivalency by the homogenizing principle of commodification, the operation of pure exchange value from which nothing can escape’. [42] Krauss, A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition, London 1999, p. 15. And writing from a more conservative cultural position, Donald Kuspit identified the key difference between modern and postmodern art as the transformation of the artist into an aesthetic manager. Whereas the former gave expression to unconscious feeling, ‘the aesthetic manager . . . packages exchange value under the guise of making art’. In which case, ‘the final confirmation that one is an artist is that your aesthetic product is marketable—sells . . .’ [43] Donald Kuspit, Redeeming Art: Critical Reveries, New York 2000, pp. 150–1. In his essay ‘Art is Dead—Long Live Aesthetic Management’, Kuspit uses Warhol as the example of an aesthetic manager, but sees ‘the struggle between the creative artist and the aesthetic manager’ continuing in the division between ‘the German Neo-Expressionists and the American Conceptualists’ (p. 138).

But rather than being a reduction or an intrusion of market values into the realm of the aesthetic (as Krauss and Kuspit claim), the reliance on exchange value can be seen as the solution to the problem of private language that Krauss herself identified in the early 1970s. The artist, in the position of a Robinson Crusoe who cannot value his own produce, sells work on the market as a way of making it public, of exploring the ‘externality of language’. To make meaning a function of price turns it away from the privacy of intention just as effectively as making it a function of surface (as Krauss claimed that Stella and the post-minimalists had done).

Whereas Buchloh presents the institutionalization of the aesthetic as the unintended consequence of the dematerialization of the art object, this analysis suggests that reliance on exchange value as a form of secondary information may be the inevitable outcome of the privatization of primary information. The double bind of conceptualism was that making publicly accessible work appeared to invite the attention of the market, but making work private made it accessible only to the market. Rather than leaving solipsists isolated, unable to find a common language or to communicate with each other, the market provided a means of aggregating what little could be gleaned from these would-be private linguists and communicating it back to them in the form of price. In avant-garde practice, privatization led to marketization.

If so, this suggests an alternative explanation for the decline of decadence. Lukács maintained that the highly personal preoccupations of the modernists were solipsistic and presaged the breakdown of all communication. The conceptualists demonstrated how this might happen, and yet the critique of decadence lost traction at the very point its expectations were realized. Jameson argues that in postmodernism the concept of decadence became irrelevant because there was no longer a norm against which it could be judged. [44] However, Jameson does acknowledge that in postmodernism ‘the cultural and the economic . . . collapse into one another and say the same thing . . . it seems to obligate you in advance to talk about cultural phenomena at least in business terms’: Postmodernism, p. xxi. But in conceptualism, which is often seen as ‘the hinge between artistic modernism and the postmodern’, [45] Charles Harrison, Conceptual Art and Painting: Further Reflections on Art & Language, Chicago 2003, p. 35. the absence of traditional norms had the effect of deferring authority to something outside of the practice itself, not so much institutional authority (as Buchloh argued) as the authority of the market, which used a measure, price, that was not a fixed norm but rather a variable one.

In practice, art that might be considered decadent (i.e. whose meaning or existence is difficult to verify) was, and has remained, comparatively cheap. As Robert Smithson noted at the time, when galleries and museums are forced to make cuts, ‘they need a cheaper product . . . and compared to isolated objects, isolated ideas in the metaphysical context of a gallery offer . . . an aesthetic bargain’. [46] Robert Smithson, Collected Writings, Berkeley 1996, p. 378. So rather as the declining stocks called ‘fallen angels’ were repackaged as ‘junk bonds’ in the 1970s, what might once have been considered ‘decadent’ art became cheap art, which was attractive to those with limited budgets and an appetite for risk—like the Vogels, who bought conceptual art on low municipal salaries. As the painter John Currin remarked in an interview after the 2008 financial crash: ‘What the hell else is a work of conceptual art but a securitized idea?’ [47] John Currin, interview with Glenn O’Brien, Interview, June/July 2009, p. 119.

