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On Artistic Pretentiousness
– Nov. 10, 2012

From the closed Tennyson blog.

A curious word one sees frequently in discourses on the literary and the arts: pretensions. Curious -- if not fascinating, when it comes down to it -- because of the use of the word. It differs depending on the speaker's general level of aesthetic sophistication. (Please note that my use of the word aesthetic there is not exchangeable with artistic.)

Those of higher sophistication use the word as to its dictionary entry: to speak of aesthetic acts, words, works that assume importance, especially in the sense of arrogance. When the word is used pejoratively, it is used to denote a kind of imposture; it is an elitist "not-one-of-us" attack. When the word is used not pejoratively, but descriptively, it is simply a term of observation, that the artist is making claims the words or works can not sustain. In fact, it not infrequently carries with it a recognition not only of the self-claimed importance, but also that the work really does not carry much merit at all: that is, if it was permitted to fall to its true level of sophistication, it would fall quite far indeed, below even that of persons of moderate sophistication and ability. (I say and even though the two are not linked. And it should be noted that when I speak of higher or lower sophistication as regards the utterers of the word pretension, it need not denote artistic ability; merely aesthetic understanding -- and, again, aesthetic is not there exchangeable with artistic.)

However, with those of lesser sophistication, the word is almost always one of reverse elitism. In fact, it is used in a general attack not just against those who are claiming importance for works who do not merit it, but against everyone who claims sophistication, or, without claim, even attempts works of sophistication higher than the general state of mediocrity. It is, in fact, itself an act of pretension, as it claims importance for popular literature and art by attacking art that strives to rise above the popular.

But there is more: two even more curious elements of the word:

  1. For those of higher intellectual/verbal sophistication, the use of the word very much reveals the sophistication of the user. The word is, in itself, self-identifyingly performative. Which leads directly into:
  2. The difference in psychological energies and functioning in the use of the word. Those persons of higher sophistication that speak the word non-pejoratively use the word in a fairly casual manner, and are in fact speaking solely of the individual or work in question. But those of lesser sophistication (and those who use the word pejoratively) use the word in defense of a culture; and not only a culture, but of a nomos as concerns their art. In fact, the word itself is the removal of the aesthetic from the world of art, and the anchoring of art within a nomic, societal dynamic. The word becomes a means of defense for reigning, cultural, artistic convention -- which serves, ultimately, greater social conventions.

The word, in the end, in such use, has nothing to do with the aesthetic at all.

And that nomic characcter, that non-aesthetic character (which is saying the same thing), speaks much to why it is often so difficult to get persons of lesser sophistication to see the performances inherent to their usage of the term -- that is, without feathers getting riled, and rapidly so. After all, to attack the defenses of a nomos is to attack the nomos itself; which is to say, to attack the world-view of the individual.