“Permission for the Imagination”

A passionate defense of pretentiousness.

pretentiousness illo.

Jordan Crane

On several occasions while reading Dan Fox’s book Pretentiousness: Why It Matters, my mind drifted to the memory of a woman in a black cocktail dress and six-inch ruby-red heels performing an Indonesian ceremonial dance on a platform made from blocks of butter. This was a thing I witnessed once, as a college student, when I worked for a weekend at a festival of performance art curated by Marina Abramovic. I knew nothing about performance art, and had then never heard of Marina Abramovic. I was there at the behest of my older sister who worked at the museum, as a volunteer doing low-level grunt work. I helped, for instance, to clean up the butter. 

What I did not expect was to be as moved and unsettled as I was in watching this woman—Abramovic’s former student Melati Suryodarmo—falling heavily and painfully in the spreading oleaginous mess beneath her, picking herself up and continuing her slow dance, her dignity compromised but somehow intact, only to fall again, to pick herself up again, to fall again. My cultural interests, at that point, had been largely shaped by my teenage devotion to punk rock, that most pathologically unpretentious of cultural phenomena: I liked things, or felt I should like things, that were direct and visceral and devoid of apparent affectation. But as I helped wipe the stage of the remaining butter that night, I did so wondering for the first time if pretentiousness mightn’t be such a bad thing. Was it possible that the term itself might in fact function as a justification for a certain kind of cultural bad faith or timidity?

Years after I saw Suryodarmo perform her emotionally terrifying dance piece, a video of it went viral on YouTube and became the focus of a fair amount of LOLWUT-level derision about absurd art-school posturing. I kept thinking of this while reading Fox’s book; I kept thinking of the strange distance between this derision and my own experience of the performance. Fox, an art critic and co-editor of Frieze magazine, presents a stirring defense of the world’s butter dancers, and butter-dance appreciators, against the sort of people who might question whether they count as art, or demand to cut public funding for such pursuits, or post links to Reddit while commenting that they’re “just going to leave this here.” The book is an examination of what it might mean to dismiss something like Suryodarmo’s performance as pretentious, and what it might say about the person doing the dismissing.

For a short book, Pretentiousness is impressively broad in its exploration of its subject, which it views from such vantage points as Greek philosophy, the Stanislavski acting method, the psychoanalytic theories of D.W. Winnicott, lifestyle consumerism, code switching in speech, and the use of fabricated identities and cultural appropriation in pop music. Fox begins by arguing that in our interactions with others, we are always in some way presenting a mask to the world. (As a matter of strict definition, to be a person is to wear a mask: We get the English word person from the Latin term for the mask worn by an actor in a play, persona.) There is nothing more authentically human, he argues, than inauthenticity. Children navigate the world by pretending; a child “might be precocious,” as he puts it, “but it’s rare that a child is called pretentious.” And so one of the major questions the book raises is this: How is it that pretense, seen as so authentic in childhood—a condition so idealized for its authenticity, its innocence—becomes so suspect in adulthood?

Author Dan Fox.  

Tom Gidley

Fox is, obviously, far from the first writer to address this paradox of authenticity—that “whatever is profound,” as Nietzsche put it, “loves masks”—but he throws enough light on the question to illuminate his overall argument for pretentiousness as the most human and honest approach to the world. What the book is interested in, and what it largely succeeds in doing, is inverting the charge of pretentiousness so that it becomes a marker not of dissimulation or self-delusion, but of intellectual ambition and personal autonomy—a refusal to be defined by a reductive understanding of oneself. The book sets out its stall, in this sense, with a quote from Brian Eno (that most productively pretentious of artists) about how “pretending is the most important thing we do,” because it’s how we “find out what it would be like to be otherwise.”

And being otherwise, in this view, is what art should be about. So a discomfort with the radical, or the confusing, or the challenging—with artworks, and lives, that insist on being otherwise—is very often what lies beneath the charge of pretentiousness. As much as it’s a way of deflating some apparently empty cultural gesture, calling something (or someone) pretentious is also a way of defending yourself against the uncomfortable feeling of not getting something, or—worse still—the uncomfortable suspicion that you’re being had. Because it’s easier to laugh at a woman in a cocktail dress slipping injuriously in butter than it is to think about why she might be doing it, or why your discomfort and confusion, and even your laughter, might be part of her design.

As an Englishman who has lived in the U.S. for the better part of a decade, Fox is especially attuned to the class dimension of his subject. “Calling a person pretentious,” he writes, can be “an informal tool of class surveillance, a stick with which to beat someone for putting on airs and graces.” To call someone pretentious within the rigid codes and gradations of British society has about it the whiff of class betrayal; to do so is “to say they’re behaving in ways they’re not qualified for through experience or economic status. It is a term of abuse, a treacherous snobbery.”

Fox is speaking from experience here. For all its positive polemical force, his writing is richly personal, if not always directly so. “Pretentiousness is always someone else’s crime,” he writes. “It is never a felony in the first person.” But as he reframes pretentiousness as an act of liberation, his book becomes a kind of externalized memoir, a vindication of his own history of cultural curiosity. The book’s final chapter, and its longest, is also its most directly autobiographical. Fox writes affectingly here about his middle-class childhood in Oxford, and the sense of a wider cultural world gleaned through his older brother’s record collection—through Bowie, Roxy Music, Kraftwerk, the Cramps—and later through day trips to London, where “a potential life in art or music seemed embedded in every one of the city’s grimy, yellow stock bricks.” In arguing for pretentiousness, Fox is also arguing for a democratic conception of what it means to be cultured, within the context of a society where culture has increasingly become the preserve of the economically privileged. It isn’t something he dwells on at any length here, but it’s possible to read the book as an intervention into a debate about public funding of the arts in Britain, where the specter of pretentiousness, of artists taking the piss out of the ordinary decent taxpayer, serves the purposes of scorched-earth neoliberal economic policies.

By the end of the book, pretentiousness comes to mean something much closer to ambition, to a noble cultural yearning. And there is something deeply humane, and even touching, in Fox’s unwillingness to see any form or pretentiousness as bad. See, for example, his lovely reference to prog-rock’s “charmingly overblown narrative follies,” which he categorizes as no more or less pretentious than the “demonstrative nihilism” of the punk rock that was so viscerally opposed to it. (He’s right, of course, even if I’d still take the punk version of pretentiousness.)

Fox supports his case with a lavish array of cultural evidence—sometimes to the point where the book feels in danger of devolving into a list of stuff he’s enthusiastic about, an enumeration of Kenneth Angers and Throbbing Gristles and Steve Reichs and Mark Leckeys. And there is, too, an odd paradox at work in his infectious enthusiasm for formally innovative art: Fox’s writing is itself strikingly straightforward. It’s a resolutely unpretentious book, that is, in defense of pretentiousness; and because of its very persuasiveness, it’s hard at times not to see its unpretentiousness as a dereliction of duty.

But this isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker, because Fox’s position here, or that of his authorial persona, is that of advocate, rather than avatar, of the kind of art he’s discussing. And what he convincingly establishes is that pretentiousness is the very soul of culture. He frees it from its associations with elitism and fakery, revealing it as itself a powerful force for liberation, as what he calls “permission for the imagination.” In the end, Fox has written a hopeful and stirring defense not just of pretentiousness in all its forms, but of the value of art itself.

Pretentiousness: Why It Matters by Dan Fox. Coffee House Press.

See all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.