On Our Critical Categories: Pretentiousness

by Ryan Ruby

“Ordinary men commonly condemn what is beyond them.” —François de La Rochefoucauld, Maxims

6a01bb08d71165970d01bb08f31a8b970d-350wiFor the American reader Dan Fox is an ideal guide to the murky space where class overlaps with taste. His position in the art world—he is a co-editor of the renowned contemporary art magazine frieze—has furnished him with ringside seats to some of the “nastiest brawls over pretentiousness.” Moreover, he is British. The class education the English receive as a matter of their cultural heritage enables them to view the matter more clearly than their American counterparts, whose understanding of class has been systematically retarded by taboo, ideology, and denialism, resulting in a deeply classed society that has no idea how to talk about this aspect of itself.

Class is not “just a question of money and how you spend it,” Fox helpfully reminds us in his book-length essay Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (Coffee House Press, 2016). It's also “about how your identity is constructed in relationship to the world around you.” When we divide classes solely on the basis of wealth—into upper, middle, and lower—as we tend to do in America, it becomes easy to forget that the division is not only arbitrary, but also a gross simplification. In fact, the more generally we talk about class, the easier we fall into confusion. The so-called upper, middle, and lower classes are by no means unified groups, whose members view themselves as bound by the same interests. Every member of the “upper class,” for example, may be considered an elite, but this elite group is comprised of a number of class segments, whose members may in turn be ranked on the basis of their access to various kinds of capital (financial, educational, social, cultural, geographical, symbolic, etc.) whose relative importance is in a permanent state of flux.

Take the field of business, whose elites are distinguished by their wealth. It is firmly within the logic of the American class system to say that an Arkansas-born, high-school educated founder of a multinational retail company whose net worth is $25 billion and is an influential donor to national political campaigns is less elite than the Chicago-born CEO with an MBA from Wharton whose net worth is only $1 billion and has no personal political influence (who would in turn be considered less elite than the Exeter- and Oxford-educated amateur art collector whose net worth is only $100 million but whose last name is Rockefeller). Beyond a certain threshold of wealth necessary for membership, other factors like cultural training, proximity to metropolitan centers, and the exclusivity of one's social network become the means of sorting economic elites into an internal hierarchy. A member's ever-changing position within the hierarchy of his own class segment will influence his relations to members of the other segments of the “upper class” as well as to the class system as a whole.

Membership in the cultural field is no less complicated. Within it, we can distinguish several separate, but interlocking “worlds”—the art world, the news media, new media, the academy, publishing, the motion picture industry, the music industry, etc.—each of which is a made up of producers, consumers and the astonishing number of world-specific professional and semi-professional mediators who connect them. As with the field of business, entry into any of these worlds generally requires a minimum level of start-up capital. And while success as a producer in the cultural field can translate into membership in the more powerful business elite, this is rare, and discussions of class and culture are often marred by the intentional or unintentional conflation of cultural capital with economic capital.

If “artists themselves are hard to place socially,” as Fox writes, it's because they exist at the extreme ends of what seem to be two contradictory poles of capital distribution. On the one hand, their cultural and social capital would seem to place them at the highest end of the class spectrum, higher even than the young investment banker or law clerk, with whom they often share similar levels of educational capital. On the other hand, because the labor of early- and even mid-career cultural producers is typically poorly remunerated—payment comes, if at all, in immaterial “investments” like prestige and notoriety—their economic circumstances are more similar to the urban underclass among whom they tend to live. They are regarded as privileged (in terms of cultural and social capital) by those with whom they share an economic background; but because they engage in rarefied, socially nonproductive labor, their poverty, though entirely real, is considered voluntary by those whose do not possess any forms of capital. Caught between feelings of resentment for their more affluent peers and guilt for their own forms of privilege, artists have resorted to two legitimating myths. The first is aristocratic—the lone genius indifferent to and independent from the economy. The second is proletarian—the artist whose labor serves to hasten the abolition of economic privilege itself.

