Black Berets Unite: In Praise of Pretentiousness

April 15, 2016 | 1 book mentioned 25 5 min read


My ears perk up when people begin to apologize for using a particular word. For the past few years, that word has been “authentic.” As in, “I know this is cliché to say, but the pizza is just like the pizza in Rome, very authentic.” Or: “You’ll really like this guy’s music; it’s very simple and authentic.” Or: “She’s so down-to-earth, so authentic.” Meanwhile, the pizza is made by a gluten-intolerant chemist who has never been to Rome; the bare bones musician obsessively records everything he plays so that he can perfect his simplicity; and the down-to-earth woman is obsessed with her “personal brand.”

Nothing I’m writing here is particularly revelatory. We’re all aware of the cult of authenticity, yet we can’t stop looking for it. We want our beauties to be natural, an icon’s personal style to be effortless. We accuse music of being overproduced, fiction of being overwritten, and films of being overacted. We hate being made aware of presentation even as we tailor our Instagram feeds to reflect our most “relatable” selves. As Wallace Stevens once wrote of New York City, social media can sometimes feel like “a field of tireless and antagonistic interests, undoubtedly fascinating but horribly unreal. Everybody is looking at everybody else — a foolish crowd walking on mirrors.”

Dan Fox’s book-length essay, Pretentiousness: Why It Matters, speaks to the folly of authenticity by defending its opposite: pretentiousness. Fox argues that one reason people are so attached to the word authentic is that they are afraid of seeming pretentious. To be pretentious is to be phony, arrogant, obnoxious, too big for one’s britches. People cling to the idea of authenticity because “it’s a form of authority; a legitimacy of speech, dress, action.” Being authentic is a way of staying within the bounds of your experience. Calling someone pretentious is a way of saying that someone is out of bounds. But who decides what is in and out of bounds? And what harm is there in going out of bounds? In failing? Fox believes that the dangers of pretentiousness have been greatly exaggerated:

Being pretentious is rarely harmful to anyone. Accusing others of it is. You can use the word ‘pretentious’ as a weapon with which to bludgeon other people’s creative efforts, but in shutting them down the accusation will shatter in your hand and out will bleed your own insecurities, prejudices and unquestioned assumptions. And that is why pretentiousness matters. It is a false note of objective judgment and when it rings we can hear what society values in culture, hear how we perceive our individual selves.

I’m jumping ahead to the end of Fox’s essay, and if you read only one part of this bracing, lively, espresso shot of a book, I’d probably choose the final chapter. But there’s so much good stuff in this essay: insights about art, fashion, acting, music, film, culture, as well as urban and small-town life. I read it in one sitting and it spoke to so much of my life experience that it felt like I’d been waiting for it for years.

Pretentious has always been a live word for me. As a teenager, growing up in a small town, I feared being labeled pretentious, and yet I was drawn to the people, places, fashions, and behaviors that were assigned that label. A partial list of things labeled pretentious: indie rock, foreign films, mobile phones, vegetarian diets, keeping one’s maiden name, carrying bottled water, wearing all black, drinking wine, reading The New York Times, dressing androgynously, taking self-portraits, drinking Starbucks, practicing yoga. It’s a funny list in retrospect — the result, more than anything, of people reacting negatively to cultural change. With the exception, maybe, of keeping one’s maiden name, I would be surprised if any of these things are still considered pretentious in the town where I grew up — if they were ever pretentious in the first place. One of the problems with the word pretentious is that people often mean something else when they use it as an insult: “Pretension gets sticky with a mess of unpleasant traits; narcissism, lying, ostentation, presumption, snobbery, selfish individualism. These are not synonyms for each other. The pretentious are those who brave being different.”

