I’m out on a limb. As it bends from the weight of my insecurities, I hear the branch warning me with ominous creaking. I’ll never think about pretense the same way. Obviously that was the author’s intent. He gets an A for the accomplishment. He gets another A for authenticity. And a third A for audacity.
There’s little I can say that couldn’t be taken as pretentious, whether complimentary or critical. While I’m walking on eggshells, there is much to praise and a bit to question. I’ll start from the end, for it’s from the postscript that he gives us his backstory, a necessary bunch of personal data for making prejudgements. The author’s private reasons for writing the book are the supports for his argument. He does this through a short autobiographical show & tell, almost a confession. It’s a roundabout to expose his culpability, the games he’s played, and his own pretenses.
Being between a rock and a hard place is not fun, but admitting it is even less fun. Why he does it is crucial to understanding his view point. There’s no getting away with his pretense, so by writing an apologetic for pretentiousness, he exculpates himself, and along the way, everyone else with him. But it makes me feel uneasy. Any reader following his train of thought will be stricken by the push and pull between the real and the fake, the honest and the fallacious. He poses the ordinary against the extraordinary from page one to the bitter end, or sweet end, depending on whether you feel he’s being upright or underhanded.
Talk about playing with fire, he admits, after three years at Oxford, “I have no qualification for what I do. I never studied art history or journalism, and I learned to write and edit on the job. I became a professional critic by doing it, by feeling my way through.” Letting the world know you’re a counterfeit is bold. But then, there’s the saying, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” and adding to that, “those who can’t teach, criticize.” But then again, he’s leading us somewhere—somewhere in the clouds or somewhere infernal.
Pretension is the name of the tastefully minimalist, white-painted gallery in which we duke it out over questions of class and judgment. It sets the amateur against the professional in a game rigged by tradition, qualifications, and institutional approval. Puncture the word “pretentious” and out scuttles a bestiary of class anxieties: fears about getting above your station, and the urge to police those suspected of trying to migrate from their social background. The word is bent to fit emotional attitudes toward economic and social inequality and used as shorthand in arguments over authenticity, elitism, and populism. In the arts, pretentiousness is the brand of witchcraft used by scheming cultural mandarins to keep the great unwashed at bay. . . The intellectually insecure drop the word “pretentious” to shut down a conversation they don’t understand. . .
We may all be living in a glass of house. I know I like to throw stones—it’s fun, and makes me feel better. Then, should I crack a pane, or better yet, bust out an entire panel, I feel guilty. The preceding quotation is a big rock being catapulted at the glass cathedral of contemporary art. I wish I had thrown it. This is, conversely, the same type of putting on airs he defends. The book is filled with sage short-circuits that turn on themselves. I’m totally relieved, and at the same time, confounded. My concern is that we end up in the “anything goes” world of one-hundred-percent relativism—everything is relative, and therefore, nothing is left or right, up or down, near or far, because, rather, it all depends. . .
In an attempt at justifying postmodernist claptrap, there’s invoked the “nothing ventured, nothing gained” position. “One reason art is labeled pretentious is because it embraces creative risk, and risk often entails failure. Failure is one mechanism by which the arts move forward—just as it is in science.” A very generous view, that at first glance seems reasonable. Every work of art is an experiment, true enough. Experience tells me that the difference between a good artist and a great artist is twofold. 1) Knowing when to stop. 2) Knowing how to self-edit. The first separator of the men from the boys (or the girls from the women), we never see because the second takes effect. As with the weakest link in a chain, an artist’s weakest work dilutes his/her whole body of work. In other words, don’t display your failures. Here’s where most contemporary art/artists/curators kick themselves in the butt. Experiment, let yourself go, let yourself fail, but please stop showing off your excrement.
I know, “better safe than sorry,” is a wimpy saying. We’ll never get anywhere always being on the better side of valor. There are reasons for sayings. They’re good—some of the time. And like pretense, they get us into trouble as much as keep us from seeing beyond the end of our noses. The balance between, or the judgment of, when, where, or how much to apply them, makes our choice of whether to turn this one on, or that one off, difficult. Stubborn pride keeps pretense in play, and makes hardcore application of wispy old sayings risky.
