As the end of the twentieth century approaches, I recently came upon an interesting French phrase I'd never seen before that seems more and more apt as time goes by. Maybe you've seen it too--"fin de siècle." Strictly translated it means "end of the cycle." One hundred years ago, it was used to refer to the "end of the century" that being the nineteenth century of course. It was initially used in speaking of progressive ideas or customs. However, in this century, probably reflecting the questionable nature of these "progressive" ideas and customs, it's come to be used with reference to social and cultural decadence. What piqued my interest in the phrase was, first, the question as to what progressive ideas or customs of the time were now seen to be decadent, and second, if we might apply this phrase just as appropriately to ideas and customs prevalent at the end of this century.
In terms of art, fin de siècle is most often associated with Art Nouveau. For those not familiar with this term, I guess it could best be described as "botanical." That is, painting, sculpture, architecture, consumer products, interior design, poster, and commercial art with a strong organic motif--everything from stair banisters to clocks and cloisters. And while it may not be everyone's favourite style, and not particularly popular today, I can see little that would be considered "decadent" in such decidedly flamboyant delicacy. However the work of the graphic design artist and illustrator, Aubrey Beardsley also comes to mind in terms of fin de siècle. His work is definitely Art Nouveau and is often considered quite decadent in its moral perversity, formal elegance, and delicate eroticism. In literature, the fin de siècle work of playwright, Oscar Wilde, comes to mind; and their joint effort, his 1894 book of poetry, Salome, which Beardsley illustrated, very neatly fits this decadent image.
So much for the last century, what about this century. Do we see fin de siècle art and culture now? Certainly no particular art style dominates as did Art Nouveau. And while one could easily identify plenty to find decadent in both the art and culture of the last few decades of this century, is there any particular development along this line peculiar to the end of this century...indeed of this millennium? We might easily latch on to the current flare-up regarding guns and violence in entertainment, though one might be hard pressed to argue that the situation is any worse now than say in the late sixties. Sexual mores and the easy access to pornography perhaps? Decadent? Certainly, but fin de siècle? If we can apply this phrase today, I think we'd have to say it relates more to our attitude, with relation to some of the things I've mentioned, rather than the perverse influences themselves. The fin de siècle of this century is the attitude that all these things are an inbred, embedded, permanent parts of our culture and not likely to change significantly no matter how many bombs explode, students die, laws are passed, or Internet porn sites come and go. Now that is fin de siècle decadence.