Fox is around my age, and like me, hails from a small town. In a charming postscript to his essay, he describes his “oddball middle-class upbringing” in Wheatley, England, the profound influence of his older brothers who introduced him to The Velvet Underground and David Bowie, his day trips to London, and his obsessive reading of The Face. Thanks to the encouragement of his parents and teachers, he ended up in art school. He’s now based in New York City, where he is a writer, musician, filmmaker, and the co-editor of Frieze, a magazine of contemporary art and culture. As an art critic, he’s well aware of the baggage people bring to contemporary art: “For many people, contemporary art epitomizes elitism and affectation much more than it does creative experimentation and freedom of thought.” At the same time, he’s the kid from a small place whose fascination with Andy Warhol led him to art school, London, New York, adulthood: “I understood pretension as permission for the imagination.”

Fox is able to put pretentiousness in a relatively positive light because he sees it as part of the creative process. It’s what happens when a person’s ambitions are greater than their abilities. It’s a failure of overreach. Failure is not always easy to stomach; pretentious works can be cringe-inducing and even infuriating, and it can feel like a waste of time to apply your intelligence to a piece of artwork or literature, trusting that it will be worth the effort, only to discover that it’s actually quite flimsy and has very little to say. The first part of Fox’s argument is that it’s important to work through these feelings of discomfort and anger to find out what motivates them. The second part is that if it turns out that a work of art is genuinely pretentious — i.e., a creative failure — then we owe it to ourselves to be generous to its creators:

Failure is one mechanism by which the arts move forward — just as it is in science. Not every artist can make a masterpiece, yet it’s the experiments that quietly stumble forward that lead to them. There’s an altogether more generous view of pretentiousness that understands the gap between expectation and actuality as a productive necessity rather than a flaw.

For me, this is where Fox’s argument is most interesting. It makes sense to me to see pretentiousness as part of the creative process, especially since “being pretentious” is a phase that most of us go through as teenagers when we begin to create our own identities. There is simply no way to grow up without pretending, at some point, to know more than you do. And if you wish to adopt an identity that is even slightly different from what’s expected of you, then there is also a period of trying on different roles and behaviors and figuring out what fits. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to do this without being a little bit insufferable. And if you have artistic aspirations? Forget it! Just go ahead and put on the black beret. One of my favorite quotes about the creative process comes from Steve Martin: “Through the years, I have learned there is no harm in charging oneself up with delusions between moments of valid inspiration.”

As a critic, I also appreciate Fox’s defense of pretension. His essay helped me to think through the struggle I’ve had as a sometime reviewer of books and movies. First, there’s the fact I sometimes feel pretentious as a critic, as if I’m taking on an unearned sense of authority. (And, if I’m honest, some of my critical writing, especially my first forays into the genre, were pretentious; the essays were written to prove myself rather than to engage in conversation.) Second, I’ve never been comfortable diagnosing novels as “pretentious.” Even when I encounter writing that is all style and no substance (the most common form of literary pretension) I hesitate to use the p-word, mainly because I don’t necessarily feel the negative connotation that goes with it. As in my teens, I find myself curious about writers who are described as pretentious. More often than not, that writer turns out to be someone who is up to something interesting — something authentic — a few years later.

is a staff writer for The Millions and the author of Home Field. Her short stories have appeared in The Southern Review, The North American Review, The Chattahoochee Review, and Visions, among others. She writes about movies on her blog, Thelma and Alice and Read more at or sign up for her newsletter here.


  1. Really looking forward to reading Fox’s book. I think for the most part pretentiousness is pretty awful, though it’s not as bad as obnoxiousness. That said, I very much like Jonathan Lethem’s defense of it: “My ears prick up at the word ‘pretentious’—that’s usually the movie I want to see, the book I want to read, the scene I want to make.” Basically he’s basically saying that daring work and original work and highly intellectual or avant-garde work is often initially dismissed as pretentious. That said, some things really are just putridly pretentious in a Yoko Ono sort of way (yet even some of Yoko’s stuff is actually good). And let’s keep in mind, that’s the goal — actually good.

    David Foster Wallace puts it a slightly different way when he writes “Art film is essentially teleological; it tries in various ways to ‘wake the audience up’ or render us more ‘conscious.’ (This kind of agenda can easily degenerate into pretentiousness and self-righteousness and condescending horsetwaddle, but the agenda itself is large-hearted and fine.)” Kind of classically DFW and I like how he makes Art Film a category. What is pretentious in a mainstream movie or family fare or a prestige drama may very well not be pretentious in an art house, foreign film or experimental piece.

