Last summer I had an email exchange with fellow soundclouder Lee Foust about contributing to this blog (he’s in the process of publishing a book, more information regarding this and other works can be found on his website and his blog, Sputnik—you might also want to google his old band, Nominal State) . He mentioned that his students found many things “pretentious” and that he thinks pretension is a requirement for the creation of art. The subject has been nagging me for months.
I find I’m unable to pick apart what he said to guide you into my own essay—and we’ll generally be talking about something different; that is, different interpretations of pretension and how it applies to art—so I’ll quote his paragraph in full, and maybe it’ll nag your thoughts, too:
“As yet I don’t really have much myself to say on the issues that you raise or upon the form itself. I try, in my CW workshop, to play recordings for students and perform myself once a year at the art school where i teach this course, to expose them to performance and inspire them–but, for the most part, they seem rather shy. Often performance for them is “pretentious.” At art school this seems to be the most feared word. As a post-’77 punk I find this similar to the revolutionary musician’s “street cred.” The establishment (mainly through journalism) tames and quiets the musician or artist by creating false paradigms–the artist is a savage who cannot understand what they made/do and if they self-consciously (as in performance) do appear to understand their own art they are “pretentious.” I always argue that without pretension there is no art–innocent art is a lie–the artist always knows what they are doing, I think, we must pretend/fight to let the chaos in rather than vice-verse. So, performance is a hard sell to America’s youth I find. Even I, listening to FareWell Poetry found it rather too slick–but I’m falling into the same trap I think, I find it rather controlled and too well orchestrated. There is, I guess something to be said for a little chaos, a little chance in art, perhaps. So I spin around in contradiction apparently. Ha.”
—from an email dated July 9, 2012
To that I want to add a dictionary definition of the word:
: characterized by pretension: as
a: making usually unjustified or excessive claims (as of value or standing) <the pretentious fraud who assumes a love of culture that is alien to him — Richard Watts>
b: expressive of affected, unwarranted, or exaggerated importance, worth, or stature <pretentious language> <pretentious houses>
: making demands on one’s skill, ability, or means : ambitious <the pretentious daring of the Green Mountain Boys in crossing the lake — American Guide Series: Vermont>
—from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary
The social meanings of pretension are pretty clear, basically synonymous with social climbing and ostentation, the ubiquitous wanna-be quality of the modern world. In my day-to-day drudgery behind the scenes of corporate America (I install office furniture), I see this sort of pretension primarily in the marketing and art departments (the latter could lead to a whole discussion of people figuratively putting on berets…to me, they are fashion flakes, people more concerned with social status than art…or to a discussion of how many of these people feel they’ve sold out, given up on true creativity by making corporate icons, when in fact they’re generating the only kind of art our society values, whether it’s the logo or the Sunday newspaper ad, which often causes them to give their beret a defiant tilt).
In regard to art, pretension often seems a misnomer, something applied to anything you don’t like or don’t understand or are uncomfortable with, as it appears with Lee’s students.
I came of age in the era of Progressive Rock (born in 1957—you do the math). In my experience pretension is a synonym of grandiose and over the top. It’s what artsy people in England do. Basically, it’s the opposite of Real Rock.…I’ve actually come around to another side of this argument and find that dumbing down is more pretentious than trying to excel. If you have the training, as, for instance, many of the prog rockers had, why would you ignore your skills and ambitions to play simple rock? Is it more sincere? Are three basic chords somehow more authentic than six esoteric or exotic chords? What’s more pretentious than someone from a middle or upper class background with a PhD. singing folk songs or blues?
I was brought up to be a janitor or something similar. So, for me, any creativity, any artistic activity, anything that pushes my imagination and consciousness beyond going to work for 40 hours a week and then taking care of my home and family is pretension. (Actually, it might be considered insanity.) I have absolutely no business writing or recording poetry (or even reading it!). I have no business drawing or painting. Who the hell do I think I am writing a blog and expressing opinions? So much of my life is a betrayal of who I was meant to be.
The only art that I saw before I was eighteen (I exaggerate slightly in that we were presented with Literature in high school but few students could connect with it in any way) was commercial art: advertisements and illustrations, pop music and Hollywood, radio jingles and slogans both corporate and political, billboards and magazines, television and radio. This is almost certainly reflected in my own art, especially my drawings and paintings. Even here I could say that what I create is pretentious in that I usually hope to express something—usually nothing more than to give notice that I feel or that there was an electrical blip somewhere that might be construed as thought. This is nothing more than a continuation of the pop culture of my youth. If I had been born into a different era, one that only believed in entertainment, where making meaningful statements was something left to the scholars and writers of Literature and to professional artists, I might have been content to entertain. Maybe I would even have been content to sweep floors.
I find any art that doesn’t push boundaries, any artist who isn’t going beyond what was done yesterday—which I suppose could also be considered pretentious by many who don’t like the next step or don’t understand it—falls short. “I always argue that without pretension there is no art–innocent art is a lie…” I tend to agree with Lee’s statement. Any artist who does the same thing over and over, who isn’t pushing boundaries, who isn’t trying to surpass what they’ve already done is either a moron or a cynic (placating an audience).…In a sense the artists of the Modernist period were false in exploring primitive, child, and insane art—”innocent” art—in trying to find a purer, more honest art: it could be considered strangely pretentious. The search, based on a question, was honest. Presenting their products based on that search as pure and honest art was pretentious. I don’t know that this makes it bad art, that we should no longer study Gaugin, Picasso, or Klee. I don’t see the Academic art of the late-19th Century as being any more pretentious, just as I fail to see Prog Rock as pretentious. The questions are: does any of this art express anything of interest; do you find the technique and message working together; does this work make you feel anything. And if you’re at all familiar with the artist’s career: is the artist developing; is the artist growing as a human being and is this expressed in the work.
In my experience art begins with chaos and spontaneity. It’s rare that I feel like a conduit for something outside myself—maybe because I’m too aware of the fact of my subconscious—but I almost always start with a free association, a somewhat random connection of sounds, words, or images. Then I edit and revise and polish. Not all artists work this way. I know artists who start with ideas or a need to express a specific feeling, who are very conscious of their goal right from the start. I know artists who hate to revise or polish. I know artists who seem to have no chaotic spark visible in the finished work.
So much for fear and ignorance and cultural posturing (which is pretentious). Like an organism, all art must grow or die. All artists must go beyond what they did yesterday. I find it difficult to label any vital, active artist “pretentious”. To me it’s the consumer using art for social prestige and advancement, the nauseating connoisseur, who should face the accusation.
But what do I know? I’m supposed to be cleaning up someone else’s mess.