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Pastiche and Parody, from Pomo to the Present.

Recently I gave a lecture to my design students on three interrelated Ps: pastiche, parody and Postmodernism.  The first two are strategies widely associated with the latter, from Charles Moore’s Piazza dell’Italia to Vivienne Westwood’s Harris Tweed collection and Cindy Sherman’s Untitled film stills series.

Piazza d’Italia, Charles Moore & Urban Innovations Group (with Perez Associates), New Orleans, 1975-77.  Image: V&A.

Harris Tweed crown, Vivienne Westwood, 1987.  Image: V&A

 Untitled Film Still #21, Cindy Sherman, 1978.  Image: MoMA

In different ways, Moore’s and Sherman’s work flag up what Fredric Jameson saw as the problem of parody.  As he argues in Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, in the fragmentation of postmodern society, there are no norms to ridicule, and thus parody is impossible; all that is left is empty pastiche, or what he termed ‘blank parody.’  This led him to round on the widespread application of pastiche in postmodernity, deriding the nostalgic impulse in the Star Wars films as symptomatic of the end of our creative energies. 


Star Wars, dir. George Lucas, 1977.  Image: Sound on Sight

Given the benefit of historical distance, we know what Jameson could not.  As Roger Beebe has noted of music videos such as Weezer’s Buddy Holly and Björk's It’s Oh So Quiet, pastiche is not necessarily shorthand for creative exhaustion.

Björk, It’s Oh So Quiet, dir. Spike Jonze, 1995.  Image: Tumblr.

The lecture got me thinking about the widespread presence of pastiche and parody in today’s pluralistic, often contradictory, creative landscape: if these can be seen to be two of the defining strategies employed today by creative practitioners what, if anything, can this tell us about the wider state of the field?

Take some recent work by the British ceramicist Richard Slee, such as his wonderfully named Sausage from 2006. A found DIY bench and elastic straps house a phallic white ceramic wurst; a parodic equation of the female overtake of DIY with male impotence (see Amanda Fielding’s excellent essay for more on this).

 Richard Slee, Sausage, 2006.  DIY Bench, elastic straps, earthenware. Image: V&A

While Sausage is assertedly parodic, other works demonstrate the slippage between pastiche and parody - an ambiguity that informed the criticism of works such as Moore’s Piazza d’Italia and was based on the negative perception of the latter as mere revivalism. Today, this ambiguity is something that FAT Architecture embrace.  Rebecca Rourke celebrates their social housing in Manchester’s Islington Square as ‘a reworked pastiche of vernacular English row houses at a refreshingly bold scale.’ 

Islington Square, FAT Architecture.   Social Housing, New Islington, Manchester 2006.  Image: FAT.

On the other, FAT celebrate the potential of parody, as one form of the ‘deep copy’ that Sam Jacobs in particular has done much to promote at London’s AA School.

Yet whether a work is conceived or received as parody or pastiche, both these strategies have had a problem.

Take the work of Timorous Beasties, a successful Glaswegian design duo who I much admire - and am the happy owner of their plates (although not using the designs discussed here).  They are most know for their Glasgow and London Toile textiles, reworkings of the Toile de Jouy wallpapers that originated in late 18th century France.

Timorous Beasties, Glasgow Toile.  Image: Timorous Beasties.

Like many examples of the original French toile, the seemingly bucolicscenes are actually disturbing depictions of tower blocks and tramps, of depraved and deprived sectors of society.  Yet there’s something amiss here; a disconnect between those that can afford to buy the plates, textiles and wallpapers, and have sufficient Bourdieu-esque ‘cultural capital’ to know of the French precedent, and those being parodied in the scenes.  

For another way in which the issue of exclusivity shows up the problem of these strategies, look no further than Studio Job's Robber Baron cast bronze furnishing series from 2006.  

The cabinet is based on an ornate seventeenth century design by the Parisian cabinet maker André-Charles Boulle and was designed to parody the predilection for ostentatious displays of wealth amongst American industrialists of the 19th century.  Yet the irony is of course that arguably often the only individuals with the means, and taste, to buy designs such as these are the equally unscrupulous oligarchs of today.

So here’s the crux of the matter: is the problem of parody and pastiche not only their exclusiveness, but also the knowing, often empty irony that pervades much of design today?  This at a time when design needs to get back its conscience, to recognise its ethical imperative.  If it is earnestness that designers should be striving for, does that make parody and pastiche motivating or moribund ways of achieving this?  

Answers on a postcard for this one I reckon.

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