    And lastly Francis Ford Coppola: “Nothing is so terrible as a pretentious movie, a movie that aspires for something really terrific and doesn’t pull it off is shit, it’s scum, and everyone will walk on it as such. And thats’ why poor filmmakers, in a way, that’s their greatest horror, is to be pretentious. So here you are on the one hand, to try to aspire to really do something, on the other hand you’re not allowed to be pretentious.” Nor should you be, Francis, nor should you be, but is a work of art that fails due to pretension slightly better than one that fails because of lack of originality or distinctiveness or chutzpah? A worthy question to consider.

  2. The Millions quality of criticism is as usual surpassing that of the broadsheets. One quibble: in my 30 years shift work, high intensity job, wearing one’s game face (being inauthentic) is the only way to cope, extending to outside work. Luckily I never gave a shit if anyone thought my outside interests were pretentious, the heart and intellect craves what it craves, and their can be nothing pretentious about that. Living life with one’s game face on takes its toll though, which is why the search for authenticity in one’s self is maybe so popular now. Perhaps authenticity and pretension could become friends?

  3. “And that is why pretentiousness matters. It is a false note of objective judgment.”

    So nothing is actually pretentious? This sounds like something a pretentious person would say.

    Fox seems to be broad-brushing this. Couple different things at play here. There is the reflex of uncultured people to call cultural things they’ve never experienced pretentious, which is similar to calling every bearded dude a hipster. There is the pretentiousness of youth, which may in fact be a necessary phase in any kunstlerroman. These are quite different than artistic pretentiousness, which is an actual thing. “Style over substance” is a good approximation; aesthetic narcissism is another. For example, that Foer book where he turns 9/11 into a cute flipbook. But we should be generous toward this atrocity because…someone created it?

    This all seems dangerously close to the emerging “if you don’t have something nice to say about a book, don’t say it” mindset that is overtaking literary criticism. If we pretend everything is awesome, the quality of our literature will slip. If nobody will criticize a bad or pretentious book, then quality will matter less to publishers than it already does.

    I would agree that pretentiousness matters, and that some forms of it can be a good thing. Even artistic pretentiousness — but only when as a culture we call a spade a spade, which sort of sets the bar for what we are looking to get out of art.

  4. Thank you!

    This reminds me of the ascendancy of “hipster” as a pejorative term. Sure, no one likes Mr. Holier-than-Thou Explainer, schooling you in arabica vs. indica. There’s no room for obnoxious people and I get that.

    But if someone is harmlessly trying to grapple with cerebral or heavy subject matter, they can only get so far before being sidelined as “pretentious.” We forget that most thinkers, creatives, etc. aren’t fully-formed or even confident in their judgments and beliefs. Earnest ambition is so easily slandered as ill-meant pretension.

    We’re all just auditioning really.

  5. Interesting take, Parker.
    Liked your hipster example and your phrase “holier-than-thou explainer.” that really gets at the core of the issue. Now, that said, “earnest ambition” is downright frightening itself, probably far more dangerous than pretension, and if someone is “trying to grapple with cerebral or heavy subject matter,” doesn’t that word “trying” imply that they are failing at grasping it? To quote Yoda — “Do or do not, there is no try.”
    Forgiving people who “try” and treating them as the equal of people who “succeed” is I think what people are worried about in excusing pretension. “Let’s not get in the habit of excusing sub par art” and “the merely good is the enemy of the great,” these are important maxims to remember.
    Our most important thinkers and creatives (whoever you like – Sontag, Nabokov, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, DFW, Peter Schjeldal, Tony Judt, Noam Chomsky, Franzen, Zadie) are pretty damn fully formed and exquisitely confident in their judgments and opinions (a better word than “beliefs,” which are more the realm of religious fanatics and whatnot). Those folks aren’t auditioning, they’ve already won the equivalent of Tonys and Obies and have plenty of top notch performances under their collective belt.