Since the heady early twentieth-century phase of modernism, artists have been hunting restlessly for new ways to represent the complexity of experience and debating whether craft or intellectual smarts were more important. Some thought that the more technically virtuosic you were, the better. For others, the more you were able to channel an inner voice unfettered by the trappings of your art education, the more authentic an artist must be: the more paint you slathered on the canvas, the more emotions you must be feeling.
And since no one can tell me what I feel, if follows that, my art is valid, great, and priceless, especially if a gallery shows it and a critic reviews it. Well, la-di-da. A good example of “authentic pretense.” You can’t get more real than that, nor more confused. Our protagonist author shows us that pretense is displayed by everyone, everywhere. It’s obvious when others throw it in our face, but not as much when we wipe it off and throw it back. If all is pretense, and pretense isn’t real, and pretense is good, and pretense is a cover, and pretense is an excuse, does pretense mean anything?
I feel that not only is the horse before the cart, the coachman is before the horse. Backing through this review may seem to befuddle the subject more. Perhaps in the final pages he could have resolved the question of what is and what is not pretense. He did not, and neither is it softened, at least not unless you believe that pretense makes the world go around, as he does. He believes that it’s not only common, it’s useful and necessary. That still doesn’t put to rest the type of pretense none of us wish to tolerate : deliberate deception. For which he points out is exactly what we go to see in the theater, and praise when it fools us well, when we suspend disbelief.
The teeter-totter ride is kind of fun. Pretense is a Janus, not Janus. It’s another facet of human contradictions that we usually sidestep. We love novelty, hate change. We want variety, seek comfort in sameness. We’re fascinated with mystery, fear the unknown. We gloat in our own knowledge, put down smartypants nerds. We sneer at simplicity, shy from complexity. We think we’re better than those people, but the grass is greener on the other side. Confronting these contradictions within ourselves is frustrating for some, aggravating for most.
. . . the suspicion that experimental forms of art must be a con job—the tool of an elite conspiracy to fleece the honest, hardworking taxpayer and maintain the economic interests of a cabal of intellectuals, dealers, and collectors—is a persistent one. The fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes is brought up time and again.
He claims this is a “narcissistic paranoia; most artists don’t have the time or money to bother playing such a prank. . .” Most artists don’t, but the playing of this prank isn’t conscious. The emperor’s tailors were aware of the dupe, but the emperor duped himself, and going along for the ride were the spectators, all but the naive little boy. The art world, economics, social castes, the big lies being told everyday are believed as true. There, in front of us, rest the pretenses that can’t be swept under the rug.
The apparent difficulty of contemporary art suggests that it requires a specialist education in order to be understood, that it demands time for study that only the privileged can afford to spend. Therefore, it’s art for cliques, not crowds. Artworks can certainly be opaque; I’ve been an art critic since 1999 and still find many artworks hard to fathom. But for me therein also lies the fun: the pleasure of figuring out a puzzle, or piecing together a backstory, or simply applying your imagination to your own reading of whatever painting or sculpture you’re looking at. There is no “wrong” way to look at art, . .
Agree-disagree. There is no wrong way to look at art, yes. For an artist to use that as an excuse for anything goes is nonsense. Too much contemporary art is opaque to the point of pointlessness. If it requires a degree to understand, which it may seem to, but in reality never does, or a verbal explanation for the viewer to get it (as that little plaque next to the “art” is supposed to explain), the work has fallen flat on its face. It is visual gibberish. In an effort to be original, too many artists are trying too hard. If one looks at the history of modern art in the 20th century, you’ll find next to nothing really new since midcentury, some may contend earlier. If an artist really wants to be original : make a statement and make it clear.
