The Engine Oil of Culture

Dan Fox, Pretentiousness: Why it Matters

Fitzcarraldo Editions, 176pp, £12.99, ISBN 9781910695043

reviewed by Rosanna Mclaughlin

Dan Fox’s Pretentiousness: Why it Matters sets out to rehabilitate a much maligned term, arguing that pretentiousness is a force for cultural good. Over the course of this essay – in which Fox considers such subjects as Plato’s distrust of actors, pop music’s penchant for grandiose appropriation (think Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’) and the author’s own upbringing – Fox takes aim at our historic prejudice against conspicuous pretenders. ‘Used as an insult,’ Fox writes, the word pretentious is ‘an informal tool of class surveillance, a stick with which to beat someone for putting on airs and graces.’ What’s wrong with faking it anyway? And why should we agree to being stuck with our lot? Instead of disparaging pretentiousness, Fox says, we should embrace it as ‘the engine oil of culture’ – as the hallmark of chancers and autodidacts, those who dare to pretend themselves better. Without it there would be no innovation or social mobility, no David Bowie, no Iggy Pop and no Dan Fox.

Despite his allegiance with the unorthodox, Fox begins the rescue operation in head-boy tradition, with the Latin etymology of the word: ‘prae’ meaning before, and ‘tendere’ to stretch. ‘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.’ Part of the charm of the essay is Fox’s blend of scholarliness and informality. He is just as likely to drop a conversational truism – ‘no one likes a faker’ – as he is a Brian Eno lyric or an introduction to British heraldry. And he moves at pace. In one paragraph alone we encounter 17 figures who, across time, disciplines and borders, have grappled with the issues of authenticity and pretence – Marx, Freud, Stanislavski, John Stuart Mill, and documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis among them – snapped up like cultural monuments photographed through the window of a speeding train. If this means analysis is a little thin, it gives irresistible momentum to Fox’s contention: for centuries we have tied ourselves in knots over ‘keeping it real’ when having our heads in the clouds, realising the potential of not being ourselves, is the very thing which keeps culture moving. Did Shakespeare not write, as Fox reminds us, ‘we are such stuff that dreams are made on’? And did not Eno, postman’s son turned artistic polymath, also say ‘pretending is the most important thing we do?’

If pretension’s victories are DIY self-betterment and broader cultural vitality, its casualties are trickier to pin down. ‘Being pretentious is rarely harmful to anyone,’ Fox writes. ‘Accusing others of it is.’ It is near impossible to give an example of something that is intrinsically pretentious, so tightly is it bound to notions of class. It is a quality that doesn’t so much exist in the thing called out – the volume of Proust proudly visible above the parapet of a jacket pocket, the improper déploiement of French – as it exists in the mind of the caller-out. As such, it tends to reveal more about the accuser than the accused. And what it reveals is a lack: of tolerance as Fox points out, but also of access, experience, education. ‘The intellectually insecure drop the word “pretentious” to shut down a conversation they don’t understand,’ Fox writes, ‘when simply saying “I don’t know” or asking “Can you explain this?” would be more gracious ways to admit being in the dark.’ Calling out pretentiousness can be a tool for marshalling class divisions, but it also tells us those divisions are alive and kicking.

Fox deals with the thorny subject of class by turning his argument on its head. If pretending ourselves better is a good thing, pretending to belong to a lower class, now that is truly pretentious. We are introduced to Mick Jagger, pretender extraordinaire: a middle-class grammar school boy who took heavily from gospel, blues and soul – music born from poor, African American communities far from his native Kent – and who would, as Fox writes, ‘adopt a rough East London brogue for the Stones’ road crew, or a clearly enunciated middle-class accent when giving interviews to members of the British establishment press.’

Fox’s claim for the rehabilitation of pretentiousness is in essence an argument for a conscientious, liberal approach to cultural-literacy. In this respect it is predominantly concerned with the state of being middle-class: the opportunity to become middle-class by pretending our way up the cultural ladder, and the ethical quandaries faced when there should we decide to journey back down (access to the socially immobile upper class, of course, is strictly the privilege of birthright). Fox never explicitly resolves whether being culturally omnivorous should be considered as a transgression of the entitled or lauded as a sign of sophistication. But in heralding pretentiousness, he not only gives the green light to such middle-class proclivities: he establishes the cultural omnivore as a figure of vital importance.

It is telling, then, that Fox’s argument shows signs of delaminating when he moves out of the conventional sphere of class mobility. He takes us, for instance, to 1980s Harlem ball culture, where mostly poor, mostly brown-skinned queers, queens and transsexuals took to the floor to compete in dance and drag categories. Fox singles out ‘realness,’ a category in which participants competed at ‘passing’ – looking successfully straight – dressed among other things as bankers, soldiers and graduates. Realness, Fox argues, shows ‘how mainstream identities are an act, not a fact, of nature.’ True, but realness belongs to a history of having to pretend oneself straight, not better. The difference between Mick Jagger’s cultural pick-n-mixing and a poor, queer hispanic youth dressed up as a Wall Street mogul couldn’t be more stark. The former is a connoisseur of hardships because he can afford to be; the latter’s art is practised against a backdrop of exclusion and violence they will also walk home to. At this point it is hard not to wonder: who would think of calling ball culture pretentious anyway?

As with any wielder of the word ‘pretentious,’ Fox’s essay ultimately operates as self-portraiture, and the postscript opens out into memoir mode. Fox grew up in the Cotswolds, with a brother who became a champion sailor, and another who introduced him to music, literature, and Andy Warhol. As a teenager he played in a band, took day trips to London, and dreamed of a world beyond small town life. And he had support for these dreams. His father arranged family outings to ‘local archeological digs on Saxon burial sites,’ and trips to ‘the mountains of Northern California to research Irish emigration and the Gold Rush.’ Fox went on to study art at Oxford, and eventually started working for Frieze magazine, which brought him to New York. ‘My oddball middle-class upbringing,’ he writes, ‘left me understanding pretension as a positive. I associate it with the safe space of the arts, with the adventures of the brothers I loved, with the houses that kind people across the road lived in.’ To celebrate one’s achievements and experiences, and to pay tribute to the people that got you there, is a wonderful thing. But whether privilege is the same thing as pretentiousness, and whether either of these things are in urgent need of defending, is another question.
Rosanna Mclaughlin is a writer and curator living in London.