The Art of Parodies
Roy Lichtenstein,‘Femme d’Alger’, 1963
Tate Modern will have been overflowing this weekend with visitors queuing up to see its blockbuster Roy Lichtenstein retrospective. Whilst much of the attention would have been focused on iconic works such as Whaam!, bought in 1966 by the Tate for £4,665 (an acquisition which split public opinion and the Board of Trustees) and the other trademark comic-book pictures, many visitors will have been pleasantly surprised to see that Lichtenstein looked much wider for an application of his new found style.
The thick black lines, bold primary colours and the benday dots that make him so recognisable were used to create works inspired by other artists such as Femme d’Alger 1963, a reworking of Picasso’s Woman of Algiers. Many have a deeply held belief that Lichtenstein was little more than a plagiarist, a parasite taking works by other comic artists and, in essence, passing them off through his artistic prism.
Yet Lichtenstein once said that “the things I have apparently parodied I actually admire”. Is this channelling imitation as the sincerest form of flattery? Is parody a benign and largely benevolent practice or is there something more sinister behind it? F.R. Leavis thought parody demeaned the writer being parodied. Far from being a form of flattery, should it be rightly regarded as a tool more suited to character assassination?
These were just some of the points raised and debated at one of the events at the London School of Economics Literary Festival 2013 titled aptly “The Art of Parodies” chaired by Michael Caines, Editor at the Times Literary Supplement and with a panel comprising novelist, biographer, literary critic and parodist DJ Taylor; multi award-winning Guardian cartoonist and author of graphic novels Martin Rowson and author and cultural commentator Ewan Morrison.
Taylor, who has published a collection of his parodies that he wrote for Private Eye (What You Didn’t Miss Part 94), read a painfully funny parody he wrote when A.S. Byatt published The Children’s Book, noting that, as a purveyor of the art, he saw it as a form of authentication and said that the genre could be regarded as a form of literary criticism. After all, one has to be deemed worthy of being parodied for the amusement of a wider audience. Yet part of the problem we have at present is that it is often difficult to tell fact from parody. This is partly because politicians, celebrities and other public figures seem intent on parodying themselves to extremes. This is less of a concern when it simply adds to the general gaiety of life. What is more concerning is when it is combined with the widespread lack of cultural awareness which leads to a failure to distinguish between what is and is not a parody. Most parodies in newspapers and magazines now contain the proviso “as told to…” to make it clear that this is a joke.
The unease over the occasionally blurred line between fact and parody is not a new phenomenon. The late Alan Clark, politician, diarist, philanderer and bon vivant sued the Evening Standard in 1998 over its spoof election diary when he was the candidate for the parliamentary seat of Kensington and Chelsea. Peter Bradshaw’s parody in the newspaper was so acute that his editor Max Hastings told Bradshaw to continue it even after Clark was duly elected as the MP. Ion Trewin’s Biography of Clark recalls the MP telephoning Bradshaw to say “Listen, you must stop this ridiculous column – effectively it’s a counterfeit”. Hastings told Bradshaw to continue and when the case came to Court, Mr Justice Lightman ruled in favour of Clark on the matter of ‘passing off’ and said that Clark’s reputation and goodwill were placed at risk. The Evening Standard considered appealing and then decided it would be wiser in the circumstances to pay the £200,000 in legal costs.
The media were up in arms and Andrew Marr, then editor of The Independent ran a leader which said “Laugh where we must. And we must at this judgment…which if it stands will damage the public life of this country…[and]…the public space within we conduct our collective and political life and [threaten] our capacity for honest self-government…[implying] newspaper readers cannot understand, let alone take a joke”.
The Evening Standard had the last laugh as Mr Justice Lightman allowed the parody to continue as “Not Alan Clark’s Diary’ which the paper proudly trumpeted on its front page.
However, on the whole, the Clark approach is very much in the minority. Martin Rowson confirmed that most politicians like to be parodied because it gives them publicity, recognition and a sense of approval. They are worthy of being parodied. Remember Michael Heseltine being determined to buy his Spitting Image puppet? Rowson recalled how the now disgraced Denis McShane seeing a cartoon lampooning him in The Guardian telephoned Rowson first thing in the morning requesting to buy the cartoon and demanding “You must put me in more cartoons”.
Rowson pointed out that parody for a cartoonist is a form of visual shorthand, a way of immediately and powerfully communicating an image which will remain in the public consciousness. However, this works best when the audience has the necessary cultural awareness and knowledge to understand the parody. If we are accustomed to seeing “as told to” at the bottom of a journalistic parody, it is even more common to see “apologies to” or “after” next to the signature of a cartoonist noting the attribution of the original artist or cartoonist. The famous “Rendezvous” by David Low in 1939 has been reworked on numerous occasions by Rowson to make a contemporary point. However, if a newspaper reader is unaware of the original Low, the reinterpretation thereby loses part of its power.
It was this aspect that was so aptly covered by Ewan Morrison arguing that the opportunities offered by the internet and YouTube threaten to rob parody of its influence. Parody is more than plain comedy. The problem is that we now have hundreds of thousands of people making mediocre parodies of anything and everything and millions of people worldwide watching them in an unthinking, unquestioning, passes-the-time-when-I’m-bored-at-work manner. The present generation is already experiencing a phenomenon whereby parodies can go through two or three generations in a very short space of time, so that we have a parody of a parody itself parodied. The danger is that people lose sight of the original person, action or event being parodied and are left with a pale, albeit slightly amusing, version of it.
Amongst the raucous laughter echoing around the Wolfson Theatre at the LSE, this was the slightly gloomy undercurrent. Parody works best if the reader understands the cultural reference. Collectively, the nation’s arts/cultural knowledge is being steadily eroded by the onslaught of cheap cookery bake-off shows and crass Essex/Chelsea/Geordie/New Jersey reality lifestyle programmes. We are gorging on fast-food entertainment that is in varying degrees banal, saccharine and plain idiotic. Parody can play an important part in our national life but it requires a bit of effort from its audience rather than just dementedly wolfing down the cultural equivalent of a Big Mac (occasionally known by its full title of Michael McIntyre).