This helps to explain why decadence starts to decline at just the point when private languages acquire exchange value. Price may not be a very satisfactory proxy for meaning, but it provides a simpler and more objective measure for whatever decline in meaning the concept of decadence had sought to register. Cultural decadence has long been compared and contrasted with economic decline, but if the decadence is a form of privatization for which the market can assign a price, then there is no sense in distinguishing cultural decadence (the privatization of meaning) from economic decline, because the former can be expressed as a variable of the latter. In conceptualism, art posed a philosophical problem for the market to solve, and the market solved it by discounting the price.

The undecadent

Where does this leave the question of decadence? On this view, the market is an effective way of sharing the reality of the absence of a shared reality, for it substitutes price for (the absence of) common consciousness. It may be a poor substitute, but where ‘decadence’ has been successfully priced, there is little need to designate devaluation outside of market terms. Rather than being uncoupled from the fortunes of the capitalist economy, decadence has been folded into it. Decadence has declined as the market has expanded because decadence is a non-market form of devaluation that has little meaning within a market economy. In retrospect we might speculate that the concept of decadence was itself produced by a lagging market—in the time it took for modernism to find its price.

What is significant about a market for private languages is not that price makes a private language public, but rather that it provides a substitute for language when it comes to communicating our shared assumptions about the content of private languages. If decadence is the absence of any way of co-ordinating multiple private languages, then a market for private languages renders the concept superfluous because price provides a means of co-ordinating those languages without intruding on their privacy. It is, in Lukács’s terms, a way of monitoring our sleep that never threatens to wake us.

And if that is the case, there must be an entire category of cultural production whose difficulty, ambiguity, and unknowability has effectively been absorbed by the market—work that might have seemed decadent but is not any more: the undecadent, everything that might have undermined the culture, but hasn’t. Undecadence is cultural disintegration transformed into product diversification, an analgesic for all those ‘cries of pain of isolated individuals’. It’s how the market keeps our culture forever young.


[1] Andrew Schofield, letter, 11 March 2009; Gordon Ramsay, 4 April 2009.

[2] Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner, New York 1967, p. 170.

[3] Reprinted in Paul Bourget, Essais de psychologie contemporaine, Paris 1883. For further background, see Matei Călinescu, Five Faces of Modernity, Durham, nc 1987, pp. 149–221.

[4] As Durkheim quotes Edmond Perrier as saying, a community of polyps in which one cannot eat without the others is ‘Communism in the fullest sense of the word’: Division of Labour, London 1984, p. 140.

[5] Georgi Plekhanov, Art and Social Life, London 1957, pp. 201, 204.

[6] Lukács, The Destruction of Reason, London 1980, p. 316.

[7] Lukács, Writer and Critic, London 1970, pp. 150, 169.

[8] Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, London 1971, p. 135.

[9] Lukács, Writer and Critic, p. 174.

[10] Lukács, Writer and Critic, pp. 161, 187–8.

[11] Fredric Jameson, Fables of Aggression, Berkeley 1979, p. 2.

[12] Jameson, The Ideologies of Theory, vol. 1, London and New York 1988, p. 125.

[13] Jameson, Ideologies of Theory, vol. 2, p. 138; vol. 1, pp. 148–9; vol. 1, p. 179.

[14] Hal Foster, ed., Postmodern Culture, London 1985, p. xii.

[15] Daniel Bell, Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, New York 1976, pp. 136, 95.

[16] Jameson, The Cultural Turn, London 1998, p. 5.

[17] Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, London 1991, pp. 382, 377, 383.

[18] Atkinson and Baldwin, ‘Art Teaching’, Art-Language, vol. 1, no. 4, 1971 p. 34.

[19] Atkinson and Baldwin, ‘Art Teaching’, pp. 35–6.

[20] Krauss, ‘Sense and Sensibility’, Artforum, vol. 12, November 1973, pp. 45–6.

[21] Krauss, ‘Sense and Sensibility’, p. 45; Robert Barry quoted in Alexander Alberro, Conceptual Art and the Politics of Publicity, Cambridge, ma 2001, p. 207 fn 22.

[22] Krauss, ‘Sense and Sensibility’, pp. 47–9.

[23] Alberro, Conceptual Art, pp. 6, 55–6.

