In Defense of Pretentiousness

Photo: Coffee House Press

The question when it comes to pretentiousness is how much of it you’re willing to suffer. I have a high tolerance; it takes a lot to make my eyes roll. Unless it’s completely irony-free, there’s a fair amount of twaddle I’ll put up with from my friends, at least. Care to natter on about arcane Balkan filmmakers whose works I’ll never see? I’d be happy to indulge you — pour me another drink.

Those who remember me as an adolescent in small-town Massachusetts likely recall an arrogant grade-grubber all too eager to quote the Virgil he’d memorized the night before or to share his deep thoughts about the lyrics of Soul Asylum. There was little I couldn’t overintellectualize. Pushing 40 in Brooklyn, I feel, if anything, insufficiently pretentious. You might say it’s something I crave, in myself and others. Authenticity is overrated — give me a perfectly struck pose. (That may be what authenticity is, anyway.) But everyone has things that set them off, and whatever we dislike we might choose to call pretentious. It’s not a stable category of behavior, really, so much as a versatile put-down, meaning, “I don’t like what you’re trying to do, and besides, you’re not pulling it off.” I’m likely to walk away when I detect a hint of preening moral self-regard. Conversations about innovations in dining bore me. Least of all can I tolerate being infantilized. Years ago I walked into Dave Eggers's Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co. to purchase a copy of The Believer — that month’s issue carried an essay on the novelist Walter Abish. The clerks required anyone making a purchase to recite a mock superhero oath. Maybe this is fun for boys and girls reared on a diet of quinoa (not yet a staple when I was a youngster), but it gave me no pleasure to be reminded of a whimsical childhood I never had. I haven’t been back. (The piece on Abish was excellent — his novel How German Is It is a neglected classic.)

The core argument of Dan Fox’s Pretentiousness: Why It Matters is that pretense is the “engine oil” of all creative endeavors, that we’d have no art and a very impoverished culture without it. On a basic level this seems to me indisputable, yet there’s something about Fox’s defense of being pretentious that makes me a bit queasy. It’s no easy thing to cordon off a realm of culture from the social world, but in each context being pretentious has different implications. What wins you a prize in one place can get you beat up in another. Unless things have changed since I was a kid, for many precocious adolescents those places might be one and the same.

If I’ve just given it away that my anxieties about pretentiousness are rooted in my own adolescence, then I’ve got something in common with Fox. A co-editor of Frieze and an art critic based in New York, Fox, 40, concludes his book with a memoir of his own intellectual and creative formation. A crucial date for him is June 4, 1989, “maybe” the day that as a 13-year-old in an Oxfordshire village he borrowed a friend’s cassette of The Velvet Underground & Nico. (That day the Tiananmen Square riots were also transpiring half a world away.) As it’s done for many of us provincial youngsters, “it made my imagination rapidly telescope from Wheatley to Manhattan.” His older brother Mark, a nurse retraining to be an interior designer, shows him his books of Andy Warhol’s art. As a teenager, Mark had worn paisley shirts and thrown 1940s-themed fancy-dress parties. “But to walk through Wheatley dressed up was to run a gauntlet of suspicion; to be authentically himself, interested in unusual art and fashion in a small town, was an act of physical bravery.” Here’s the problem of context: Being your true self somewhere conformity rules can make you a freak. And when you want out, pretentiousness might be your ticket.

Is it the dreariness and ambient hostility of small towns and suburbs that push kids like Fox (and me) toward universities and cities, or the idea of these places we’ve formed from records and novels and art books that exerts a magnetic pull? Although he nods to the way his local school was “miserably divided along tribal lines into Casuals and Goths” and to the "bitter memories of bullying” his brothers left town with, Fox emphasizes the thrill of discovery that, in those pre-internet days, came along with reading The Face, outings with his mother to the theater in Oxford, and soon his own solo trips to London, to see firsthand the streets of Camden, a place he first read about in liner notes. He’s soon enough joining a band called the Jennifers with classmates who’ll go on to form Supergrass, starting a pirate radio station, learning about raves in the countryside, making good marks in school, and gaining entry to Oxford’s Ruskin School of Fine Art. He recalls being put down by a classmate: “It must be nice doing your hobby as your degree.” But Fox cops to the fact that this resentful fellow — probably on his way to a career in finance, law, or medicine — had a point. It is “nice” to study art, write about it professionally, and edit magazines devoted to high culture. Another thing about it is that, while it might allow for a comfortable middle-class existence, odds are it won’t make you rich.

