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.