Pretentiousness: Why it Matters

Dan Fox

Published 10 February 2016
French paperback with flaps, 176 pages | Paperback, 176 pages


Start with the basics. (Presumably the least pretentious place to begin.) The Latin prae — ‘before’ — and tendere, meaning ‘to stretch’ or ‘extend’, give us the word ‘pretentious’. Think of it as holding something in front of you, like actors wearing masks in the ancient Greek theatre.

Or imagine yourself on a medieval battlefield, carrying a shield. In heraldry, the term ‘escutcheon of pretence’ describes the coat of arms of an heraldic heiress, incorporated into her husband’s own arms on the death of her father. In the absence of other male inheritors, the heiress’s husband would ‘pretend’ to represent the family. A shield was needed to protect your body in combat — held in front of you, prae tendere, like the actor’s mask hides the face — but it also carried a design that boasted of your power and political authority. Your pretence was your protection, and could also make you into a target. (Since the fourteenth century, the Russian army has used a strategy of deception they call maskirovka — ‘something masked’ — to hide, deny, or divert attention away from real military manoeuvres.)

In politics the claimant to a throne or similar rank was known as a ‘pretender’. Upheavals in England, Scotland and Ireland brought about by the ‘Glorious Revolution’ in 1688, for example, saw the overthrow of the last Stuart king, the Catholic James II, by the Protestants William and Mary. Two ‘pretenders’ aiming to restore the Jacobite monarchy subsequently made claims to the English crown. (The most famous of these was the ‘Young Pretender’, Charles Edward Stuart, also nicknamed Bonnie Prince Charlie.) To be called a ‘pretender’ was not necessarily an insult; the issue was the legitimacy of the claim you held before you, prae tendere. Authority was recognized on the basis of your political allegiance and religious belief, not questions of truth or falsity. This pretence was not an act. It was a matter of blood and God.

Go back to the actor and the mask. In classical Greek theatre the word hypokrités — from which we get ‘hypocrisy’ — was the standard term for actors, deriving from the words hypó (‘under’) and krisis (‘decide’, ‘distinguish’ or ‘judge’). It was a way of describing a dissembler, the faces of the mask and the actor beneath it. When St Paul, in his Epistle to the Romans, wrote ‘Let love be not hypocritical’, he used the word in this Greek sense, meaning ‘actor’. Paul meant that love should not hide itself behind a mask representing love, or use words signalling it insincerely.

‘Man is least himself when he talks in his own person,’ said Oscar Wilde. ‘Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.’ Well, maybe. It depends on the time and place. Theatre, cinema and broadcasting provide the professional licence to wear one. We derive pleasure from the deceits of the stage illusionist, whose acts of fakery we pay money to watch. (Magician James ‘The Amazing’ Randi describes himself as ‘an honest liar’.) In carnival and ritual too, the mask is socially sanctioned. Outside these fields the actor’s mask is suspect. So we smear it with the brush of immaturity, dismissing it as ‘pretending’.

Pretending is what kids do to figure out the world. Children do not put on airs. A child might be precocious — from the Latin prae, meaning ‘before’, and coquere, ‘to cook’, that is, pre-cooked or ripened early — but it’s rare that a child is called pretentious. That insult is reserved for their pushy parents; pretending is what’s done at the kids’ table, pretension goes on over the wine and cheese course with the grown-ups. Pretending reminds adults of childish things long put away; of imaginary friends, of the companionship found in favourite teddy bears and dolls, in toys we imagined to have distinct personalities, and the stories we swaddled them in. To pretend is to live in denial of ‘real’, grown-up problems. It’s child’s play.

And a play is also what professional actors are employed to make onstage in theatres. ‘Acting is a reflex, a mechanism for development and survival,’ writes theatre director Declan Donnellan in The Actor and the Target. ‘It is not “second nature”, it is “first nature” and so cannot be taught like chemistry or scuba diving.’ Acting is a tool of every social interaction we have from birth. ‘Peek-a-boo,’ says Donnellan, is the first play a baby enjoys, when its mother acts out appearing and disappearing behind a pillow.

