Without decadence, the bulk of our most beloved rock icons would have dressed, behaved, and created very differently. This short-lived 19th century artistic and literary movement celebrated an aesthetic founded on an ideology of excess, hedonism and intentional artificiality – employing a combination of juvenile humour, subtle eroticism, and scepticism to rupture Victorian conservative attitudes. A century later, this iconoclastic and yet strangely elitist group of writers, poets, and novelists would go on to inspire the creative world view of some of rock’s most innovative performers, and none more so than the late great David Bowie.
In the 1890s, the decedent movement was burning with the utmost intensity in British culture, largely thanks to its iconoclastic and scandalous central figure, Oscar Wilde. Decadence rejected the didactic Victorian view that art should serve some moral purpose and instead celebrated the intense sensations that art and creativity invoked. This belief led to the formation of the central mantra at the heart of the decadent movement: “Art for arts sake”. This stance earned the likes of Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley and others a reputation for sexual and moral degeneracy, and, before long, the bright green flame of decadence was extinguished, leaving in its wake some of the most subversive worked of art and literature ever to emerge from the British isles, including Wilde’s The Picture Of Dorian Grey, and Beardsley’s illustrations for The Yellow Book – which itself was revered as something of a handbook by followers of the movement.
So how did this group of Fin de siècle artists inspire Bowie and his contemporaries? Well, in order to answer that question, it’s important to remember that it was only in the 1980s that decedent literature began appearing on the school syllabus. Such was the scandalous legacy of Wilde’s famed homosexuality. As Kate Hext, senior lecturer at the University of Exeter explained in the In Our Time podcast: “The decedent movement wasn’t part of the formal syllabus until the last couple of decades or so. And I think that allowed decadence and decedent writers to retain this image of bad boys and bad girls of literature. I think the fact that writers like Wilde weren’t claimed by the burgeoning English literature degree problem in the 1960s and ’70s allowed them this sort of image as being outside the establishment.”
For ambitious young creatives like Bowie, the likes of Wilde and Beardsley were inextricably linked to the notion of Bohemia. Their outsider status made them the perfect archetypes for the fledgling pop generation of the ’60s and ’70s – providing a model of subversion in this tumultuous era of social and artistic upheaval. Bowie’s earliest incarnations – especially his Ziggy Stardust alter ego – saw him embrace not only the artifice of the decadent movement but also the dandyism of its most essential innovator, Oscar Wilde. While they belonged to completely different societies, their fashions served the same dual purpose: to draw attention to themselves and to undermine perceived gender norms.
Like the decedent writers and artists, Bowie also embraced popular culture while simultaneously treating it with contempt. While writers like Donald Firbank – whose favourite record was, famously, ‘Yes, we have no Bananas’ -found early jazz to be a well of inspiration, Bowie drew on everything from novelty records and music hall to funk and disco to shift his style into new and exciting directions. As Kext, notes, the Decedent writers “embrace what other people would see as popular degenerate culture,” using it as a means of exploring and expanding high art.
However, decedent artists often treated popular culture with disdain, Wilde especially. His work frequently celebrates elitism and spurns the mediocrity of the masses; portraying their culture as a den of sickness, rottenness, decay, and amorality. In this sense decadence, like rock, and, perhaps more obviously, punk, is founded on a self-devouring impulse. Perhaps the most prominent example of this paradoxical aesthetic Bowie’s work is his 1976 album Station to Station – an album recorded when the star was living the sordid and strangely glamorous life of an archetypal Decedent man. In that album, he seems to recognise his own inflated ego, equating it to the bloated state of modern rock. In many ways, Station to Station is Bowie’s most Decadent record, painting a portrait of a man whose artistic pursuits look ridiculous when contrasted with the ongoing recession pulling the real world limb from limb, but who cannot quite detach himself a desire to escape that world and flee into a realm of fantasy.