As insults go, an accusation of pretentiousness can sting more than most, attacking as it does the gap between our self-identity and our self-expression, who we are and the way we project ourselves into the world. If you are pretentious then you are – so the accusers would claim – shallow, narcissistic (without the talent to justify it), more interested in appearances than essences. You are devoid of authenticity, unnatural, not ‘real’, betraying your roots by trying to be something you are not. It suggests that your taste, your style, and even your creative output are all somehow a posture, a pose held only in the belief that they will appeal to others, will show off your cultural chops or will garland your self-perception when viewed through the mirror of cultural opinion. An accusation of pretentiousness is the withering look which says “Who do you think you are?”, the tap on the shoulder which says, “You don’t belong here”, or the smirking look which says “Who are you pretending to be?” The word has become one of the most common cultural put downs, and even a cursory glance through the daily deluge of mainstream cultural criticism can see it applied to everything from Beyoncé to coffee shops, from hair styles to the cinematic output of a given country. This is of course exacerbated a thousandfold on social media, where innumerable po-faced trolls join the campaign against pretentiousness in all its forms.
Into this cultural battleground comes Dan Fox’s Pretentiousness: Why it Matters; an attempt to redeem the word, to re-evaluate it and to re-appropriate it in defence of creation, style and imagination. Fox sets out to show that those who would wield the word pretentious most indiscriminately are themselves the cultural charlatans, since in criticising perceived pretension they decry the very act of creation itself. To do so he references everything from Plato to Scritti Politti, from The Mighty Boosh to Susan Sontag, showing how fundamental being pretentious is to artistic creation, and to self-expression itself, since it allows us to project ourselves into new worlds, new identities and all new forms of art or creativity.
In Fox’s analysis, accusations of pretentiousness are often defence tactics; “the pretentious is often what is unfamiliar” he notes, obscuring someone’s own ignorance whilst belittling the knowledge of another. “To accuse someone of pretentiousness, of trying to stand out, affirms the fact that you fit in with everyone else”. Fox’s book undercuts the troll’s fundamental assumption that pretentiousness is trying to be something you are not for personal gain, rather than striving to be better than you are for imaginative or creative benefit, and by doing so turns the term on its head:
“Pretension is about over-reaching what you’re capable of, taking the risk that you might fall flat on your face… It is the engine oil of culture; every creative motor needs it in order to keep running and not seize up and corrode with complacency”.
Pretentiousness is also a loaded term not only culturally but socially, and as Fox shows, it is bound up with class. This is particularly acute in the UK, where not “having ideas above your station” has always been an idea tightly woven into anxiety about class, expressed in the obverse exhortations that one be true to one’s roots, and that one should know one’s place. The accusation of pretentiousness is also an expression of power and status, an implicit assessment of the accuser’s worth versus the accused; an allegation that you can see through the mask of someone else’s posturing, and by doing so return them to their actual level and identity within society.
Underlying Fox’s discussion of pretentiousness is its purported opposite: authenticity, or ‘realness’, a cultural category that has become ubiquitous in recent years. Authenticity defines the limits of creation and behaviour, allowing those who would declaim others for their pretentiousness to refer to a norm which should be adhered to, one which is of course bogus. “’Realness’ is a standard by which a complex form of pretension is measured” says Fox, and this is bound up with attempts to define a person purely on the basis of social status or economic background, to say that these factors must determine every aspect of one’s personality, artistry, imaginative capacity and aspiration. “To accuse a person of pretension is a refusal of permission for that person to construct their own identity, a process that may well be authentic to how they see themselves. To demand that they be ‘authentic’ to their social circumstances is a form of social control. Decry pretence and you not only deny the possibility of change, you remove a tool of social critique from the hands of communities that need them.” Authenticity defines pretentiousness as deviance from a norm, but it is a hollow concept, given weight only by the cultural or social bias of the accuser, and as Fox reveals, it is pernicious in its inherent diminution of the freedom to be or act in ways contrary to your social status.
It is perhaps no accident, as identity becomes more slippery a concept, that there is more focus on finding the real, the authentic, the natural – we shrink from our own capacity to reinvent ourselves and claim a truthfulness we never knew. Where does that leave creative endeavour, asks Fox, in which striving is a necessary component, and in which going beyond ourselves, trying something different, and experimenting are essential components? This is also a contemporary climate where our identity is most readily manifested online, a sphere in which we are compelled to speak, to stake out our cultural territory and are willed into adopting a series of identities every day. Contemporary culture, online and off, necessitates the performance of identity – it requires that we wear a series of masks yet pretend that each of them is real – whilst also enforcing the appearance of transparency and honesty. Fox quotes Michel de Certeau: “Our culture demands total transparency, at the same time that it demands near-constant performance. So how can you know a person?” This discrepancy between efforts at self-creation and the demands of cultural authenticity are evident everywhere, and lead to what Fox calls “a serious cognitive dissonance between the effort we put into controlling our image and, at the same time, claiming allegiance to transparency and authenticity.” It is this dissonance which informs the most interesting sections of this book, where Fox suggests that the current obsession with pretentiousness is a more complex phenomenon than just a manifestation of philistinism.
Fox’s redemption of pretentiousness is a persuasive one, in terms of drawing out its positive creative potential, and revealing the prejudice which often underlies accusations of pretension. As a cultural diagnosis it strikes a more troubling note, particular in the intractable opposition it traces between authenticity and pretention, regressive conformity and creative imagination. Does the culture industry’s obsession with authenticity betoken a failure on the part of the audience to engage with the notion of art as an act of creative imagination? Marginalised voices speak from their authentic experience as a way of fighting against prejudice, isn’t that at least as vital as pretentious creative projection? The lure of ‘authenticity’ runs deep in all art forms, where invocations to write/paint from the heart, tell your story, be true to yourself, trust in your own ability, are common – are these recommendations not only unhelpful, but mired in prejudice and contrary to the very notion of art itself? Fox doesn’t attempt to answer those questions, and we are left wondering whether it’s possible to redeem both pretentiousness and authenticity, and uphold both as creative aspirations.
Fox ends his essay with a discussion of his own creative awakening as a young man growing up middle class in semi-rural England, and the creative freedom offered him by his parents, the freedom to be pretentious in both taste and ability, in a way that would inform and enrich the rest of his life. It suggests that cultural resistance to conformity and anti-intellectualism doesn’t always begin with the grand gesture, but can be a personal, intimate matter. It also strikes a polemical chord, and whilst the issue of pretentiousness may not be as clear cut as some of Fox’s pronouncements would suggest, this book is nevertheless a worthwhile entreaty to, as DH Lawrence, quoted here, states “sail gaily, in brave feathers, right in the face of dreary convention”.
Dan Fox is a writer, musician, and co-editor of frieze magazine, Europe’s foremost magazine of art and culture. He is based in New York.
Thomas Storey lives in London, works in publishing, and is studying for a PhD at Kings College in literature and digital media theory. He can be found on Twitter @trstorey.
Pretentiousness is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.