BY Dan Fox in Frieze | 01 OCT 09
Featured in
Issue 126

Class Act

What do we mean when we call someone, or something, pretentious?

BY Dan Fox in Frieze | 01 OCT 09

(Opening scene: A sitting room straight out of a D.H. Lawrence novel. Mum, wiping her hands on her apron is ushering in a young man in a suit. The family all have Northern English accents.)

MUM Oh Dad, look who’s come to see us! It’s our Ken.

DAD [without looking up] Aye, and about bloody time if you ask me.

KEN Aren’t you pleased to see me, father?

MUM [Squeezing his arm reassuringly] Of course he’s pleased to see you, Ken, he …

DAD All right, woman, all right I’ve got a tongue in my head – I’ll do talkin’. [Looks at Ken distastefully] Aye, I like yer fancy suit. Is that what they’re wearing up in Yorkshire now?

KEN It’s just an ordinary suit, father, it’s all I’ve got apart from the overalls. [Dad turns away with an expression of scornful disgust.]

MUM How are you liking it down the mine, Ken?

KEN Oh it’s not too bad, Mum, we’re using some new tungsten carbide drills for the preliminary coal-face scouring operations.

MUM Oh that sounds nice, dear.

DAD Tungsten carbide drills! What the bloody hell’s tungsten carbide drills?

KEN It’s something they use in coal-mining, father.

DAD [Mimicking Ken] ‘It’s something they use in coal-mining, father.’ You’re all bloody fancy talk since you left London.

KEN Oh not that again.

MUM He’s had a hard day dear. His new play opens at the National Theatre tomorrow.

KEN Oh that’s good.

DAD Good! Good? What do you know about it? What do you know about getting up at five o’clock in t’morning to fly to Paris, back at the Old Vic for drinks at 12, sweating the day through press interviews, television interviews and getting back here at ten to wrestle with the problem of a homosexual nymphomaniac drug-addict involved in the ritual murder of a well known Scottish footballer. That’s a full working day, lad, and don’t you forget it! - Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969)

'Working Class Playright' sketch, Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969). 

You’re browsing through a rack of periodicals in the impeccably stocked bookshop of an incomparably contemporary arts institution whilst waiting for a talk to begin on cultural recuperation in the leisure industries, an anthology of writings on Belgian typography bulging from the Venice Biennale canvas bag slung over your shoulder. Or perhaps you are an in-demand curator sitting in the departure lounge of a major international airport waiting for your flight to Beijing – or is it Los Angeles this week? – and have chanced upon this article whilst Googling yourself on your iPhone. Maybe you’re a journalist and are bowdlerizing this text for an op-ed piece in the Sunday papers about how the visual arts are a waste of taxpayers’ blah blah blah. Whoever you are, I can probably guess what you’re thinking. An essay on pretentiousness, in a glossy magazine about contemporary art; how pretentious can you get?

Why? Because for many people, glossy magazines about contemporary art symbolize elitism and affectation much more than they do creative experimentation and freedom of thought. Because whatever clever things I think this article is saying might look to you, the reader, like a serving of idea-scraps accompanied by a large empty bowl of ostentatious posing on the side. And because pretension is rarely a quality anyone is likely to identify in his or herself. You – yes, the one standing by the magazines in the gallery bookshop, with the anthology of Belgian typography in your bag – you’re no faker, are you? And you, the curator, out on the road; you’re sincerely invested in being a player on the cultural stage, aren’t you? Pretension is always over there; in the way he writes, in her music taste, in the way they dress.

An essay on pretentiousness, in a glossy magazine about contemporary art; how pretentious can you get?

Pretension is always someone else’s problem, but it’s a failing you can be forgiving or cynical about. The optimist sees pretension as innocent, tragicomic even: excess of effort, a lack of awareness that ambition might exceed capability, being unable to laugh about your own limitations. In this sense, it’s related to certain aspects of camp – to what Susan Sontag described as ‘the sensibility of failed seriousness’.1 (What often lurks behind pomposity is sad insecurity.) The cynic recognizes pretension only as the cousin of affectation, one of the dark arts of charlatanry; disguises to pass yourself off as something you’re not, talking yourself up, showing off about commodities or experiences you’ve acquired. But one quality of pretentiousness is a willingness to at least have a stab at something, for better or for worse, and you can only accuse someone of pretentiousness if you can identify both what is being aspired to, and just why it is that the person in question fails to make the grade.