Despite such romantic narratives, no art can be entirely divorced from the patronage system that supports its production. Unlike other art forms, like contemporary literature (which has a mixed patronage system that includes the market, the state, the academy, and private charitable organizations) and pop music (which operates almost entirely in the market), visual arts patronage retains the general contours that have sustained it since the18th Century, a combination of state funding and a restricted market composed of corporations and wealthy private collectors.

The public does not collect visual art in the way they make libraries of songs and books. It consumes contemporary art, if all, the way it used to watch movies: by buying tickets to a museum. The prices for individual pieces are too high for most people to participate in the art market as owners, and anyway, much of contemporary art (land art, performance art, light art, installations, large-scale sculptures) is designed to be unownable. The only visual art one will see in a middle-class home are reproductions of classic paintings (in poster form or on coffee cups and t-shirts), privately made art (family photographs, amateur paintings), or the artwork that is actually intended for mass consumption, of which the paintings of Thomas Kinkade are the best known example.

A book, album, or film may be re-produced indefinitely many times with no effect on the selling price of the next copy. Visual art by contrast derives its value from an inbuilt scarcity. A price level is determined, in the first instance, by assuming that each work of art is a singularity and an original. The economic imperative of quantitative originality (there can only be one “of” it) has also lead to a demand for qualitative originality (there can only be one “like” it). As a result, the visual arts exhibit a greater degree of differentiation between works than in any other medium. Ultimately distinctions between artistic styles give way to distinctions between individual artists, of which there can only ever be just one.

From the perspective of the audience, this proliferation of styles means a greater body of knowledge is required to understand contemporary visual arts trends the way artists themselves understand it, to such an extent that even high profile art collectors make purchases with the help of professional consultants. Matters are rarely improved by the artist statements that accompany exhibits, which are less often used to clarify the artist's intentions than to deploy a highly developed professional jargon to further differentiate the artist's work from others on the market. This gives interested members of the general public a not entirely unfounded suspicion that contemporary art “requires a specialist education in order to be understood, that it demands time for study that only the privileged can afford to spend.” This combined with perceptions of a market that is directly accessible to only the wealthy leads the public to believe that art is “made for cliques, not crowds.” Consequently, “accusations of elitism circle above the art world in a perpetual holding pattern” and artists are vulnerable to the alliance between segments of the so-called upper and lower classes known as populism.

It is against this background that charges of “pretentiousness” must be understood. Populism, it should never be forgotten, is fundamentally an intra-elite phenomenon. It is a strategy used by a particular segment of the elite in its struggle for position within that elite against a rival segment of that elite. In democratic societies, where majorities legitimate, populism is a way of manufacturing and mobilizing the opinions of a large, vaguely defined part of the population. Whether or not the manufactured “majority” is in fact more than half of a population, it is necessarily “silent.” Not because, as is commonly thought, capital-poor majorities lack access to the means of self-representation, but because a “populace” does not, strictly speaking, exist. If someone “must” speak on its behalf, it is because the speaker—whether he is a professional critic or a political demagogue—retroactively constitutes the “populace” as a group that would not in fact cohere without him and his “speech.” Populism and paternalism seem opposed, but are really two sides of the same coin. In the context of the cultural field, they represent the deployment of a specious majoritarianism against persons, products, and ideas whose value is not staked on any reference to numerical appeal.

Anti-pretension is an “informal tool of class surveillance,” Fox writes. Used as an insult, “pretentiousness” is a “stick” that helps populism police the borders of a rigid, hierarchical system of identities. Those who wield the stick get to shore up their position as possessors of the dominant form of capital, against those who would deny its primacy or the legitimacy of its distribution. In exchange the “populace” in whose name the stick is wielded is empowered to constitute their particular identity as the symbolic norm.

In America, the name for this symbolic norm is “middle class.” The perpetual confusions about who and what this term picks out (how is it that Americans in the top percentile and the bottom quintile of income earners both claim this designation?) results from the fact that the American middle class isn't an economic class at all. Rather it's a populace in which a great deal of symbolic capital has been invested and whose “ordinariness” is constructed according to a series of educational, professional, regional, religious, racial, and—especially—sexual exclusions.

