Hand-Made, Organic, Artisanal, Small-Batch, and So On: An Interview with Dan Fox

Guest Article by: 
Lawrence Lenhart

In PRETENTIOUSNESS: WHY IT MATTERS, British author Dan Fox writes an unpretentious and effective overview of the role of pretense in the arts. Fox’s unapologetic mode of cultural criticism spans music, writing, visual arts, film and television, and the domains in between in order to provide a novel lens that allows readers to reclaim their perception of art and artists that have been routinely dismissed because of accusations of pretentiousness. As co-editor of frieze, a leading European art and culture magazine in Europe, Fox’s relationship with the arts is self-evident; even so, the essay’s coda, a blip of memoir that reinforces Fox’s primordial role in this dialogue, reminds the reader of their own personal associations with pretension. As Fox analyzes the idiosyncratic scruples of art culture—from Carl Wilson’s claim that “mainstream taste [is] the only taste for which you have to say ‘sorry’” to his own conclusion that “pretentiousness is always someone else’s crime”—Fox’s nonjudgmental tact demonstrates sensitivity to readers of all stripes. Last week, Dan Fox took the time to answer a few of my questions via email—about pretense in writing, in the arts, in politics, and in broad consumer behaviors.

Brazos Bookstore: Throughout this book, you make a case for why pretentiousness matters: to whom are you making the case? Surely the cultural elite is already aware as evidenced by the way they tend to articulate and defend their acts of pretension, even make it a kind of mission statement.

Dan Fox: Pretentiousness, as I write in the book, never self-identifies. You would be hard-pressed to find any one who would admit to it, even amongst those whose creative work might be thought of by some as pretentious, let alone ‘make it a kind of mission statement.’ I was aiming to make the case that the idea of pretension is far more complicated and tangled than we assume. I wanted to write for an intelligent general reader, ranging from the kind of person who might use the term ‘pretentious’ as a catch-all dismissal, to the kind of person who has invested their life and work in the arts and might have, at some point in their career, been accused of pretension. I try and avoid the term ‘cultural elite’, because – like the related conservative insult ‘liberal elite’ – it quickly disintegrates in your hands when you try and unpack it.

BB: I imagine the average reader of this book will unfairly scrutinize the prose, think extra hard about whether or not to “accuse” you of pretension. When writing Pretentiousness, how cognizant were you of the tenor of your writing—the diction, syntax, style? Were you more cognizant of your writing style with this project than other projects?

DF: I was aware that writing my first book on the topic of pretension could be seen as a pretentious thing to do, and I rather enjoyed that prospect; in a funny sort of way, the idea of writing a book on pretension itself demonstrated that the word, the term, is not as straightforward as we think. I wanted to write as clearly and concisely as possible, but make the prose pleasurable to read. (Though whether or not that comes across depends on your idea of pleasure, I guess!) I was conscious that I was writing an essay, not an encyclopaedia nor exhaustive history of the subject, and wanted the book to move at a fast pace. I was also highly aware of implicating myself in the book, which was the reason for including the final memoir chapter at the end. I didn’t feel I could talk about all the issues around pretension – especially class – without describing my own background.

BB: Eileen Myles says we choose our friends because we “fall in love with each other’s shit.” In later iterations, she substitutes “shit” for “browsers.” Do you share an affinity for artists with your friends? To what extent is this on coincidence or purposeful?

DF: I do share an affinity for certain artists with my closest friends; I’ve found the arts, in my life, to have been a powerful bonding mechanism; art, music, books, film – all these things can be signals of a shared sensibility, signs that we are fellow travellers. And there is solace and example in the work of those artists we congregate around that encourages us further in our own creative pursuits.

BB: After reading this book, I asked students in my Creative Nonfiction workshop to think back on ten essays we’ve read this semester. They were asked to rank the essays on a 1-10 pretentiousness scale. One student event went to far to propose “Bowies” as the unit of measurement. Of the examples of pretentiousness mentioned in this book (from Brian Eno to Björk; Susan Sontag to Carl Wilson; The Mighty Boosh to This is Spinal Tap, even the Ford Aspire to the absurdly named Mitsubishi Shogun, etc.), which examples would you use as a ‘1’ and a ‘10’ on your personal scale of pretentiousness?