So no one likes a faker. Or do they? The Greek term for actor is ‘hypokrite’, and in film, television and theatre, society has age-old outlets for licensed (and, for a lucky few, highly-paid) hypocrisy in the name of entertainment and edification. We value ‘good’ acting for its invisibility, for the actor’s ability to conceal all effort in portraying their character to the point where we believe they are that character (even though, paradoxically, we still recognize that it is acting we are watching). Acting is a curious exception to the still-dominant labour model of artistic achievement. A book, for instance, physically embodies the amount of work that went into it, whereas a visually slight-looking work of Conceptual art might not necessarily reflect the effort put into creating it; the writer is less likely to be charged with pretension than the artist.

So pretension is a form of pretending, and pretending can be productive. I wouldn’t be the first to argue that the arts might provide a useful safe-zone for working things out. Brian Eno certainly beats me to the punch in his diary, A Year with Swollen Appendices (1996), when he writes: ‘I 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.’2

Peter Schmidt (left) and Brian Eno (right) at Eno's flat, Grantully Road, London, 1976. Photograph: Ritva Saarikko

Eno can get away with pronouncements like this precisely because his career is a case study in productive pretension. In the 1970s he practically invented the idea of the rock star as erudite polymath, confusing critics and fans alike with his ability simultaneously to be both a libertine celebrant of surface and an avant-garde intellectual studio boffin; a pop star in feather boas and stack heels also happy to chat about John Cage or cybernetics, who gave his albums serious-sounding titles such as Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) (1974) and Before and After Science (1977). Given the context of pop music in the 1970s, Eno must have seemed deeply pretentious – perhaps even more so as the decade progressed and he began dressing in a more sober style than in his glam Roxy Music phase, a look which paradoxically allowed people to more easily understand him as some kind of eccentric. There is an evocative photograph of Eno and his friend, the artist Peter Schmidt, taken at home in 1976 by Eno’s then-partner Ritva Saarikko, which captures something of the essence of Eno’s post-Roxy image: the two men, both dressed in black, and with short cropped hair, sit opposite each other at a table covered with a neat, crisp tablecloth. A small vase of flowers and a notebook sit on the table between them, and four prints by Schmidt – simple, haunting depictions of empty rooms and landscapes, reproductions of which were available with Eno’s album Before and After Science – are pinned casually on the wall behind them. The room is bathed in lambent daylight and evokes a world of slow, scholarly meditation that couldn’t seem further from rock’s scuzzy glamour and dissolution. You could imagine discussions here about the Golden Section or ambient music over cups of green tea, a Sunday afternoon spent making watercolours whilst trying mentally to resolve a particularly complex overdub in the recording studio. It’s an image onto which – perhaps to the sound of tracks with titles such as ‘Events in Dense Fog’ or ‘Dunwich Beach, Autumn, 1960’ – you could project a model of pop stardom closer to that of academia or the amateur inventor, than to sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.

David Bowie, 1973. Courtesy: Redferns

Rock’s abiding obsession with bluesy authenticity of expression meant that the charge of pretentiousness was common in pop and rock music circles in the 1960s and ’70s, despite the success of artists such as Roxy Music or David Bowie who made a virtue of deliberate artifice, and despite the existence of a modicum of pretension at the heart of almost all popular music. Cultural elitists still found it hard to condone the idea that pop was capable of comfortably accommodating so-called serious subjects or methodologies, and for rock ideologues, any musicians ‘pretending to be something they’re not’ were morally suspect. British comedy show The Mighty Boosh (2004–ongoing) embodies this split nicely in its lead characters Vince Noir and Howard Moon: Vince is obsessed with any music that’s glamorous, fashionable and trashy, whilst Howard is the tortured, earnest jazz fan, longing for engagement with ‘serious’ art and poetry.

Pretending was written deeply into Eno’s working methods. In 1977, in collaboration with Schmidt, he published ‘Oblique Strategies’. Developed from Eno’s notebooks and a box of aphorisms and images entitled The Thoughts Behind the Thoughts made by Schmidt in 1970, ‘Oblique Strategies’ is a set of 115 cards, each bearing a short instruction, and designed to suggest ways out of a creative block, or how to come at a project from a new angle. A card, selected at random from the pack, gives a simple instruction which is to be followed or interpreted any way the artist likes: ‘Try faking it’; ‘What would your closest friend do?’; ‘Don’t be frightened of clichés’; ‘Honour thy mistake as a hidden intention’; ‘You are an engineer’. A kind of low-maintenance I Ching, ‘Oblique Strategies’ – now in its fifth edition – provides ways of ‘finding out what it would be like to be otherwise’.

Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt, 'Oblique Strategies', 1975 - ongoing, fifth edition, 2009. Photograph: Claudia Schnek

The potential to be something you’re not is one of the traditional promises of pop music. ‘Of course it’s posey: what isn’t? It’s pop/art. Insufferably over-fashionable, lavishly over the top, dreadfully dilettantish, finely eclectic. Pop can be so many things’, wrote music critic Paul Morley in 1980.3 You can identify productive pretension in the way psychedelic funk parsed black social consciousness through theatrical, 1950s pulp science fiction rather than the militant realpolitik of Black Power; in prog-rock’s charmingly overblown narrative follies; in punk’s demonstrative nihilism and post-punk’s self-conscious intellectualism; in the dressing-up boxes of the New Romantics, the commodity fetishism of hip-hop, the futurist rhetoric of techno, and the grand guignol shadow worlds of goth or black metal. One need only look at Eno’s friend Bowie, to see how pretentiousness could be a means of defense or escape – a refuge in fantasy for misfit teenagers, a temporary flight of imagination from life in some godforsaken 1970s British new town. (He may have sang, ‘Don’t fake it baby / Lay the real thing on me’, but that ‘real thing’ was taking you from Basildon to the moon and back, by way of London, Tokyo and Berlin.) Or how about His Satanic Majesty, Mick Jagger? The nice, middle-class boy from Dartford who became one of the 20th century’s most iconic rock stars notoriously used to change his accent depending upon whom he was talking with. Jagger dropped his ‘aitches, slurred and drawled as if he were a bluesman from the American South, or a salt-of-the-earth English working-class lad made good, depending on what suited the occasion. He would, for instance, adopt a rough East London brogue for the Stones’ road crew, or a clearly enunciated middle-class accent when talking to record company execs. As fellow Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood reputedly said, Mick Jagger is ‘a nice bunch of guys’.

Jagger’s disturbingly fluid personality is allegorized in Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg’s 1970 film Performance, in which he plays a reclusive rock star named Turner, holed up in a shabby West London mansion with his two lovers. Chas, played by James Fox, is a working-class gangster on the run after a hit went wrong, hiding out at Turner’s house whilst he waits for the heat to cool. Chas is suspicious of Turner’s dissolute lifestyle, schizophrenic personality and the atmosphere of rancid glamour in the house, but a steady diet of role-playing, hallucinogenic drugs, sex and isolation from the outside world brings him under Turner’s influence, until eventually his mind is broken, and Chas’ identity becomes indistinguishable from Turner’s. Seven years earlier, Fox starred in Joseph Losey’s chilling film The Servant, which can be read as a kind of prequel to Performance. In The Servant, Fox plays Tony, an arrogant upper-class bachelor, recently returned from a sojourn abroad, who hires a man servant to live with him in his large London house. He employs the camp and calculating Barrett (Dirk Bogarde, in one of his most compelling roles), who moves in and begins a systematic campaign of psychological war against Tony, until the young aristocrat suffers a personality breakdown and Barrett becomes the master of the house. 

Both The Servant and Performance acknowledge the pretence and role-play involved in day-to-day life, both celebrating and warning against ‘finding out what it would be like to be otherwise’. But with their stories of the pompous toff brutally stripped of his assumed privileges, and the working-class tough turned poly-perverse stoner, what these films identify – just as Jagger’s perpetually modulated accent also suggests – is that the real issue lurking behind the word ‘pretentious’ is not that of eye-liner and oblique strategies: it’s class.

The potential to be something you're not is one of the traditional promises of pop music. 

Telling someone they’re pretentious is also a way of warning them not to get above their station. It can be done satirically, but it still works as a kind of informal class surveillance – a way of censoring others and maintaining the status quo. The historian Martha Vicinus has identified how, in working-class British music halls of the 19th century, satirizing pretension was a hugely popular part of entertainment, especially when the target was middle-class moralizing about working-class habits. Sociologist Beverley Skeggs argues that, ‘the power of the anti-pretension critique is […] about not authorizing those who have been positioned with moral authority’.4 But the anti-pretension critique is also a method of intra-class control: in the music hall, working-class people who thought themselves above their friends and relatives came in for particular attack: ‘putting on airs was the greatest sin anyone could commit’.5