For many people, contemporary art epitomizes elitism and affectation much more than it does creative experimentation and freedom of thought. More than in any other field, art is where the nastiest brawls over pretentiousness are fought. It makes the blood vessels of otherwise cultured individuals burst in fury, and it aches at bone-deep class anxieties and intellectual resentments. It cues up every unexamined cliché about the artistic skills of five-year-olds and good places to find tailor-made Emperor’s New Clothes.
The Emperor, again. Why is this art? What does it mean? Why did the artist make that? All good questions, sort of. If you gotta ask, though, doesn’t that say the art is ineffective? I’m not sure this has anything to do with elitism, or intellectualism, or regal robes too exquisite for any but the most pure to see. Too much contemporary art has gone beyond questioning, beyond purpose, beyond meaning. It’s not even pretentious.
As an industry, fashion appears to take itself far too seriously; the money and effort that goes into the circus of shows, advertising, and media representation seems disproportionate to the usefulness of its core products. Haute couture embodies, for many, the perpetuation of unrealistic and damaging ideas of physical beauty. It also stands for vulgar excess; obscene amounts of money thrown at inessential baubles and sequins. . . But looking good—however you and your crowd define it—is a socially acceptable charade . . .
Maybe, just maybe we’re getting somewhere. Nothing could be viewed as more pretentious than clothing. Everyone, everyday, puts on a cover of clothing. Whether we are conscious of it or not, it’s each individual’s way of expressing how we want others to see us—regular, flashy, rebellious, understated, elegant—and to which group we belong. This may appear to be honest pretense, yet it’s still a coverup. It’s a show. Nothing is more deceptive than believing the deception. The most dangerous liar believes his own lies. Can pretense be honest? Is it pretentious if it’s true? Can there be any truth be pretense? Can the truth be hidden in pretense?
As he talks about fads and styles, the nostalgia of past fashions, he also notes how fitting in carves out ones place in society. “There is pleasure in playing with it [styles]. But there is serious cognitive dissonance between the effort we put into controlling our image and, at the same time, claiming allegiance to transparency and authenticity.” This is gettin’ juicy. Although, our faker author wants to reconcile social airs and cultural conventions, he is honest enough to recognize there is no way of defining the line between what is real, honest, authentic; and what is fake, deceptive, counterfeit. And that brings us to “prestige.” A word we use to indicate something reserved for the cultural elite and the super wealthy. Yet, he points out, the word’s origins are not so eminent. It comes from the Latin, praestigium. The English word, prestidigitation, meaning slight of hand, comes from it. In Latin it means illusion, or conjuring trick. Give that a second thought the next time you’re thinking about purchasing a prestigious item.
Marketing lures consumers—particularly urban, middle-class ones—with games of linguistic pretense. The “homemade,” the “natural,” the “organic,” and the “farm-raised” play on fantasies of our own ecological responsibility in the food we buy, or nostalgia for meals just like your mum probably never made. The natural and organic possess a kind of earthly authenticity. . . Pretension is a name game. . .
Nothing ventured nothing gamed.
Start with externals, and proceed to internals, and treat life as a good joke. If a dozen men would stroll down the Strand and Piccadilly tomorrow, wearing tight scarlet trousers fitting the leg, gay little orange-brown jackets and bright green hats, then the revolution against dulness which we need so much would have begun. And, of course, those dozen men would be considerably braver, really, than Captain Nobile or the other arctic ventures. It is not particularly brave to do something the public wants you to do. But it takes a lot of courage to sail gaily, in brave feathers, right in the teeth of a dreary convention. — D.H. Lawrence
The question of authenticity as opposed to pretension is raised, over and over. It’s not inadvertent redundancy, it’s calculated. It’s a required tactic to get the point across. Overall, our protagonist, Dan Fox (not Daniel, that’d be too pretentious), the author of PRETENTIOUSNESS Why It Matters, is trying to convince us that pretentiousness is necessary, even good. Though, I’d be more inclined to say, unavoidable.
PRETENTIOUSNESS Why it Matters, Dan Fox, Coffee House Press, 2016