[24] Alberro, Conceptual Art, p. 118.

[25] See Thierry de Duve, Sewn in the Sweatshops of Marx: Beuys, Warhol, Klein, Duchamp, Chicago 2012, pp. 37–57.

[26] Alberro, Conceptual Art, p. 120.

[27] Lippard, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object, Berkeley 1997, p. xxi.

[28] Anthony Haden-Guest, ‘A New Art World Legend’, New York Magazine, 28 April 1975.

[29] Ian Burn, ‘The Art Market’ (1975), in Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson, eds, Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, Cambridge, ma 1999, p. 327.

[30] Mel Ramsden, ‘On Practice’ (1975), in Alberro and Stimson, eds, Institutional Critique: An Anthology of Artists’ Writings, Cambridge, ma 2009, p. 171.

[31] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, § 294.

[32] Catherine Millet, ‘Interview with Art-Language’ (1971), in Alberro and Stimson, eds, Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, p. 264.

[33] Karl Marx, Capital, London 1976, pp. 170–1.

[34] Saul Kripke, Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language, London 1982, p. 122, fn 89.

[35] Ludwig von Mises, Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth, Auburn, al 1990, p. 9. In Durch die Kriegswirtschaft zur Naturalwirtschaft (1919), Otto Neurath had argued that socialist economic planning could operate on the basis of calculation in kind. However, he later accepted a version of Mises’s argument not in his economic theory but in his philosophical essays, ‘Physicalism’ (1931) and ‘On Protocol Sentences’ (1932), where, in a precursor to Wittgenstein’s private language argument, he argues that a Robinson Crusoe cannot self-verify his own protocol sentences but ‘must use clocks and rulers’, in other words ‘intersensual and “intersubjective” language’: Neurath, Philosophical Papers, Dordrecht 1983, pp. 54–5. Ironically, Marx and Engels influenced Neurath here, for he twice noted the statement in The German Ideology that ‘language is practical consciousness that exists also for other men and for that reason alone it really exists for me personally as well’. See Thomas Uebel, Overcoming Logical Positivism, Amsterdam 1992, pp. 262–3.

[36] Mises, Economic Calculation, p. 10. The early Marx might actually have agreed with Mises on this point. For in 1859 he had argued that ‘Production by a solitary individual outside society . . . is just as preposterous as the development of speech without individuals who live together and talk to one another’: A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, London 1971, p. 189.

[37] Andrea Fraser, ‘May I help you?’ [performance script].

[38] Olav Velthuis, Talking Prices: Symbolic Meanings of Prices on the Market for Contemporary Art, Princeton 2007, p. 178.

[39] Hayek, ‘The Use of Knowledge in Society’, American Economic Review, vol. 35, no. 4, September 1945, p. 526.

[40] Steven Horwitz, ‘Monetary Exchange as an Extra-Linguistic Social Communication Process’, Review of Social Economy, vol. 50, no. 2, 1992, pp. 206, 212.

[41] Benjamin Buchloh, ‘Conceptual Art 1962–69: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions’, October, vol. 55, 1990, pp. 143, 117–8.

[42] Krauss, A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition, London 1999, p. 15.

[43] Donald Kuspit, Redeeming Art: Critical Reveries, New York 2000, pp. 150–1. In his essay ‘Art is Dead—Long Live Aesthetic Management’, Kuspit uses Warhol as the example of an aesthetic manager, but sees ‘the struggle between the creative artist and the aesthetic manager’ continuing in the division between ‘the German Neo-Expressionists and the American Conceptualists’ (p. 138).

[44] However, Jameson does acknowledge that in postmodernism ‘the cultural and the economic . . . collapse into one another and say the same thing . . . it seems to obligate you in advance to talk about cultural phenomena at least in business terms’: Postmodernism, p. xxi.

[45] Charles Harrison, Conceptual Art and Painting: Further Reflections on Art & Language, Chicago 2003, p. 35.

[46] Robert Smithson, Collected Writings, Berkeley 1996, p. 378.

[47] John Currin, interview with Glenn O’Brien, Interview, June/July 2009, p. 119.