“Now you see me; now you don’t!” The baby gurgles away, learning that this most painful event, separation from the mother, might be prepared for and dealt with comically, theatrically. The baby learns to laugh at an appalling separation, because it isn’t real. Mummy reappears and laughs — this time, at least. After a while the child will learn to be the performer, with the parent as audience, playing peek-a-boo behind the sofa … Eating, walking, talking, all are developed by observation, performance and applause. We develop our sense of self by practising roles we see our parents play and expand our identities further by copying characters we see played by elder brothers, sisters, friends, rivals, teachers, enemies or heroes.

‘Born Originals, how comes it to pass that we die Copies?’ asked Edward Young in his Conjectures on Original Composition. Young would argue that mimicry blots out individuality. But mimicry is a mechanism by which we become socialized, by which we make ourselves human. It doesn’t take a sociology Ph.D. to recognize that we pretend every day. Pretend to be absorbed in a book to avoid catching the eye of a stranger on the bus. Pretend to be pleased to see your boss when you arrive at the office. Putting on a suit allows you to pretend you’re efficient or powerful when you would rather be in your pyjamas in front of the TV. Wear jeans and a T-shirt to the office to pretend to your co-workers you are laid-back when your personality tends towards the uptight. It’s hard to admit to pretending because in Western society no one likes a faker. Great store is placed on ‘keeping it real’. We tell those with unrealistic expectations to ‘get real’, ‘face reality’ or ‘wake up and smell the coffee’, as if the rest of their activities were a dream.

Yet we value dreams. ‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on,’ wrote William Shakespeare. Four hundred years later his line from The Tempest would be printed on motivational posters, accompanying a soaring eagle or spectacular sunrise. ‘Keep hold of your dreams,’ we advise. ‘What’s your dream job?’ ‘Who is the man/woman of your dreams?’ The contradictory impulses to both dream and face the truth find uneasy reconciliation in the language of the workplace. ‘Act like you mean it.’ We refer to ‘acting on behalf of’ a person or organization, or ‘playing a part’ in a project. Your boss assesses you on your ‘performance’ in the job, a ‘role’ that might be rewarded with ‘performance-related pay’. ‘Dress for success,’ say the careers gurus. ‘Dress for the job you want, not the one you have.’ ‘Look smart.’ The cover headline of the January-February 2015 edition of the Harvard Business Review reads: ‘The Problem with Authenticity: When it’s OK to fake it till you make it’. The article explains ‘Why companies are pushing authenticity training’ and advises its readership that ‘by trying out different leadership styles and behaviours, we grow more than we would through introspection alone. Experimenting with our identities allows us to find the right approach for ourselves and our organization.’

Play, according to psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott, allows a child to see, risk-free, what happens when their internal world engages with the external one. Yet by the time you reach an age at which you can legally drink, vote, drive, consent to sex, or get married, it’s presumed you know where to draw the line between fact and fantasy, where innocent play congeals into pretension. And nobody wants to be accused of that. In his 1996 diary, published as A Year with Swollen Appendices, musician Brian Eno describes how he

decided to turn the word “pretentious” into a compliment. The common assumption is that there are “real” people and there are others who are pretending to be something they’re not. There is also an assumption that there’s something morally wrong with pretending. My assumptions about culture as a place where you can take psychological risks without incurring physical penalties make me think that pretending is 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.

If ‘pretending is the most important thing we do’ then what bred such discomfort with it?


What is pretentiousness? Why do we despise it? And more controversially: why is it vital to a thriving culture? In this brilliant, passionate essay, Dan Fox argues that it has always been an essential mechanism of the arts, from the most wildly successful pop music and fashion through to the most recondite avenues of literature and the visual arts. Pretentiousness: Why it Matters unpacks the uses and abuses of the term, tracing its connections to theatre, politics and class. From method acting to vogueing balls in Harlem, from Brian Eno to normcore, Fox draws on a wide range of references in advocating critical imagination and open-mindedness over knee-jerk accusations of elitism or simple fear of the new and the different. Drawing on his own experiences growing up and working at the more radical edges of the arts, this book is a timely defence of pretentiousness as a necessity for innovation and diversity in our culture. 