  6. 1. Calling something pretentious can just a way of refusing to engage with it.

    2. Pretentious art is art that aims high and misses. But it’s better than aiming low and hitting the bullseye.

  7. Love it. I’m sick of seeing ball caps and sweats. Join us in civilization. Put on some pants. Read a book, if you can.

  8. ” ‘Pretentious’ is just the pretentious way of saying ‘fancy'( with a sneer). For the beginning Artist, hicks shouting ‘pretentious’ or ‘authentic’ at every street corner are valuable signposts providing reliable anti-directions about possible choices in style and subject matter. In the mysterious ecosystem of the Arts, even the hicks and the idiots serve a purpose. With the bonus that they’re wonderfully easy to ignore when necessary.”

    —Harold Brodkey

  9. Growing up I often wondered if I was being pretentious with the things I was interested in: classic literature, opera, folk music, classical guitar, drawing/sketching.
    But all of these things were my passions so I didn’t really care what others thought. Even now in middle age, while my peers are spending time and money on fixing up their big-wheeled trucks, riding 4-wheelers, hunting and fishing, I am saving my pennies for a replica early 19-century Viennese guitar.

  10. Pretentiousness is a word that comes up a lot in film criticism, and it always wears on my nerves whenever I see it used. Not because the sentiment is wrong, but rather because it’s imprecise. Usually when someone is calling something pretentious, what they really mean is that it is ineffective. Reaching for great artistic heights should be applauded. If in so doing you achieve great meaning and insight, you are a genius and have accomplished a great work of art. However, if you fail in delivering on the promise of your reach, then you are labelled pretentious. It’s two sides of the same coin, but the effort should be applauded in either case.

  11. Why should the effort be applauded in either case? Just legitimately curious as to the logic of that. When you see people on American Idol who are just terrible, it’s probably because too many people applauded their efforts over the course of their lives. Isn’t this the equivalent of grade inflation or giving everyone a medal and a ribbon regardless of what place they finish the race in? Don’t we applaud too many things in America? And isn’t maintaining a culture based on raising people to have a discerning eye, discriminating taste, connoisseur and an appreciation for actual genius and a rejection of the merely competent? We applaud too many politicians. We applaud too many bad performances. You shouldn’t get an “A” for effort, you should get an “A” if you truly earn one, no?

  12. Eh, I’m going to play devil’s advocate here and say pretentiousness actually is a thing, and not just a failure to achieve something. For example, I found the film “Crash” to be really pretentious. I wouldn’t say it’s because that film failed to achieve something, exactly, because I do think it largely accomplished what it was trying to do, and it was certainly rewarded critically and commercially. But in thinking about that movie, and why I viscerally hated it so much, I can identify the following traits, and I think these are ones that most “pretentious” art shares, more or less:

    1) As mentioned above, it is going for something arty/intellectual/profound

    2) It does so in an utterly humorless manner, and

    3) It is incredibly smug and precious about its subject

    The last two may be aspects of the same thing, but I think they are important. Most pretentious art that I can think of, has a self-aware, stone-faced smugness about itself. In literary terms–looking at the postmodernists, who were often accused of pretentiousness–I’d say Delillo is pretentious at times (not always) and Barthelme is not.

    So I guess I’m saying humorlessness is the signal characteristic of pretentiousness.

  13. As an addendum to the above, I can see the counterargument that smugness/humorlessness simply represents a form of artistic failure, but I don’t think that’s so. Some art is intentionally, strenuously solemn, in the service of advancing an artist’s agenda or persona or a social issue. This strained self-seriousness is a feature, not a bug.

  14. Can we stop pretending that pretentiousness is the same as ambition. Shooting a movie in black and white for no reason (Nebraska) is not ambitious; it’s pretentious. It should not be applauded.

    Apparently it bears repeating: a thing is NOT awesome just because somebody created it.

    The fact that so many commenters here celebrate artistic pretentiousness as commendable ambitious failure is very disturbing. I would explain why this is problematic for the future of literature, but if you are unwilling to look at art with a critical eye then you don’t care about the future of literature, so what’s the point. SMH, as the kids say.

