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Richard Brilliant

The word decadence has been used in the Western world to mark an evident decline in society, culture and art from some perceived ‘higher’ or better state of being or form. The German historian Oswald Spengler (1880–1936) explained decadence phenomenologically as the final stage of a historical cycle, when the pursuit of material comfort exhausts the creative forces of society; Freud found a prime source of human suffering in ‘the disposition to decay of our bodies’, and others have put forward the concept of decadence to oppose the idea of continuous progress in civilization. The term also indicates the wilful rejection of contemporary social and artistic norms by rebellious individuals or groups seeking to bring attention to themselves or to their causes. Such rejection can be retrogressive; the Arts and Crafts Movement sought to reverse the apparent decline in the arts caused by the Industrial Revolution by going back to the ‘purer’ work of the individual artisan. Decadence can, however, have a positive connotation, pointing to the breakup of an old society or style out of which something new emerges, or to the rejection of a society in order to regenerate it with fresh spiritual values and creative vigour. In its typical application to society, literature and the fine arts, decadence is usually pejorative, implying a negative moral judgement. Such usage marks the hostile response to change, to uncertainty, to the loss of ideals and ultimately to death. This article examines three notable and distinct patterns in art culture that exemplify this emotional response to decay....


Michael Podro

(b Hannover, March 30, 1892; d Princeton, NJ, March 14, 1968).

German art historian, active in the USA. He wrote primarily on late medieval and Renaissance art in northern Europe and Italy, mostly, but by no means exclusively, on painting.

Panofsky’s doctoral dissertation (1915) was on the relation of Dürer’s theory of art to that in Renaissance Italy; in 1923 he and Fritz Saxl published a study of Dürer’s engraving Melencolia I. In 1926 he became the first professor of art history at the new university of Hamburg, where he was closely involved with Ernst Cassirer (1874–1945), the professor of philosophy, and with Saxl and Aby Warburg at the Bibliothek Warburg. Panofsky’s name is often narrowly associated with the search for the subject-matter of paintings through reference to traditional imagery and literature. However, his writing always involved a much more ambitious and coherent mode of critical interpretation: he sought consistently to place individual works of art in relation to what he took to be an underlying aspect of the human situation, the reciprocity between ‘objectivity’—our receptive relation to the external world—and ‘subjectivity’—the constructive activity of our thought....