Pretentious is…?

The following text was originally published in the May/June edition of the Visual Artists’ News Sheet, which also features contributions by Teresa Gillespie, Jonathan Mayhew, Eilis McDonald and Declan Clarke, alongside a report on ‘The Value of Criticism‘ which took place in February at the Glucksman Gallery. Well worth picking up a copy.

In 1976 Jonathan Richman of the American rock band The Modern Lovers sang that “Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole”. And although he may well have been an asshole, I guess the implication was that he could back it up somehow. Pretentiousness, by contrast, is at first glance best surmised by empty-talk and vain posturing. Nonetheless, when you Google the words ‘pretentious is…’ the sentence concludes with ‘…a pretentious word’. It’s a revealingly vacuous semantic loop. And though we may well agree that the word implies something ostentatious or affected, all fur coat and no knickers, pretentiousness isn’t quite captured by those words either. And so, as distinct from not-quite synonyms like showy or snobbish, what do we really mean when we call something pretentious?

Critic and Frieze editor Dan Fox’s recent book, Pretentiousness: Why it Matters, works to get to the root of this question. This past February I happened to be in Bristol and took the opportunity to hear him speak on the topic at the Spike Island gallery. Whilst he conceded that the word might never be fully rehabilitated in positive terms, Fox nonetheless de-familiarised the term, widening its remit, and effectively redefining it as something both positive and necessary. In the concluding Q&A, Fox stated that he tries to avoid using the word, and I left similarly hesitant to use it. Initially, the very thought of attending a talk about pretentiousness seemed somewhat fatuous, inasmuch as our attendance there appeared almost as a supreme embodiment of pretentiousness itself. However, over the course of Fox’s impassioned – and, for what it’s worth – totally unpretentious talk, pretentiousness itself seemed to assume a space of genuine urgency. Defined in Fox’s rather more generous terms, it names a central motor of art. Reaching outside of itself, pretentiousness allows art to intrude into the places and conversations from which it is typically excluded.

The central tenet of Fox’s argument is that pretentiousness – and, more particularly, its eschewal – embodies a particularly blinkered conception of authenticity. In lieu of this assessment, he says, to be pretentious is not necessarily to be inauthentic. Instead, pretentiousness often delimits an effervescent space for creativity, risk-taking and disruption, marked by “the courage and curiosity” to extend oneself. By this understanding, when the term is used negatively, in a throwaway, unthinking manner, it works to undercut any kind of striving outside of oneself, intractably rooting the subject “to the circumstances in which they were born”. For Fox, this denial exists alongside a denial of social mobility, and is rooted, first and foremost, in the discourse of class.

Initially, this argument may seem somewhat far-fetched. And yet on further consideration, the charge of pretentiousness carries a definite shade of self-aggrandisement, of ‘getting too big for your boots’. In an Irish context, the word ‘notions’ has become its shorthand; the hipster, itself a similarly empty signifier, is its archetype. Under this logic, the same applies to performance art, pinot noir, barrel-aged stouts, AeroPress coffee, French postmodern theory, beards, thrice-cooked chips: notions. Sometimes, of course, such derision is understandable, and yet, as Fox rightly asserts, what unites our denials of something as ‘pretentious’ is the unsophisticated assumption of its bad intentions. What we forget is that most of what is derided as pretentious is made in absolutely good faith, with a lot of love and a courageous disregard for public opinion. Without the risk-taking inherent to pretentiousness, our culture industry would surely be a tedious and static one.

A key aspect of this debate revolves around the question of authenticity. This, for me, is the most insidious element in calling someone or something pretentious. Here, a particularly wrong-headed and possibly destructive dichotomy is being articulated: namely, that performance or pretension is bad, while authenticity is good. By this understanding, the fact that authenticity in art is also constructed is glossed over. The “salt of the earth” pose, as Fox describes it, is also a pretension.

Thinking about contemporary politics, it’s clear that this dichotomy is often mined to the hilt. Politicians strive to appear authentic, ‘one of the people,’ and this is often carried out through anti-intellectualism, coupled with a kind of easily digestible, soundbite politics. Increasingly, this idea of authenticity feeds into popularism. The problem here is that such ‘authenticity’ is shallow and presupposes a barely weaned and passive public. Furthermore, this so-called authentic politics is often too good to be true. We can sense this, for example, in the unfathomable rise of Donald Trump as a viable presidential candidate. Such anti-intellectualism, Fox states, is just another breed of snobbishness. The simplicity of this viewpoint is determined by a similarly reductive, and far more worrisome, process of exclusion. In place of easy solutions, then, complex political issues demand correspondingly complex, and even pretentious, thinking.

Fox argues that being pretentious is rarely harmful. However the aforementioned anti-intellectualism that causes us to view it in negative terms is often harmful. Such a mode of understanding defines problems as heroic fairy-tales, endorsing a black and white view of the world and inhibiting any kind of constructive complication. In never risking pretension, then, we are denied the possibility of living differently, or better. A prioritisation of authenticity over pretension, as Fox put it, means that we are ineluctably bound to the circumstances and class in which we are born; in such a way, society reproduces itself without any upset.

In light of waning governmental support for the arts, this is a particularly worrying prospect. Writing about pop music in the New Statesman recently, Stuart Maconie argued that the art is becoming the domain of the wealthy, “a rich fellow’s diversion, a pleasant recreation for those who can afford it, rather than the cultural imperative it should be”.[i] In such a way, art can be seen to reproduce the yawning inequality that defines the contemporary moment, while simultaneously limiting the broad range of perspectives that art should provide. Within such a context, it seems jarring, even counterproductive, to endorse pretentiousness as a viable point of resistance. And yet to be pretentious means to reach outside of yourself, to yearn and to become someone – or some class – that you’re not. Pretension and art are a matter of social mobility, and of breaking into closed worlds.

Perhaps Fox’s take-home message was this: if everyone were afraid of pretentiousness, it’s likely that no one would be an artist. There would be little vitality or outlandishness, and no surprises. No one would make contemporary art, no one would read theory – or maybe even literature – and certainly no one would listen to obscure drone music. Most likely we would all drink instant coffee and scoff at the idea of salads. In short, the world would be a much shittier place. At the start of his talk, Fox rattled off a long list of activities that might be termed pretentious, which included beekeeping, running and birdwatching. Anything, in short, might feasibly be called pretentious – slipping into this categorisation, somehow, by dint of the zeal or pleasure that sustains them. This doesn’t seem like a helpful way of seeing the world. What is needed, Fox argues, is a greater precision of language. Calling something pretentious doesn’t really mean anything, but instead smacks of a lazy and demeaning view of art, almost bringing it to heel. Of course it is justifiable to not like something, but – at least for this pretentious writer – damning it in such reductive terms just isn’t enough.

[i]   Stuart Maconie, ‘The privileged are taking over the arts – without the grit, pop culture is doomed’, The New Statesman, 4 February 2015

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