  15. Just because you don’t perceive a reason doesn’t mean something was done “for no reason.”
    Alexander Payne: “It just seemed like the right thing to do for this film,” he said. “It’s such a beautiful form, and it’s really left our cinema because of commercial, not artistic, reasons; it never left fine-art photography. This modest, austere story seemed to lend itself to being made in black and white, a visual style perhaps as austere as the lives of its people.” (That’s from a interview of the director at Cannes.)

    “Crash” — I assume the commenter means the LA-based civil rights film, not the adaptation of the Ballard novel — is a meretricious piece of middle-brow crap, which is one of the unwritten qualifications for a Best Picture Oscar.

    DeLillo is cold and clinical, not pretentious. He achieves the effects he aims for — pretentious art’s reach exceeds its grasp.

  16. BoM,

    Maybe just disagree to agree here, but I really think pretentiousness is something other than simply overreaching. It is a particular quality of some art, a self-seriousness that often has opposite the intended effect, i.e. coming off as silly and even quite funny at times. There’s a reason that people associate black bereted artistes with pretentiousness. It isn’t merely a failure or deficit, although I think it can be–it’s an actual aesthetic mode, although perhaps not one the pretentious artist is consciously striving for.

    I was going to say, I think Crash (yes, the LA race-relations lesson Crash), is a somewhat unusual example of populist pretentiousness. Maybe not the best example. How about Cormac McCarthy in his most eye-rollingly portentous biblical mode? I believe he is 100% achieving his intended effect, and I think it’s a pretentious one.

  17. Just because an artist claims a reason behind an artistic decision does not exempt it from criticism. Judge a work on what it is, not on what someone else hoped it would be.

    (And to counter Payne: black and white entered our cinema because of technological, not artistic, reasons. Building up a wonderful I’m-not-a-sellout strawman in an effort to justify your artistic decisions is, well, ….)

    Pretentiousness exists. I’m sorry if that shatters your vision of an artist as someone so tortured and committed and honorable and anti-capitalist and precious as to be beyond criticism.

  18. Sure. Black and white existed for commercial reasons because it was all that was available for awhile — color came in fits and starts but was rare for a long time because of the expense. By the ’60s it became the dominant mode because of, er, commercial reasons. Shooting black and white after that became a (rare) artistic decision — it succeeds or fails on a case-by-case basis. B&W tends to be used symbolically now — and yeah, it can be pretentious. A lot of the digital color grading that goes on now can also be pretentious, or just various grades of bad. (I”m not a big defender of Nebraska, BTW, I thought it was just so-so as a movie.)

  19. Nebraska would not have been as good in color. Doing something for “no reason” is the essence of art. Why write in iambic pentameter? Why move your camera around at all? Why use one actor instead of another? Why this size canvas or this size aspect ratio? Why a piccolo instead of a flute or two back-up singers vs. three back-up singers? Doing something for no reason is aesthetic choice, not pretension. Could using black & white be pretentious? Yes. But in the case of Payne and Nebraska I think it was an absolutely perfect choice (and downright beautiful cinematography). At some point, there’s a range of opinions on things. Are most people going to agree that Nebraska is better than Adam Sandler movies but not as good as Citizen Kane? Yes. But after that it gets pretty subjective.

  20. The author isn’t saying pretentiousness doesn’t exist. She’s saying the word is used injudiciously, and that this injudicious use can have some bad outcomes as far as how we think about, speak about and evaluate art. As she points out, one of the most obvious bad outcomes of the reckless application of this smug buzz word is that, in the popular parlance, it has taken on the meaning of a whole bunch of pejoratives that are not synonymous with it. Another bad outcome, implied in this essay, is that the broad acceptance of “pretentious” as a catch-all swipe at a certain kind of art reflects an ethic of conservativism that has a ton of sway in literature right now, as anyone familiar with the “literary fiction” craze of today well knows.