One of the most astute observations in Fox's book is that anti-pretension expresses not only an “almost tribal” horror of “class migration” but also a parallel disgust with violations of “authentic” gender norms, as if putting on airs were a form of drag (and vice versa). “Pretentiousness shares with sophistication a lingering sense of ‘unnaturalness'; something faked, pretending, tampered with…Pretension implies affectation. People are not acting themselves; rather, their lying urbanity is trampling all over your plain-speaking—and presumably heterosexual—truth.” Persons are called pretentious when they privilege intellectual over manual labor, symbolic over material wealth, the superfluous over the necessary, artifice over naturalness, the amateur over the professional, style over substance, irony over sincerity, the foreign over the native, and non-reproductive over reproductive sex. It should therefore come as no surprise that a brief list of the artists and artifacts that appear in Fox's book as signifiers of pretentiousness—Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf's Orlando, Susan Sontag's “Notes on ‘Camp',” Andy Warhol, Tyler Rowland's Artist's Uniform #1, the drag balls of Paris is Burning, David Bowie, The Pet Shop Boys, Grace Jones, Stephen Fry, opera, haute couture—is also a list of some of the greatest hits of queer culture.

Fox's mission in Pretentiousness is to reclaim the term from its critics and, in so doing, neutralize the stick of populism. His first move is to reframe populist anti-pretension as a kind of snobbery. Although pretentiousness and snobbery are commonly linked in the popular imagination, what distinguishes them, Fox argues, is intent. Pretentious people and artists are generally innocents pursuing a private vision of themselves and the world, genuinely oblivious to the way they and their work appear to other people. Whereas snobs are deeply “invested in the opinions of others” and think “they are better than those beneath them.” This does not mean, however, that one's snobbishness is directly correlated with the amount of capital one possesses. There are also “prolier-than-thou” snobs who are “anxious not to be marked as a part of the educated elite” and whose claims to “ordinariness makes them more virtuous than those with a higher social status.”

Populist anti-pretension is precisely this type of snobbery. Lacking curiosity and intolerant of difference, populists affect to be belittled by what they do not understand. They look down on the people whom they suspect are looking down on them. “Cutting someone down for pretension reveals, ironically, embarrassed arrogance rather than humility,” Fox rightly notes. Pretentiousness is rarely ever harmful, but anti-pretension always is. Demanding that people remain authentic to the circumstances of their birth is tantamount to maintaining a rigid hierarchy of identities that denies individuals the ability to be authentic to the way they see themselves.

His next move is to identify pretentiousness with creativity itself by tracing the word's etymological origins to the games of pretend played by children and actors. “To understand the artistic process is to accept that pretentiousness is part of the creative condition, not an affliction,” he writes. To be an artist is first of all to pretend to have a status one isn't yet entitled to: in order to make art you have to consider yourself an artist even though only the making of the art will earn you this designation. And if certain works of art appear pretentious it is not because they are attempting to pull the wool over the eyes of their audience, because of a disjunction between the artist's ambitions and his abilities. “Pretension is about overreaching what you're capable of, taking the risk that you might fall flat on your face.” On this definition, pretentious artworks may be failures, but they are noble failures, the result of the curiosity and bravery of those who operate outside the symbolic norms of ordinariness. “A rich culture”—one that takes the risk of experimenting creatively—”is a pretentious one.”

The art world is where Fox may have begun his investigation into pretentiousness, but the phenomenon of anti-pretension he identifies is by no means confined to it. While we may grant him that the art world is where “the nastiest brawls over pretentiousness are fought,” brawling, here, is only a figure of speech. Anti-pretension has slipped the relatively rarified precincts of the cultural field and has invaded almost every sphere of American life, including the political field, where the brawling has become literal. Looking up from the pages of Fox's essay to the news on the television screen, the American reader will have to concede that it has entirely earned its thoroughly unpretentious subtitle.