As soon as I saw Dan Fox’s Pretentiousness (Fitzcarraldo, 2016) I knew I had to read it. I knew nothing about the author or the publisher, and it was entirely possible that it would make its case by being a prime example of its subject matter; the austere cover didn’t entirely dispel those misgivings. But I like Brian Eno’s defence of pretension in popular music in his A Year: With Swollen Appendices, and was interested to see a more sustained argument. Recently I’ve contemplated writing about a band who were in their time described as ‘incredibly pretentious’, ‘stiflingly pretentious’, and — by one of their more sympathetic critics — ‘occasionally pretentious.’ I was interested in what might be said by way of defence.
Pretentiousness is a book-length essay, and although Fox sometimes writes in ways one might associate with a more formal academic work (analysing ‘pretence’ through its etymology, for example), it’s always personal, exploratory, and unsystematic. Fox’s prose is precise but never dry, and at times he is passionate in his defence of pretension. He is eclectic in his range of reference, so that in the space of a paragraph he can go from a Fry and Laurie sketch, to a contemporary artist’s view of cubism, to a neuroscientist’s account of the cognitive demands of complexity and simplicity. Summarised thus, the eclecticism might sound itself pretentious or at least ostentatious, but it’s never forced; it feels more as if he’s working quickly, resourcefully, and urgently with whatever materials happened to be at hand.
The core of Fox’s argument is that accusations of pretentiousness are closely linked to social class: ‘Used as an insult, it’s an informal tool of class surveillance, a stick with which to beat someone for putting on airs and graces’ (p.55). In itself, that argument aims only to disarm the use of ‘pretentious’ as an insult, but there’s a more positive defence: that by pretending, by trying on costumes, we can grow as artists and/or as people. Fox is aware of how much informal education he received by listening to popular music and reading interviews with musicians:
Notes on the back of a Bowie sleeve could lead you to the Velvet Underground, its front cover to the German Expressionists, and for those growing up in the high modern phase of pop — roughly from the late 1960s to the early 1990s — a form of cultural literacy was nurtured through references found on album artwork or music videos. These were spaces that encouraged curiosity, gateways to art, literature, radical politics, and cinema (pp.96-7).
I had similar experiences myself. There’s a degree of nostalgic regret in this viewpoint, but it’s underpinned with a material analysis: that ‘high modern’ phase of ambitious popular music was sustained by the art schools; with their decline, and with the introduction of tuition fees, educational pathways have become narrower and less adventurous, more focused on instrumental outcomes.
Fox’s postscript takes a more autobiographical turn, which I liked, though my liking it was partly because his background and range of reference aren’t so far removed from mine: he grew up in Wheatley, ten miles from Oxford, and went to the comprehensive school there. He’s about nine years younger than me, so his description of Oxford in his early teens is the time I was there as a student in my early twenties; I’m not sure the students in VU-influenced striped tees, black jeans, winkle pickers and shades were quite so thick on the ground in Broad Street or even at the Jericho Tavern.
I like his defence of pretentiousness, but I wondered whether it extends to all forms of it, or to all — what’s the word? — pretentionists. He makes a good case for the defence of pretentiousness for someone from a working-class and middle-class background, but are there not also forms of pretension being practiced by the more comfortably off upper-middle classes, the trust-fund kids and the like, and would he wish to extend the same generosity to them? Perhaps he would — it’s a generous book, one which makes a class analysis without any bitterness — and from a liberal point of view anyone’s right to explore unfamiliar ideas, identities, and forms of expression ought to be defended. Fox does touch on the pretentiousness of privileged kids slumming it (p.59), but that’s not the only form it can take; and there’s more to be said about the difference between pretension against a background of family wealth and pretension enacted without a safety net. And there’s a whole other account to be made of pretension and gender: Fox is alive to the respects in which the accusation of inauthenticity sometimes carries overtones of sexual deviancy, but I wondered on finishing the book whether men are more often accused of pretension than women, and whether their accusers are more often male than female.