ONE OF MY FAVORITE NOVELISTS is László Krasznahorkai; my favorite poet is the Peruvian experimentalist César Vallejo; my favorite musicians include Patti Smith, the Velvet Underground, Ornette Coleman, and Lightning Bolt; my favorite painter is Mark Rothko (though if I had to pick a favorite art movement, it’d be Dada); my favorite movie is the existential, cynical reappropriation of L.A. noir, Chinatown; and my favorite action movies, the Zatoichi series about a blind samurai, are subtitled. And if from that you’ve made assumptions about my feelings for Hill Farmstead, artisan donuts, and farm-to-table dining, well, your assumptions are probably correct. Given all this, I approached Dan Fox’s book-length essay, Pretentiousness: Why It Matters, with a strong bias, and no small amount of hope. I don’t entirely know what I was hoping for: Vindication, perhaps? Affirmation? Maybe new material for the debate about the distinction between elitism and intellectualism and how the erosion of that distinction affects American politics? My vague hopes were brushed aside by the structure of Fox’s argument, the depth of his ideas, and the vibrancy of his prose, and replaced by a sense of important accomplishment. It would be too much to say that Fox has ended the reckless use of “pretentious” as a bludgeon against the unfamiliar, but whoever reads Pretentiousness will come away with a greater appreciation for art, ambition, exploration, and failure.
Pretentiousness includes three basic arguments. The first: Despite the value of “authenticity” in our culture, pretending is an important part of not just making art, but of discovering and developing one’s authentic self. As Fox says, whether it’s dodging eye contact, smiling when you greet your boss in the morning, or putting on a suit to look professional, “It doesn’t take a sociology PhD to recognize that we pretend every day.” Furthermore, in a society in which power is unevenly distributed, pretending can be an act of aspiration, investigation, infiltration, and even sociopolitical rebellion — a technique for gaining power and for influencing those who have it. “Decry pretense and you not only deny the possibility of change, you remove a tool of social critique from the hands of communities that need them.”
Second: There is a significant difference between a pretentious work and a failed work. “One reason art is labeled pretentious is because it embraces creative risk, and risk often entails failure,” writes Fox. But too often critics and commenters assume, oddly, that an artist would make something intentionally over our heads — that difficult and baffling works aren’t failures of communication, but insults to the “common person.” Fox describes this as “a narcissistic paranoia; most artists don’t have the time or money to bother playing such a prank.” Moreover, to Fox, creative failure is necessary: “Failure is one mechanism by which the arts move forward—just as it is in science. Not every artist can make a masterpiece, yet it’s the experiments that quietly stumble forward that lead to them.”
Finally, Fox insists, when you accuse a person of being pretentious you’re claiming to know more about their character and motives than they do. Which, if not pretentious, is certainly presumptuous. Meanwhile: “Whatever it is you do, I’ll bet you’d never think it pretentious,” he writes. “That’s because you do it, and pretentiousness never self-identifies.” Yet, despite knowing we acted in good faith when we wrote the review, book, or song; picked out our clothes for the party; helped with the community’s local cultural celebrations; for some reason, we don’t extend that good faith to everyone else. “The accuser of pretension always presumes bad intentions. Truth is, more often than not, pretension is simply someone trying to make the world more interesting, responding to it the way they think is appropriate.”
It’s easy to conclude that Fox’s essay, and the idea of pretentiousness in general, is only an issue for the arts, but Fox’s arguments are actually a strong base for wider consideration. Take beer, for instance: why is buying Bud Light more “authentic” than buying craft beer? Both can be bought honestly — even by the same person — so why does our culture disparage the craft beer drinker, and legitimize the guy who drinks Bud Light? And who represents the real elite: the multibillion dollar international manufacturing and distribution corporation with a multimillion dollar advertising budget, or a brewer in central Vermont? Extending the metaphor, it is not difficult to follow his line of thought from pretentiousness to the anti-intellectualism masquerading as populism that poisons so much of American culture and political discourse.
One potential criticism of the book is that Fox doesn’t offer examples of anything he actually considers “pretentious” to counter reckless use of the term. It could be that he sees no valid use for it at all. When art is successful or popular (like The Beatles’s music, for example) we don’t notice its ambition; it’s when art fails that we note the arrogance, the assumptions, and the pretension behind the effort. But wouldn’t it be better to identify and describe the problems with the work, rather than insulting the maker? Even if a song, movie, book, painting, or performance is pretentious, there is always a more specific, substantive illuminating approach to critique.
Reading Fox is like watching a gymnast perform a floor routine. He vaults and tumbles ideas and arguments, seamlessly incorporating criticism, pop culture, and stories from his own life, and sticks every landing. Here is how he lands his argument about the selfishness of accusations of pretension:
It’s those people down the street who are gentrifying the neighborhood: we, after all, are sensitive to cultural context and would never dream of eroding what attracted us here in the first place, would we? Surely we’re not the pretentious gentrifiers, we just came here because we dreamt of leaving our small town for a life of the mind in the big city, right?
Fox’s goal is not to make everyone love the art he loves, but to stop, as much as he can, the wholesale and passive dismissal of certain modes of expression. It’s clear that I’m predisposed to take his side, but I think his prose is strong enough that even those who claim to speak out for the common people (and what is more pretentious than presuming to speak for the common people?), like critic Andrew Marr, will find themselves agreeing with, or at least impressed by, Fox’s essay.
Too often, in our critical discussion of pretension and authenticity, a fundamental principle of both democracy and pop culture is discarded: we are allowed to like it all, to enjoy whatever catches our eye, to pick and choose across cultural and class spectrums, to have repeatedly listened to Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung, and to know all the words to “Baby Got Back.” Having progressed somewhat from the strictly enforced social and class hierarchies of the past, we are under no obligation to apologize for the things we enjoy — even if we enjoy Krasznahorkai’s dense novels with their dozen-page long sentences about the beautiful pointlessness of human existence and cheesy kung fu movies, and hardboiled pulp fiction, and free jazz, and Queen. Discarding “pretentious” as a pejorative opens up a whole range of actions and activities to a whole range of people. Or, as Fox himself might put it, abandoning old (and limiting) ideas about pretension gives everyone the opportunity to “[s]tay busy, out of phase, in love.”