Signs of Decadence / Richard Speer
This spring and summer I spent several months in Los Angeles, doing curatorial work. I stayed in an Airbnb apartment in Hollywood on a drab stretch of Vine Street, six blocks south of Santa Monica Boulevard. Across the street was a drugstore whose sign dominated the view from every corner of my living space. In blocky oxblood-tinted letters against a dingy white background, it read: “CVS pharmacy/LIQUOR/PHOTO/BEAUTY.”
Richard Speer, View of CVS Sign from Hollywood Apartment, photograph
The apartment had no blinds or curtains, so there was no choice but to see that sign every time I looked outside. By day it loomed, by night it glowed. I came to feel it was staring at me rather than the other way around. LIQUOR/PHOTO/BEAUTY, bullet-point vices and vanity peering into my space, oppressive, seedy, grim. It reminded me of the dilapidated billboard of oculist T.J. Eckleburg in “The Great Gatsby,” an unnerving signifier of the American dream-cum-cultural wasteland. These are what our society revolves around, I thought: Pharmaceuticals, alcohol, self-aggrandizing photos to brand our Instagram-ready lifestyles, and the pursuit of ever-receding beauty ideals. These are the masses’ preferred opiates circa 2023: Xanax, booze, selfies, and cosmetic surgery.
I’ve thought of that sign many times since leaving L.A. To me it’s the perfect totem of the escapism and shallowness that have led us, individually and as a nation, to the threshold of decadence and beyond. A period in which anti-intellectualism, escapism, incivility, and vanity have supplanted a respect for higher learning, character, thoughtfulness, and the common good. Decadence arrives when aspiration and decency give way to laxity.
Digitally altered, Rod Penner, “Triple D Motel / Rain,” 2020, acrylic on canvas, 6 x 6” (see end of article)
I thought of that sign recently when I read that The New York Times and Washington Post have begun shortening news stories to accommodate slackened attention spans. The papers are also labeling stories with time cues to inform readers how many minutes a given story will take to read. The nuanced, long-form journalism and analysis of The Atlantic and The New Yorker ilk — to say nothing of The Federalist Papers — have devolved to coddling readers who balk at a six-minute read. In the days of newspapers made of paper and ink, stories were often cut due to limitations on the physical page. But in our digital age there are no inherent space constraints. Nobody’s holding a gun to our head; we can stop reading whenever we fancy, should we find the prose verbose. Why chop it down preemptively? Why presume we’ll be bored by a preponderance of context? I believe it’s because we’ve become too lazy to think for ourselves and have grown reliant on corporate overlords to make decisions on our behalf. If we outsource our discernment, we can occupy ourselves with higher priorities such as popping pills, imbibing craft beer, applying face bronzer, and reposting boy-band dance videos on TikTok.
This is the inevitable trajectory of a populace that can no longer be bothered to write emails (much less handwritten letters), opting instead for the shorthand of texts, tweets, memes, and emoticons. It’s the natural course for drivers who’ve decided driving is too hard and would rather trust autonomous vehicles to do it for them, even as faulty software and “phantom braking” have caused hundreds of passenger and pedestrian deaths over the past four years. Cars equipped with “Tesla autopilot” will beep in protest if you take your hands off the steering wheel. As a workaround, there’s now a booming market for wrist weights. Just lay them across the wheel to fool the autopilot into thinking you’re paying attention to the road. That’s how lethargic we’ve become: We’d rather risk death than focus our consciousness on the world around us. The professionals charged with protecting us in the sky are getting lazier, too. Air traffic controllers are not paying attention on the job, resulting in an unprecedented series of near-mishaps this year alone, which have narrowly avoided killing hundreds of people.
John Baeder, “Stardust,” 1976, oil on canvas. Courtesy of John Baeder/Vendome Press
The Covid pandemic exacerbated our spiral into inattention and languor. Businesspeople who once donned suits and ties before heading to the office now barely manage to throw on sweatpants and a tee-shirt as they stumble into the living room to cybercommute. “Quiet quitting” is rampant, a spineless, don’t-give-a-shit alternative to actively getting yourself fired. The vaunted “metaverse” of Zuckerberg & Co. promises to put us in the same virtual room with people we can’t bother to visit in person. We’ve gotten so accustomed to Zoom and FaceTime that we’ve forgotten how to interact with people in real life. Millennials and Gen Z generally choose texting to talking on the phone, which provokes too much social anxiety. The arm’s-length distance of technological mediation offers better insulation against real-time interaction. Similarly, recent surveys have illuminated how young people are having less sex than previous generations but consuming more Internet and virtual-reality porn, again choosing the detached digital realm over intimate in-person experience.
Last month, The Washington Post reported on ways in which the pandemic changed Americans’ behaviors. Holly Wieland, a reader in Tennessee, reflected in the article’s comment section:
“Early in the pandemic, I was fine staying home alone. Over the next two years, this self-isolation became a lifestyle change. Before, I had been a swimmer, a walker, a bicyclist and a social person with many active friendships, work, and church activities. Now I find it exceptionally difficult to leave my house or talk to people face to face. I will let my mail sit in the mailbox for days before I go out to pick it up, and then I almost always go at night when no one is around. My medical appointments are all tele-med. If I need a new prescription, I’ll wait until the mail-order pharmacy mails it, even if it takes a week to receive it. I wasn’t using my car, so I got rid of it. I claim to use a bicycle, but in truth, I don’t go anywhere except the kitchen, bathroom, living room, and bedroom.”
Eric Nash, “Western,” 2019, oil on canvas, 24 x 36”. Courtesy of Lia Skidmore Contemporary Art
Holly’s predicament, and our larger contemporary epidemic of social paranoia and debilitating inertia, is not only sad, but dangerous. When we shrink from constructive engagement with our fellows, shirk our professional responsibilities, and flake on our personal commitments, we’re apt to abdicate our civic responsibilities, too. Dialing down our attention, focus, and involvement with the outside world is tantamount to ceding our power as independent thinkers and allowing others to take up the slack. When an entire citizenry punts, demagogues and dictators step in. Cue Donald Trump. As it turns out, two out of five Americans polled last month by the Public Religion Research Institute said they would gladly support a leader who “breaks rules” in defiance of democratic principles if they believe it will solve the nation’s problems. This echoes a 2020 survey by political scientist and fascism expert Matthew McWilliams, which found that “18-percent of Americans are highly disposed to authoritarianism ... and a further 23-percent are just one step below on the authoritarian scale. This roughly 40-percent of Americans favor authority, obedience, and uniformity over freedom, independence, and diversity.”
Robert Cottingham, “Ralph’s II,” 1968. Courtesy of © Robert Cottingham
This is what happened while America slept. We were scrolling social media, obsessing over hair products and facial toners, and chasing vodka tonics with Klonopin to work up the courage to walk the dog, when in walked the most virulent power-monger ever to occupy the Oval Office — and now here he comes again for round two, and maybe rounds three and four. In recent polling he’s leading our incumbent president in five out of six battleground states.
“Every woman adores a fascist,” Sylvia Plath wrote in her best-known poem, “Daddy,” and she might as well have added “and every man too.” The poem continues: “the boot in the face, the brute/brute heart of a brute like you ... a man in black with a Meinkampf look/and a love of the rack and the screw ...” If we, like Plath’s avatar, grow too pacified and preoccupied to think for ourselves, we will invite the nearest available paterfamilias to act on our behalf, and if that father is a führer, well, so be it. What will it take to wake us up? How far into despotism will we sink? The signs are not encouraging.