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The aesthetics of pastiche

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I’ve always taken the word “pastiche,” when used by critics, to signal an inherently negative judgment of some sort. The formal definition of the term is something like:

pastiche is a work of visual art, literature, theatre, music, or architecture that imitates the style or character of the work of one or more other artists.

Then comes a key distinction:

Unlike parody, pastiche pays homage to the work it imitates, rather than mocking it.

Why should this form of imitation be thought of as bad thing, or at least something that has limited aesthetic value? This question of course assumes that my sense that the word pastiche is typically used in a disparaging way by critics is correct — but perhaps my experience in this regard has been idiosyncratic?

In any case, the question of what to make of pastiche in its various artistic manifestations was raised in my mind recently, when I thought about some contemporary pop music that has a very strong flavor of the past — so much so that in each case I suspected the songs were many decades-old songs that I had never heard before. Here are four examples of this:

If this had appeared on a Byrds album in the summer of 1967, it would have fit in perfectly.

Similarly, the Everly Brothers 1959:

Moving right along:

I’m not as confident of what the exact reference is here, but I suspect it involves Martinis, Brazil, and a rainy night in London in the fall of 1963.

OK one more:

Stax Records, Otis Redding era.

I think these songs are all terrific in their respective ways, so I’m definitely not using the term pastiche in any sort of negative way here.

Which brings me back to my original question, which is why should pastiche be a disparaging term, to the extent it is? Is there anything aesthetically unsatisfying or objectionable about an artistic homage, conscious or not, to the past?

I suspect what’s going on here is that the concept of the avant garde, and related aesthetic ideologies, that valorize and privilege the idea of newness and originality in art as a primary or indeed the primary virtue, have over the past couple of centuries become so widely accepted in criticism that it has tended to create a reflexively dismissive attitude toward what pastiche represents, which is an overt homage to the past, as opposed to attempt to harness the shock of the new.

I look forward to reading your thoughts regarding this subject, which has been much on my mind lately.

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