Pretension In Art
Pretension is a word that can inspire wounded, futile argument like few others. This has lead me to question its usefulness on more than one occasion. After all, it tends to be used as a knee-jerk accusation without much content or meaning other than, “this isn’t fun and makes my brain think, so you are an asshole.”
On the other hand, even overeducated and self-reflective tigers like me can appreciate the grating sense that an artist is using cheap shortcuts to profundity, making hollow and portentous gestures toward meaning and depth their works do not merit. A band like Emerson Lake and Palmer should rightly be excoriated for appropriating classical music for cheesy and often hilarious ends. Props to the band for being ambitious and gifted, but the sad truth is that they contributed little to music other than a staggering sense of self-entitlement, though that can at times be exhilarating in itself. ELP is best appreciated with an ironic distance and biting sense of humour. Whereas Henry Cow, another intellectual and “arty” band from the era, made more modest claims for itself and probably exceeded them in their own way.
So a working definition of “pretension” seems achievable and even necessary. People are going to disagree over what works fit the title, and calling an artist pretentious just because they are intellectual and have made some subpar work seems unfair. I would define the word so that it could only apply to a specific perceived dissonance between an overambitious authorial intent and a work that cannot hold up to it.
My definition is as follows: an unwarranted assertion of authorial intent, either within or outside the text. It’s fairly specific and limited, but can still be employed against offenders. Part of the risk of making art is that your ambitions won’t line up with the product, and you can assume that your work communicates your good intentions far better than your actual skills will allow. I hope this definition will be a strong enough tool while helping to put a stop to its use as a term of abuse toward any art deemed intellectual.