On Pretentiousness

20 Apr

What is it with the charge that this or that work of art is pretentious? There’s something in the Anglo-Saxon psyche, its atavistic beer-hall mentality that makes it decry anything perceived to be highbrow. And on one level, I’m there with my ancestral tribe, rallying against cultural elitism and exclusivity, repelled by the prissy and the precious. The flip-side of this is the English disdain for intellectualism. And running alongside, there’s a stream of cultural conservatism that wishes to rid us of all things avant garde, especially if they’re French in origin. Yahoo-ism is a very English invention.

Of course, pretentiousness abounds. It would be futile to deny it. Look at some of the puerile drawing and painting produced recently by the leaders of the Brit Art movement, for example. Think of ‘sixth form’ poetry, of free verse written by someone who knows nothing of poetic form or structure. You can’t subvert a medium until you’ve learnt to work within its conventions. That’s pretension.

Fear of the misunderstood...

Fear of the misunderstood…

The crime of pretentiousness is generally assumed to have been perpetrated by the ‘pseud’ or  pseudo-intellectual. Again the English attitude to this may be found in Private Eye magazine’s ‘Pseuds Corner’. Admittedly, it’s very funny. And it must also be conceded that the majority of those featured there fully merit their inclusion. This was the treatment meted out to poor Max Harris, editor of the avant garde Australian magazine, Angry Penguins in the 1940s, victim of a prank by the pseud-busting poets, James McAuley and Harold Stewart. They invented the deceased modernist poet, Ern Malley, then persuaded Harris that his obtuse and portentous canon was real before revealing their hoax. The funny thing is, though, that like the poetry of Dylan Thomas, the mere sound of Malley’s verse is rather appealing. Ian McCulloch also comes to mind here (a lovely fellow whom I had the pleasure of interviewing, many years ago). ‘John Webster was one of the best there was/He was the author of two major tragedies’, he crooned then cheerfully admitted later on that he’d neither read nor watched either play but had merely seen the titles on his sister’s bookshelf. Through sheer charisma, though, McCulloch gets away with it and Echo and the Bunnymen’s The White Devil is a triumph. Sometimes, the naivety of pretension has its charm.

The search for meaning...

The search for meaning…

I would say that pretentiousness occurs where an artist attempts to suggest that his work carries meaning which simply isn’t there, over-inflating its significance, alluding to the work of others he neither knows nor understands. Such pieces may be littered with images devoid of meaning. The artist would have us believe that his work is difficult when actually meaning can’t be divined because there is none. In fiction, characters become the author’s mouthpieces, digressing into cod-philosophical monologues to show off their creator’s erudition (ersatz-science is the latest manifestation of this). Reference is made to high art to demonstrate how cultured the author is. Entire passages are written in Latin or French to punish the ignorance of those who cannot read them. Yup, that’s pretension.

For me, the problem arises when any work of art that is remotely abstract, allusive or experimental becomes labelled as pretentious. Then we end up with middlebrow work that neither aspires nor inspires. Experimentation isn’t pretentious per se. It’s an expression of our joie de jouer (yes, I’m aware of the irony). Renouncing all challenge and ambition in art is a recipe for dumbing down and that’s just about where we’ve got to in England right now. In the words of The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon in Dumb It Down, ‘Your concentration span’s too long/It’s longer than this song, that’s not allowed’.

I’m pretty sure that much of my writing would be written off as pretentious by many people. Since I know it’s not, I can live with it… I encountered this criticism with my last novel, where some readers wished that I would just stick to a single narrative and tell an unadorned war story. It seemed to me to be missing the point rather.

And, of course, any article which calls itself ‘On’ something or other is almost certainly pretentious. Oh, well…

All text and images © PSR 2015


4 Responses to “On Pretentiousness”

  1. masgautsen April 21, 2015 at 9:07 am #

    Great post!

    “I would say that pretentiousness occurs where an artist attempts to suggest that his work carries meaning which simply isn’t there, over-inflating its significance, alluding to the work of others he neither knows nor understands.” What an excellent quote. I feel this sums up pretentiousness in a very good way.

  2. Mari Biella April 21, 2015 at 12:22 pm #

    I couldn’t agree more, Paul, though I’ve a horrible feeling I might have sailed close to the wind in terms of pretentiousness myself on a few occasions (and though I too chuckle over ‘Pseuds Corner’ and ‘Luvvies’). There’s certainly a broad streak of anti-intellectualism in the Anglo-Saxon world; it exists in Italy, too, though it’s less broad and altogether less deep, I think.

    Personally, I think that if your novel had been a simple war story/single narrative it would have been a lesser book.

  3. Paul Sutton Reeves April 21, 2015 at 6:22 pm #

    Hi Mari and thanks for your comments. Yes, it’s a scarily dumbed-down world in many ways and I suspect there are forces at play that are likely to make things worse.

    I totally agree with your view of my novel. A simple narrative would have reduced whatever it might be considerably.

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