DF: I love the idea of ‘Bowies’ as a unit of measurement! I don’t believe there’s such a thing as a ‘1’ on the pretentiousness scale. We all engage in it to one degree or another. That said, Bowie would rate as a 10: he made a career out of it.

BB: At some point you come to the counterintuitive conclusion that it is equally snobbish for a person to be patently opposed to pretension. I’m reminded of your peer at Oxford who “once put [you] down by saying, ‘It must be nice doing your hobby as a degree.’” As sarcastic as it sounds, might this person also be incidentally sincere (“It must be nice.”)? Might the accusation of pretension also be a kind of jealousy or flattery?

DF: To accuse someone of pretension is to assert your own ‘authenticity’ in the face of it, so in that sense, it is a snobbish thing to do – to say another person’s creative efforts are pretentious sets you up as the arbiter of what is or is not acceptable as creativity. (The person at Oxford was most certainly being patronising towards me; the word ‘hobby’ was used in a belittling way, implying that their own choice of subject had more gravitas.)

BB: You write, “[Pretentiousness] conditions the arts, undoubtedly, but also politics, religion, and sport.” Here, I’m reminded of Richard Hofstadter’s Pulitzer-Prize Winning Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963). In that same decade, William F. Buckley Jr. debated Gore Vidal during the 1968 Republican National Convention. As a British writer and witness to the American political process, do you find there is something uniquely pretentious about the American political process?

DF: I don’t believe the US system to be uniquely pretentious – politicians act, perform roles, inflate their own reputations, in every political system across the world. But it’s pertinent to mention Hofstadter’s book: as he pointed out, anti-intellectualism runs deep in the history and psyche of the US, and I think that when people use the term ‘pretentious’ here in the US, it’s often as a form of anti-intellectualism, a way of raising the alarm on people who may cast doubt on your worldview, on your set of beliefs. People who might be different, or who may share the same social background but be expressing a desire to live differently.

BB: Do you think pretentiousness has become more or less of an anxiety in the past decade? On one hand, certain Americans drink wine now without embarrassment. At the same time, there is still a sizeable rift between a film’s Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes score (between attitudes toward Terrance Malick or Judd Apatow.)

DF: It’s worth pointing out that people have been drinking wine without embarrassment since the dawn of viticulture 7,000 years ago. Wine, as a substance, is not inherently pretentious (it’s a liquid – how could it be?)– it’s the culture around it that is what people find to be pretentious, although try telling that to people from Italy or France where there’s none of the same social anxiety around it that one might find in the US. The past decade has certainly seen an overemphasis placed on the value of ‘authenticity’ (just look at the consumer language of the hand-made, organic, artisanal, small-batch, and so on) and this has possibly made people more embarrassed about being seen as ‘pretentious.’ Yet people will always want different things from the world around them, and there will always be those who prefer Malick to Apatow or vice versa, or indeed enjoy both just the same. That’s the kind of variety that keeps life interesting.

BB: Have media like Yelp and YouTube expanded the platform of pretension by allowing us all to appropriate the authoritative voice? Have these moves toward cultural democracy, the fact that we all share (or can share) the responsibility of evaluation made accusations of pretension moot? Or not?

DF: It’s not made accusations of pretension moot, on the contrary, it’s just amplified them. More of us making claims for our expertise and authenticity also means more of us accusing others of pretension.

Lawrence Lenhart earned his MFA from the University of Arizona. His collection of essays, The Well-Stocked and Gilded Cage, is forthcoming from Outpost19 this Fall. His work appears or is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Fourth Genre, Guernica, Gulf Coast, Passages North, Prairie Schooner, Wag's Revue, Western Humanities Review, Terrain.org, and elsewhere. He is a reviews editor and assistant fiction editor of DIAGRAM and a professor of fiction and creative nonfiction at Northern Arizona University.

Pretentiousness: Why It Matters Cover Image
By Dan Fox
ISBN: 9781566894289
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Coffee House Press - April 5th, 2016

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