Fountain Pen Ink in a Decadent Age

Back in June 2015, I began an investigation into fountain pen ink without any idea of how long the journey might last nor where it may lead. And the last six years have a been an absolute pleasure witnessing a unique creative medium reveal its secrets and magical possibilities. But one very big unanswered question has always intrigued me – why, in a ‘digital age’ of touch screen technology and instant communication, are people, in increasing numbers, still creating, producing, buying and using fountain pen ink? Well, at last, I think I may have found an answer. Read on…

In the autumn of 2020, a dear mate of mine commissioned me to refresh his creative platform, Decadent World. Named after the Decadent Movement of the late 19th century, the ‘Decadents’ pursued a life of sensual expression, hedonism and creativity with a manifesto to subvert the traditional rules of literature and art – an ideal name and manifesto for a cutting edge alternative creative blog too? The platform, as was, had a nostalgic feel to it and yes, I could easily have produced some wonderful art nouveau or art deco lettering or a pastiche of both, but to what end? Would it really do justice to articles covering top flight contemporary art and artists? In my opinion it needed a re-think before committing to any visuals and so the research began. You can view the ‘D’ created and, if you wish, read about the creative journey here (click).

So what is Decadence? Although many may associate the word with self-indulgent behaviour, the word actually means ‘decline’ in an abstract sense, and has often been used to refer to a perceived decay in standards, morals, dignity, religious faith, honour, discipline, or skill at governing among the members of the elite of a very large social structure, such as an empire or nation state. Hmmm! Does this sound strangely familiar? My research suggested that it was originally a Latin word used to describe the declining period of the Roman Empire and latterly the decline of a ‘golden age’ per se. 

Which raised an eyebrow or two and then begged the next question – as it does kind of sound familiar – could we possibly be living in a Decadent Age right now? Well, there is plenty of stuff available to read on this subject but one article for the New York Times really did grab my attention – The Age of Decadence by Ross Douthat. Ross quite convincingly puts the case forward that in his opinion we are indeed living in a Decadent Age:

‘Following in the footsteps of the great cultural critic Jacques Barzun, we can say that decadence refers to economic stagnation, institutional decay and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development. Under decadence, Barzun wrote, “The forms of art as of life seem exhausted, the stages of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result.” He added, “When people accept futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent.” And crucially, the stagnation is often a consequence of previous development: The decadent society is, by definition, a victim of its own success.

Note that this definition does not imply a definitive moral or aesthetic judgment. (“The term is not a slur,” Barzun wrote. “It is a technical label.”) A society that generates a lot of bad movies need not be decadent; a society that makes the same movies over and over again might be. A society run by the cruel and arrogant might not be decadent; a society where even the wise and good can’t legislate might be. A crime-ridden society isn’t necessarily decadent; a peaceable, ageing, childless society beset by flares of nihilistic violence looks closer to our definition.

Nor does this definition imply that decadence is necessarily an overture to a catastrophe, in which Visigoths torch Manhattan or the coronavirus has dominion over all. History isn’t always a morality play, and decadence is a comfortable disease: The Chinese and Ottoman empires persisted for centuries under decadent conditions, and it was more than 400 years from Caligula to the actual fall of Rome.

He then proceeds to illustrate his article with some great case studies and I’d encourage you to give it a read. Click here.

Naturally, this is an in-depth subject with several loose ends that don’t quite make a whole. I don’t agree with everything he writes and I certainly don’t think we reached a ‘golden age’ peak in 1969 when men landed on the moon. From a ‘creative angle’, and purely from a ‘creative angle’, I think I can reasonably pinpoint around the year 2000 as a likely peak date for the creative sector. And I believe this because from a ‘creative angle’, everything that Barzan and Douthat put forward fits the ‘creative angle’ perfectly. And the farther you get from that iPhone glow, the clearer it becomes: Our creative sector is, in my opinion, already in a decadent era.

So, if we are living in a Decadent Age – Is life really going to be one of repetition and stagnation? Well, that’s up to the individual of course, but in my opinion, absolutely not! In the rush to the peak of our ‘golden age’, many creatives just embraced and championed the new, which is totally natural, but now over the peak, many are realising that the journey down can be just as exciting in fact even more exciting. It’s a much slower pace coming down allowing creatives to engage with creativity and skills they didn’t have time to engage with on the way up and there’s just so much back history to engage with it really is mind blowing.

And wherever one looks, there is evidence of ongoing creative output to support this. Hipsters and artisans are enjoying growing success through use of borrowed nostalgic themes. Some of it downright plagiarism admittedly but much of it blending nostalgic themes together with contemporary twists and creating beautiful NEW art – indeed ‘decadent art’. Listen to the music of Fleet Foxes and Lord Huron or look at the photography of Freddy Fabris and art of Billy Childish as just 4 examples of countless others. Reimagining creative from the past will become the foundation for our creative future, provided that something of the artist and the age we live in is intrinsically added to the creative mix – what’s not to like?

And this is where I put forward the case for fountain ink to not only quantify my point, but to stand above all others as the medium for a decadent age. Because not only are increasing numbers of people returning to it to use as a writing fluid, but it’s being totally re-imagined as a complete visual medium for a range of creative activities including: swatch carding, calligraphy, lettering, painting and illustration with new kinds of fountain pen ink being created along side the traditional kind including – sheen, shimmer, duo tone and chameleon. While some mediums have reached a zenith, fountain pen ink seems to have only just got going and there’s more to come.

And so to conclude – if we are indeed living in a decadent age, then our previous life of constant acceleration and expectation will hopefully give way to a slower more measured pace and for those of us fortunate to realise and appreciate this new situation, to take time to rediscover artists and reimagine skills and mediums that may have been discarded in the rush to the peak. It could be a very exciting time ahead for creativity as a whole and this new ‘decadent art’ could play a significant part in paving the way for the next ‘golden age’.  

AND HEY! If you’re interested to know more about how to use fountain pen inks in more creative ways – whether it’s simply to observe their chromatic behaviours, or, to recreate one of my swatch cards, or, to learn how to use them in watercolour painting, illustration and calligraphy, why not check out my online course ?

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