Fear of being seen to be pretentious can result in some weird acrobatics of self-perception. In her book Class, Self, Culture (2004) Skeggs points to a 1999 academic paper entitled ‘The ambiguities of class identities in contemporary Britain’6 in which the middle-class individuals surveyed for the report expressed ‘a strong desire to be read as “ordinary”. This suggests a desire not to be read as pretentious, demonstrating awareness of, and a way of evading, hierarchy and privilege in relationships to others.’7 She also quotes a 2002 MORI poll, in which 55 percent of those in middle-class occupational categories claimed to have ‘working class feelings’.8 Inverted snobbery and blokeish, downward intellectual mobility has long been a popular social pose in the UK, and accusations of pretentiousness are just as often assertions of the accuser’s supposed ‘ordinariness’.

The interior of Labour and Wait shop, near Brick Lane, East London, 2009. Courtesy: Labour and Wait

Recently, the UK has seen an upwardly-mobile twist on ordinary pretention, in the form of a design aesthetic that harks back to postwar, ration-era Britain. In what architecture critic Owen Hatherley has described as ‘austerity nostalgia’, design objects, homeware and food are marketed with a self-consciously plain, institutional aesthetic that is in thrall to a nebulous idea of 1940s and ’50s UK. In boutique shops such as London’s Labour and Wait, or the expensive delicatessen Melrose and Morgan, ‘austerity nostalgia’ appears in the form of no-frills ceramic milk jugs, tin toy cars or pots of organic jam; a fantasy of historical working- and middle-class domesticity, and an idealization of ordinariness that was the result of war, paternalism and national hardship.

This eagerness not to stand out from the crowd gets contorted into all kinds of peculiar shapes when it comes to the art world, but shapes not too dissimilar from rock music’s obsession with the moral superiority of ‘authentic’ expression. There is the classic stereotype of the middle-class artist slumming it amongst the working classes, succinctly nailed by Pulp in their 1995 anthem ‘Common People’: ‘Rent a flat above a shop / Cut your hair and get a job / Smoke some fags and play some pool / Pretend you never went to school / But still you’ll never get it right / ‘Cos when you’re laid in bed at night / Watching roaches climb the wall / If you call your dad he could stop it all’. Lucy R. Lippard’s blistering 1977 essay ‘The Pink Glass Swan: Upward and Downward Mobility in the Art World’ attacks the class myopia of the art world, in particular the first wave of Conceptual artists with whom she herself associated in the late 1960s. In one passage she describes how artists are ‘persistently working “up” to be accepted, not only by other artists, but also by the hierarchy that exhibits, writes about, and buys her/his work. At the same time s/he is often ideologically working “down” in an attempt to identify with the workers outside of the art context […] This conflict is augmented by the fact that most artists are originally from the middle class, and their approach to the bourgeoisie includes a touch of adolescent rebellion against authority. Those few who have actually emerged from the working class sometimes use this – their very lack of background privilege – as privilege in itself, while playing the same schizophrenic foreground role as their solidly middle-class colleagues.’9

Positioning of identity, in the art world, is like a multi-dimensional game of chess: a ‘glass bead game’ in which the object is to play simultaneously above, below, central and to one side of the action, and to learn when to accentuate one position more than another. It’s a complex act of pretension that can deny or enhance status where advantageous, often based on classist assumptions about who is being addressed; like Jagger’s accent slipping through twangs, burrs, drawls and enunciations.

However, when it comes to sexual and gender identity, ordinariness and pretentiousness are turned inside-out. Jennie Livingston’s extraordinary documentary Paris is Burning (1990) follows the participants and organizers of ‘drag balls’ in late 1980s Harlem. Young, often homeless, gay African-American and Latino men, who belong to competing ‘houses’, walk or dance in front of a panel of judges who award points not just for their moves but for the authenticity of each contestant’s drag costume – how convincingly the participant manages to pass themself off for a member of straight society. Livingston documents the astonishingly complex sets of categories in the drag balls, ranging from conventional drag queen outfits through to categories including ‘executive realness’ (or ‘Wall Street’, in which the participant dresses like a businessman or woman), ‘preppy realness’ (also known as ‘Town & Country’ – a smart-casual Ivy League student look), ‘Military realness’ (parade uniform) and ‘banjee realness’ (excessively masculine urban streetwear). Here, pretension is both aspiration and satire; emphasizing difference, but also that these categories symbolize some kind of idea of belonging to the mainstream, of having made it. ‘By looking powerful, one can feel powerful’, wrote one member of the House of Diabolique. Paris is Burning chronicles a number of tragic individual stories, but the film also ironically notes how the queen of pretension, Madonna, appropriated ‘vogueing’ wholesale from drag ball dancers, subsuming one kind of pretension (that which bound a social minority together) beneath another (the pop pretension of being something you’re not).

