Pretentiousness: Why It Matters

tags: art

This is more of an essay, than a book. It’s quite short. It reads a bit stream-of-consciousness, with no chapter headings. Each chapter seems to have a cultural theme, but I’d be lying if I told you they were perfectly clear.

The author – Dan Fox, editor of a literary and art magazine – seems to be sick of the word “pretentious,” and so he sets out of examine it and strip it of its insult value. His argument boils down to this: pretentiousness is someone trying to be better than they are, and this is not a bad thing. Pretentiousness is how we evolve and move forward as a human race.

There’s a lot going on in here, and I wasn’t following it all, but I enjoyed the idea of someone trying to take control of a word by deconstructing it.

We call something “pretentious” because we don’t understand it, and we think the originator of it is trying to hold themselves above us for this reason. We see something new and strange, and we think, “I don’t get that. Does the source of it think that I’m stupid because I don’t get it? Are they trying to make me feel less than them because of this?”

Perhaps pretentiousness is about separation? When someone is pretentious, they’re saying, “I want to separate myself from the unwashed masses.” And when we don’t understand, we feel unwashed. We feel “outside.”

Or is pretentiousness about power? Is it about the ability for someone to make others feel less valuable by their inability to understand something? I have no-doubt that some people use this to their advantage, while others label things are “pretentious” as a defense mechanism. Might something be “pretentious” just because I don’t understand it?

There’s a great quote in the book: “Pretentiousness is interesting. At least you’re making an effort. Your ambition has to outstrip your ability at some point.” Is pretentiousness how we move forward? Both the originator, as someone who is trying new things, and the viewer, as someone who is exposed to new things?

As for the book, I could actually call it pretentious because I didn’t understand parts of it. But here’s the thing: even thought I didn’t get everything, I now think about the word differently. My perspective has been changed since Dan Fox decided to write something I didn’t completely understand. And perhaps that proves his point?

Book Info