I've always had an aversion to pretension. I think most of us do. No one wants to be viewed as pretentious, and a quick Twitter search shows that the word is used roughly once a minute to call people out for everything from enjoying soy lattes to owning a fancy lamp. Calling someone or something "pretentious," it seems, has become the easiest way to police somebody else's taste.
Enter Dan Fox and his book, Pretentiousness: Why It Matters, which blends pop culture with high art, philosophy with rap lyrics, and Stanislavski's system with George Clooney. It not only gets to the heart of where pretentiousness comes from and why we all hate it so much, but it also suggests that it's a crucially important cog in the great wheel of progression.
I had a chat with him about all that.
VICE: Let's start with an easy one. What is pretentiousness?
Dan Fox: The Oxford dictionary definition is "attempting to impress by affecting greater importance, talent, culture, etc. than is actually possessed." But in popular usage, it can be taken to mean "affected," or "arty," "snobbish," "conceited," "exaggerated," "ostentatious"—none of which necessarily mean the same thing. You'll find it applied to a surprisingly disparate range of things. No one can really quite agree on what it means.
But you're in pretentiousness's corner?
The moment you start unpicking why people use the term as an insult, you realize that it says more about the accuser than the accused. It's a false note of objective judgment that affirms the accuser's supposed "authenticity" or "ordinariness" against someone else's fakery. People use it as a way of shutting down things they don't understand, or which differ from their idea of what art, culture, or other people "should" be. Pretension is often a sign of a curious mind. And what, really, is wrong with taking an interest in ideas or things around you? Is it pretentious to show enthusiasm, to have an enquiring attitude? You'll never lead an interesting life if you spend your time policing yourself or other people out of curiosity for the world.
You argue in your book that it's taken a social role. Can you explain that a bit?
It's used as a way to police class status—to stop people getting ideas above their station, from doing something not usually associated with their class background. Pretension is often assumed to be someone's deliberate attempt to pull a fast one, to consciously be a poseur, a con-artist, a faker, and yet in so many instances, what one person regards as pretentious is another person's genuine enthusiasm or way of expressing themselves. It's often much more innocent than is assumed.
So why is it so common for us to dislike people we think of as pretentious?
We have a profound distrust, yet fascination, with people not being who they say they are. You can find this way back in classical mythology, and stories about shape-shifting gods or changelings. You can see it in the ways we both love and hate actors and theater. Also, in the West, since the Enlightenment, we've grown to believe in the primacy of authenticity as a value to aspire to, as something that's deeply connected to our understanding of ourselves as democratic individuals. To be pretentious is seen to shun that somehow.
Right. But I get pissed off about some pretentious people—I admit it. I'm not perfect. I see them as dilettantes and fakes. What's that about?
It's about the authority we give to professionals or to people with educational qualifications. In the arts, dabbling, being an amateur, can often be more productive than following the rules and orthodoxies that are drummed into the professional. The dilettante often does not know the "correct" way to do something, and so can sometimes be better placed to happen upon an innovative way of doing something that the professional, in their fixed way of thinking, wouldn't. That said, you probably wouldn't want to be an open heart surgery patient being operated on by a dilettante.
A dilettante is also someone self-taught, an autodidact, which is interesting to think about in a field such as pop music, for instance: The entire history of pop music is one that's been shaped and innovated by amateurs, by people teaching themselves music in their bedrooms or in pub backrooms—not in music conservatoires.
I'm feeling I'm going to have to adjust the way I look at things. Let's keep with the pop music theme. Kanye West. He's probably a genius, but then he also does seem a bit affected.
I'm not sure it's a case of premeditated behavior, as if Kanye is sat in the studio thinking, "Today, I'm going to make a pretentious song." On the contrary: He's making the music he wants to make. The issue is that pretension is in the eye of the beholder. In pop music, there's often an association of a certain sound or way of performing that's taken to be "authentic"—for example, the pained white man singer-songwriter, emoting the truth of his heartbreak in a croaky voice over an acoustic guitar. But that itself is as much an act, as much a pretense, as Kanye making a concept album that might seem overblown, but is doing something musically far more interesting.
I've been listening to Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly recently. Is a white, middle-class English guy into a rap album about systematic American racism pretentious? Am I overthinking this?
Well, what do you think would be sincere for you to listen to? Mumford & Sons? God help you if that's the case.
I can confirm that it's not.
I can't see why listening to an album about another person's experience of the world that's different to your own is insincere. For instance, a whole generation of black American techno producers in 1980s Detroit were influenced by Kraftwerk, four white guys from Dusseldorf with classical music training, making music about technology in postwar Europe. So too was Afrika Bambaataa in early 1980s New York, who sampled Kraftwerk's "Trans Europe Express" for his track "Planet Rock." Would you describe their interest in Kraftwerk as "insincere"?
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No, because these guys have been given the legitimacy of making good art. But I get what you've been saying.
One thought experiment I enjoy doing is taking a massively popular, best-selling album or film and trying to describe it without naming the artist or title, and see if it sounds pretentious.
For instance: a concept album about an imaginary Edwardian military band, featuring songs written in a number of styles ranging from psychedelic rock, through Indian classical music, to European avant-garde composition, and vaudeville. Its cover features Karl Marx, Carl Jung, Marlene Dietrich, and Karlheinz Stockhausen.
I think I know this one.
That's Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles, an album that sounds remarkably pretentious when you remove the band name, when you take away the associations we have with that name—of global popularity, of a celebrated British export, of a high point in 1960s pop culture.
Context is everything, then.
Pretentiousness is a driving force in art, because it entails risk—the risk of over-stretching your ability, of perhaps falling flat on your face. But if you played it safe all the time, you'd never get anywhere interesting.
Would you rather be perceived to be pretentious, while actually being authentic, or be perceived to be authentic, while actually being pretentious?
My interest in things such as "arty" black and white films with subtitles, weird music, strange books, modern art, and so on has always felt genuine to me. I liked them because they showed me other ways of seeing the world, possible paths to leading an interesting life outside the small town I grew up in. It was never an affectation, yet in some people's eyes it would probably be seen to be pretentious. But those are my interests. It's what I enjoy doing. I'm perfectly happy to be perceived to be pretentious if that's the case. After nearly 20 years working in the contemporary art field, I'm not expecting to receive from the National Authenticity Board a certificate of merit for not being a pretentious wanker anytime soon.
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