A few years ago I took an American friend on a tour boat down the River Thames. As we bobbed along a garrulous guide shouted out historical tidbits intermingled with risqué jokes to a largely bemused audience of tourists. However, as we passed Tate Modern our guide’s demeanour hardened. “That’s where they keep that modern-day art,” he sneered. “Pretentious rubbish. I don’t know why they bother.”
In a witty and insightful new book, Dan Fox, an editor at the art magazine frieze, suggests that rather than run away from pretension we should learn to embrace it. In fact he suggests that pretension is “the engine oil of culture”, a drop of which is necessary if our lives are to avoid stagnation and complacency. His task is not an easy one. Nobody ever admits to being pretentious as they might admit to other vices, like anger or sloth. Pretentiousness is always somebody else’s problem, never one’s own.
It wasn’t always so. Fox traces the origins of pretension back millennia to the Latin word prae, meaning “before”, and tendere, meaning “to stretch”. “Think of it as holding something in front of you,” he writes, “like actors wearing masks in the ancient Greek theatre.” Acting is very much at the heart of pretentiousness – indeed pretending to be something you are not is clearly an ancient, even primeval, activity. Fox ties it to play, which allows children to see what happens when their “internal world engages with the external one”. Yet somewhere along the way play curdles into pretension. When does dressing up in costume and reciting odes to one’s teddy bear while shaking a tambourine go from being adorable to preposterous? Why does something that was once deemed essential become something that is abhorrent?
Fox lays the blame on the French Revolution and its overthrow of carefully constructed social roles. He quotes Edmund Burke’s lament at the loss of the “pleasing illusions which made power gentle and obedience liberal”. Yet pretension and its “illusions” were not solely the preserve of the conservative. The rise of pretension’s opposite number – authenticity – was promulgated at both ends of the political spectrum. Just as Karl Marx insisted that the proletariat find “an authentic self”, so capitalism deified the “true” nature of the individual. The dictatorship of authenticity has grown over the last century and resulted in a cult of “keeping it real” that dominates to this day. Meanwhile pretension’s magical ability to let you be two things at once – ignorant and learned, bank manager and pop star, face and mask – is seen as being somehow undemocratic, as if you were getting two bites of the cherry rather than one.
As such, pretentiousness has become a go-to bogeyman and a peculiarly virulent put-down. When you label someone pretentious you are saying that they are trying to be something other than themselves; you are challenging their very identity. It is an accusation that is almost impossible to defend oneself against without being seen to confirm the charge. Such power is invidious. Fox shows how in Britain the word can be used as “an informal tool of class surveillance”. To suggest a person is pretentious is to say they’re behaving “in ways they’re not qualified for through experience or economic status”. In America, meanwhile, Fox finds that simply having an English accent can be a sign of pretension. There the word is as much a synonym for what is unfamiliar as for what is false. The irony is that calling someone pretentious often reveals more about the accuser than the accused. It speaks not only of how we perceive ourselves but also of our society’s “insecurities, prejudices and unquestioned assumptions”.
Despite, or perhaps because of, authenticity’s power we are increasingly living inauthentic lives through digital avatars on social media. Hidden behind our screens we act in ways we would never dream of doing in person. On Twitter and Facebook we are as quick to leap to judgment without deliberation as we are willing to take offence without explanation. Everybody is putting up a front, putting on a mask, and yet we are also claiming to be authentic and real and true to ourselves. It’s no wonder that the internet can often seem schizophrenic. If we embraced pretension and our right to take on different personas, might everyone get along a little better?
When David Bowie dressed like an intergalactic peacock as Ziggy Stardust (pictured), many thought he was beyond pretentious. But it served a valuable purpose. He was doing what his sometime collaborator Brian Eno would describe as “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.” Knowing what it is like to be someone else is an essential part not just of cultural creation but of empathy itself. Not being ourselves is, as Fox shows, what it means to be human.
Pretentiousness: Why It Matters by Dan Fox is out now in Britain, Fitzcarraldo Editions; April 5th in America, Coffee House Press