Fox never claims that pretentiousness is a path to wealth, and he’s for the most part very good on issues of class. “Used as an insult,” he writes, calling someone pretentious is “an informal tool of class surveillance, a stick with which to beat someone for putting on airs and graces.” In Britain, class distinctions out themselves in accents — a narcissism of small differences. Of course, the easiest way for an American to sound pretentious is to adopt a British lilt. Fox reports that Americans often tell him his very accent renders him pretentious. On the other hand, it’s always disappointing for an American to learn that an Englishman isn’t as brilliant as his accent leads you to believe. (I’ve never heard him speak, but on the page Fox doesn’t disappoint.)

The story of Fox’s own coming-of-age caps a series of chapters on theater, the art world, pop music, fashion, and snobbery in general. Literature, matters of taste in food and drink, and instances of cultural appropriation never receive a sustained treatment but are nimbly reeled in at times to flesh out the argument. The history of acting, in Fox’s telescopic account, is one of constant flux between naturalism and styles of flagrant artifice, both of which are modes of pretending. Point to a genius of pop music, from David Bowie to Björk to Jay Z, and you’ll find someone who’s channeled their pretentiousness into hits. When he comes to the art world he tilts at pseudo-populist journalists constantly attempting to expose contemporary painting, photography, sculpture, and conceptual art as an elitist fraud perpetrated on a public deprived of well-executed watercolor landscapes. (He’s talking largely about Britain, where certain strains of anti-intellectualism are more virulent than in America.) He relates an anecdote about standing in line at MoMA and listening to a bystander disparage Picasso while asserting that he prefers listening to Pink Floyd. Fox rightly describes The Dark Side of the Moon as “a record exploring the perception of time, mental illness, and alterity" — Pink Floyd are at least as pretentious as Picasso. It’s all a matter of initiation.

Fox returns more than once to a remark by Brian Eno, who wrote that at one point he “decided to turn ‘pretentious’ into a compliment”: “The common assumption is that there are ‘real’ people and there are others who are pretending to be something they’re not. There is also an assumption that there’s something morally wrong with pretending. My assumptions about culture as a place where you can take psychological risks without incurring physical penalties make me think that pretending is the most important thing we do. It’s the way we make our thought experiments, find out what it would be like to be otherwise.”

Fox’s book is an elegant and convincing defense of this idea, and I understand the loyalty he feels to the adolescent pretentious enough to grow up to be the author of this book. I think he’s right in that what we tend to call “authentic” can usually be revealed to be a perfected form of pretentiousness, and that a pretentious creative individual is at worst an endearingly innocent, “tragicomic” fool who might someday turn into what he or she aspires to be. But in trying to reclaim pretentiousness from its pejorative uses, Fox weights the scales too heavily on the side of pretentiousness as the larval mode of creativity. Pretentiousness is pervasive outside the arts, too, and Fox is brilliant on marketing and the commercialization of pretentiousness — e.g., a Whole Foods that claims white asparagus is “preferred by Europeans” — but lingers on its capitalist manifestations all too briefly. I can’t be alone in wanting to continue to identify pernicious forms of pretentiousness. “It can never be appropriated as an entirely positive word,” Fox writes, “but pretentiousness matters because of what it reveals about how your identity relates to mine, theirs and everybody else’s.” Well, everybody else aside, what if it reveals that you’re an asshole and I’m not? Or vice versa?

Here I should put a few more anecdotal cards on the table. I remember about eight years ago spending an afternoon at MoMA and then heading down to Soho for evening drinks at the loft of a friend of a friend. The loft was very well appointed, the space could have fit a productive sweatshop, and the guy who owned it worked at a hedge fund. He served us a bottle of expensive wine and remarked at length about its origins and qualities. I had no appreciation for fine wine because I eschewed discriminating tastes in things I couldn’t afford, and went on to say that I thought the intellectual apparatus that had grown up around the appreciation of food and drink, conflating chefs and vintners with artists and writers, was a sham — ultimately a way for people like him to pat themselves on the back for the way they spend their money and to compensate for the soulless and morally dubious way they made it. He told me I was “the enemy of good things.” We revealed ourselves to each other. Which one of us was the asshole?

*This article appears in the April 4, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.