‘Dan Fox makes a very good case for a re-evaluation of the word “pretentious”. The desire to be more than we are shouldn’t be belittled. Meticulously researched, persuasively argued – where would we be as a culture if no-one was prepared to risk coming across as pretentious? Absolument nowhere, darling – that's where.’
— Jarvis Cocker

Pretentiousness: Why It Matters is more than a smartly counterintuitive encomium: it’s a lucid and impassioned defence of thinking, creating and, ultimately, living in a world increasingly dominated by the massed forces of social and intellectual conservatism. I totally loved the book.’
— Tom McCarthy, author of The Making of Incarnation

‘Dan Fox’s book celebrates the art in artifice, the let’s pretend in pretentiousness, arriving at an eloquent, important understanding of how culture has always provided an escape from the dreariness of routine work and productive life. Exhaustively researched and passionately written, recognizing those who audaciously “pretend” to beauty beyond their present means, Pretentiousness is a deeply optimistic and affirming book.'
— Chris Kraus, author of I Love Dick

‘In tackling so directly a term – “pretentiousness” – that has been thrown around too lightly for too long, Dan Fox has opened a fascinating, illuminating and barely glimpsed before perspective onto both culture and criticism. With clarity and persuasive argument he proves from an etymological basis that pretentiousness can be both good and bad – necessary even to cultural and artistic good health. This insightful book should be read like a contemporary reprise of an eighteenth-century essay on critical manners, for it shares with such texts the winning combination of wit, good sense and intellectual rigour.’
— Michael Bracewell, author of England is Mine

‘Epoch-making, epic, historic, unforgettable, triumphant, age-old, inevitable, inexorable, and veritable. Pretentiousness will never look the same.’
— Elif Batuman, author of Either/Or

‘It would be too much to say that Fox has ended the reckless use of “pretentious” as a bludgeon against the unfamiliar, but whoever reads Pretentiousness will come away with a greater appreciation for art, ambition, exploration, and failure.’
— Josh Cook, Los Angeles Review of Books

‘All art aspires to something it cannot achieve. All art is pretentious. And that is a good thing.... Fox’s brief and elegantly righteous essay on pretentiousness is definitely on the side of the angels.’
Steven Poole, Guardian

‘When David Bowie dressed like an intergalactic peacock as Ziggy Stardust, 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.’
— George Pendle, Intelligent Life

‘Fox makes a strong argument to say that we can judge a society by the way it treats pretentiousness.... In an age where collective action and trade unionism seem increasingly passé, pretention is a means of signalling one’s rejection of mass-production and perpetual consumerism, of aiming at something higher. Vive la prétention!’
— Workshy Fop

‘[I]n his very unpretentious prose, Fox makes a convincing case for there being value in this maligned behaviour.’
— Jonathan Beckman, Spectator

‘Fox is a nimble writer, and his brief book includes surprisingly rich detours through history, philosophy, criticism, literature.’
— Jennifer Szalai, New York Times


'Why I'm pretentious — and proud of it' by Dan Fox, Life & Arts, Financial Times

'In defence of pretentiousness' by Dan Fox, Guardian

Dan Fox discusses Pretentiousness on 'Culture with Rob Bound' on Monocle Radio 

Sean Moncrieff on NewsTalk, Ireland, speaks to Dan Fox about why pretentiousness matters, and what the term really means

Dan Fox is a writer, filmmaker and musician. He is the author of Limbo (2018) and Pretentiousness: Why it Matters (2016), and is the co-director of the BBC film Other, Like Me (2020). For twenty years he was an editor and staff writer at Frieze magazine, and his essays and reviews have appeared in a wide variety of publications and journals. He is based in New York.