    I agree with the author: I don’t think the label should be applied so willy-nilly. After all, we the readers are the ones who have to pay for the conservative culture we perpetuate. Given the literary trends of now, the last thing we need is more creative types becoming hyper-self-conscious about jaded, semi-literary people smearing them as “pretentious” (and often adding little more specificity than that). Because I, for one, would like more Donald Antrims out there, and fewer Franzens.

  21. “the last thing we need is more creative types becoming hyper-self-conscious about jaded, semi-literary people smearing them as “pretentious” ”

    The writer who worries about this sort of bullshit is not worth reading.

  22. “Doing something for “no reason” is the essence of art. Why write in iambic pentameter? Why move your camera around at all? Why use one actor instead of another? Why this size canvas or this size aspect ratio? Why a piccolo instead of a flute or two back-up singers vs. three back-up singers? Doing something for no reason is aesthetic choice, not pretension.”

    Man, I disagree entirely with this. I mean, if we’re saying, per Oscar Wilde, that good art is purposeless, and there no reason to make it, maybe. But beyond that, a good artist in control of what they do makes choices in the creation of their art for reasons as real and defined as an architect makes choices when they build a building. Poets write in iambic pentameter because it suits the subject, or they want to call Elizabethan drama to mind; cinematographers move their cameras because a particular shot is called for in a scene; two backup singers sound different than three backup singers, etc.

    Not commenting on whether or not it was arbitrary in Nebraska (I don’t think it was), but I don’t think the argument for arbitrariness is a particularly strong one, unless I missed your meaning.

  23. Hobart,

    Doing something for no reason is the essence of pretentiousness. Consciously creating something from nothing is the essence of art.

    By your comment I’m not sure you have any understanding of the artistic process. Your “questions” are the exact sort of questions artists work through in creating art. It would appear you feel that all art is merely random shit thrown against a wall. Which…no, is all I’ll say.

    Look, I actually think Nebraska was fine. The acting was good, the script was good, the setting was good. All of these things lent the film a very austere vibe. The director did not need b&w to get this across. By using it, all the subtlety of the acting is undermined by this one aesthetic decision which screams “Look at how grim and austere everything is! Look at how serious this movie is!” It’s cheap, it’s lazy, and, yes, it’s pretentious. And it’s not an ambitious failure, it’s a failure of confidence: the director did not have the requisite confidence in the actors and the script to get across what he was trying to communicate, so he took a style-over-substance shortcut, which is pretentiousness in a nutshell.

    (I realize I’ve sort of given the director a reason here, so maybe instead of saying the b&w was done for no reason I’ll say it was done for no good reason.)

  24. “Consciously creating something from nothing is the essence of art.” Maybe. Partly. But unlike architecture, to borrow from Mike C’s comment above, art has a lot of unintentionality, a lot of UNconscious, a lot of happy accidents. Building an edifice is quite different from making a film or painting on a canvas or writing a short story or a song. From Dada to Dali, from Lennon to Lynch, from Kafka to Kerouac, many great works of art are not all that consciously planned.
    I don’t think we should deify artists. And on the other hand I’m not saying that artists just throw stuff on the wall or tap into the inspirational ether and then the genius critics come along and interpret it for us. It’s somewhere in between.
    Most great art, though, is not even remotely 100% “conscious” and there’s a lot of “for no reason” in there.

  25. Sean H,

    I don’t mean to belabor this, btw, just enjoying this discussion. You’re right, of course, there is a great deal of the unconscious and accidental at work in the creation of a piece of art (perhaps the same could be said for designing a building, idk). I was responding to the previous poster’s seeming assertion that every artistic choice is essentially arbitrary, which is completely false. Good writers, for example, expend a tremendous amount of time and energy crafting their narratives, arranging plot points, marshalling themes etc., let alone the more ground-level work of crafting sentences. They may not make the right choices, but the choices they make are not usually arbitrary or whimsical ones. The accidental and unintentional bleed in around the edges, usually in the form of unintended repetitions and images, and subtextual currents that surprise the author. And anyway, “unintentional” and “accidental” are different from “arbitrary.”

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