Emulation, Imitation, and Derision as the Creation of an Aesthetic: Russian Futurism in the Crooked Mirror of Parody

One of the major problems facing the researcher of Russian futurism is the lack of a sense of the cultural milieu surrounding the movement. The political events of the beginning of the twentieth century eradicated the less vivid nuances of the relationship between the experimental, artistic cultural elite and the popular culture of that era. The hundreds of disputes, lectures, scandals, exhibitions, and theatrical performances given by artists and poets who claimed to be part of the avant-garde make the task of elucidating the defining elements of the totality of the esthetics a daunting task for the researcher. The self-perception of the futurists involved makes it possible to exaggerate the significance of the event or the reaction of the public to the event, and for the researcher who uses the memoirs or declarations of participants as his only source, the event acquires a distorted importance within its cultural context. In light of such difficulties, peripheral sources, such as newspaper accounts or the memoirs of impartial eyewitnesses give cultural context to the performance, focusing the synergistic relationship between artist and audience.

One source, which has been under-exploited in this discussion, is the phenomenon of hoax and parody of futurism, published at the zenith of the movement in Russia. These hoaxes were often written in direct response to performances or events, parodying the elements of futurism which were of most interest to, or were most offensive to, the Russian public. Often these almanacs reflected the philistine tastes of the provincial aristocracy, exaggerating the most coarse elements of futurism in order to disparage the movement; however, a significant number of parodies were accepted by both the public and the futurists as the work of people who shared the vision and stylistic techniques that were the hallmarks of the movement.

Why, then, were these works endlessly discussed by the various groups of artists and writers involved in experimental artistic culture? The answer to this question reveals much about the nature of the avant-garde at its inception. In this paper, I will discuss how parody reflects on the futurist aesthetic, how futurist parody incorporates self-parody and mystification as a means of creating a canon among established futurists and finally, how the problem of hoax, parody, and imitation demands a reinterpretation of the Russian avant-garde.

The rapid flowering of the parodies directed at the avant-garde in 1913 is directly correlated to the growing popularity of the futurist movement at that time. When “art” and “literature” are seen as part of a larger whole and encompass the role of the artist as actor (Gesamtkunstwerk), the “incomprehensible” text becomes more that just a cipher; it reveals itself to be a complex part of the cultural mosaic intentionally produced by the artist/performer. As the work of art becomes intrinsically intertwined with the artistic persona of the artist, and the boundaries which separate the constructed facade from the actual life of the artist become blurred, parody becomes a means of creating a separation between self and the other.