Jennie Livingston, Paris is Burning, 1990. Courtesy: Second Sight Films

Pretension is tightly bound up with lifestyle, which in turn can be understood as the demonstration, through the acquisition and exchange of commodities or their symbolic value – as opposed to use-value – of cultural competence, or literacy. ‘Cultural omnivores’ are what sociologists call those members of the middle-classes who can access, process, participate, know and feel confident about using a wide variety of cultures (from low to high, local to international). Demonstrating knowledge of many forms of expression – which might symbolize, as Skeggs suggests ‘tolerant pluralism, cultural symbolism’ or ‘reinforcement of class distinctions’10 – accrues status.

Jennie Livingston, Paris is Burning, 1990. Courtesy: Second Sight Films

Artists and others who work in so-called creative industries have, for a long time, played a key role in expanding and introducing new lifestyle options to the consumer landscape. Appropriation and referencing is not just something that occurs in art – a huge range of forms and ideas are used day-to-day as what sociologists term ‘prostheses’ to demonstrate cultural competence to others, but also in order to try and fit in. Where once subcultural roles were more strictly delineated (hippie, urban guerrilla, radical feminist), today conformity comes disguised as cultural omnivorousness. A blunt example of this might be the hipster; that echelon of largely middle-class, affluent youngsters, common to the streets of Brooklyn, London or Berlin, which has generated a fair amount of column inches recently from The Huffington Post and Time through to The Onion, who ran a headline ‘Two Hipsters Angrily call each other “Hipster”’. (As with the pretentious, hipsters are always other people.) They associate themselves with alternative or underground forms of culture, but all to incredibly similar effect in terms of appearance and lifestyle. In London you might see them reading a trashy gossip magazine on the bus, dressed in a mixture of vintage clothes, the odd designer piece and items from shops such as American Apparel or Topshop, eating Vietnamese food for lunch, walking to a friend’s artist-run space, perhaps having a few pints in an old pub (which still has its original décor but has been retro-fitted with a drop-dead cool jukebox, and in which the local drinkers have been displaced by more hipsters) where they compete conversationally, and through unspoken comparisons of appearance, about each others cultural omnivorousness. Here ‘tolerant pluralism’ and ‘reinforcement of class distinctions’ are rolled into one, but of course, subcultural fashion is always omnivorous and dilettantish – that’s one of its pleasures.

Hipsters, near Brick Lane, East London, 2009. Photograph: Kai von Rabenau

So, there you are, browsing through a rack of periodicals in the impeccably stocked bookshop of an incomparably contemporary arts institution, an anthology of writings on Belgian typography bulging from the canvas bag slung over your shoulder, and you’re thinking, an essay on pretentiousness, in a glossy magazine about contemporary art; how pretentious can you get? That may well be, but pretence is a full-time job, lad, and don’t you forget it.

Susan Sontag, ‘Notes on “Camp”’, 1964, published in Against Interpretation and Other Essays, Penguin, London, 2009, p. 287

Brian Eno, A Year with Swollen Appendices: Brian Eno’s Diary, Faber & Faber, London, 1996, p. 381

Paul Morley, ‘From Brussels with Love’, review published in the NME, 1980

Beverley Skeggs, Class, Self, Culture, Routledge, London, 2004, p. 114

Martha Vicinus, The Industrial Muse: A Study of Nineteenth Century British Working-Class Literature, Croom Helm, London, 1974. Quoted in Skeggs, Ibid

M. Savage, G. Bagnall and B. Longhurst, ‘The ambiguities of class identities in contemporary Britain’, British Sociological Association Conference, Edinburgh, 1999

Skeggs, p. 116

Ibid. p. 116

Lucy R. Lippard, ‘The Pink Glass Swan: Upward and Downwrd Mobility in the Art World’, first published in Heresies, No.1, January 1977. Reprinted in The Pink Glass Swan: Selected Feminist Essays on Art, The New Press, New York, 1995

10 Skeggs, p. 144

Dan Fox is the author of Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2016) and Limbo (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018). He co-directed the film Other, Like Me (2021).