“Pretentious? Moi?”

While reading Steve Bruce’s “Defining religion: a practical response” for the International Review of Sociology, I came across a sentence which stuck out at me: “the uses to which some idea is put does not exhaust the idea and even demonstrating that an idea has been used for bad ends does not of itself demonstrate that the idea is badly conceived and should be discarded.” He’s talking about the notion of religion, but I find his claim so sensible and obvious, that I wonder how I might apply it to other concepts.

Stephen Fry loves Wagner or he at least claims to love him, the pretentious pedant. He was asked on twitter “Why is ‘art’ always so pretentious?” to which he replied, pretentiously, “Art is never pretentious. It’s almost a definition. Fear & contempt of art is pretentious however. Caliban’s fear of his reflection.”

Pretentious, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, refers to the attempt to “impress by affecting greater importance or merit than is actually possessed; making an exaggerated outward display; ostentatious, showy.” Art, as an expression, is necessarily honest, which precludes it, almost by definition, from being pretentious. The intentions of the artist may be up for grabs, but unless you’re telepathic, distinguishing real or authentic art from fake or pretentious art is impossible. Even if you could read minds, and you discovered that an artist was just having a laugh when he sculpted a donkey out of his own earwax, once the work has been taken up by another, it loses its attachment to the creator’s intentions.

What, then, is pretentious? I think most people would agree that a good example of pretentious behaviour is Clark’s failure to humiliate Will in Good Will Hunting.

Clark meets someone that apparently knows more than he does about the material he’s using to impress the ladies and belittle Will’s friend Chuckie. Will soundly trounces the trust-fund graduate student. It’s not so much that the villain, Clark, is wrong, but that his knowledge of his subject is built around memorizing other people’s arguments.

The point is that Clark doesn’t know what he pretends to know. In some sense, we all pretend to know things that we don’t know, but when a smug arse calls you pretentious, they’re unlikely to be thinking about the problem of induction.

Certain types of people, according to folk sociology, like Wagner. They have money; they’re educated; and they’re self-important because they’re wealthy and educated. Stephen Fry is wealthy and he is educated, though I’m not sure why we should hold either against him.

Taste is an indicator of class, which means that it’s never really authentic unless it comes from below. Will is a great example of achievability. He’s a janitor at MIT, but he’s a genius and well-read. He doesn’t need a big Harvard education, and he’s content with his life. The problem is when someone like Will is faced with something he doesn’t understand. He gets suspicious.

We learn throughout Good Will Hunting, that Will is scared of emotion and commitment. If other people value those things, he reacts to them with hostility. Is there anything more pretentious than cynicism and seeing pretension in others?

While it may be pretentious to love Wagner, at least it’s music, which means it’s somewhat accessible. If you really want to piss people off, develop (or pretend to develop) an appreciation for James Joyce’s Ulysses. I’m sadly lacking in this skill, but I still wouldn’t describe Joyce or Joyceans as pretentious. Commenters on the BBC website were less inclined to regard Ulysses as anything other than pretentious twaddle. Stephen Fry of course has a different view.

Lord help us all. ‘Pretentious drivel’, ‘better off with a good walk rather than reading dusty books’. What possible hope is there for a country which with such self-righteous philistinism scorns its own treasures? Ulysses is the greatest novel of the twentieth century. It is is wise, warm, witty, affirmative and beautiful. it is less pretentious than a baked bean. Read it. read it out loud to yourself. It won’t bite. It wasn’t written either to shock or to impress. Only pretentious barbarians believe artists set out shock: and how these philistines delight in revealing how unshocked they are. Those who attack it are afraid of it and rather than look foolish they prefer to heckle what they don’t understand. Ignore all this childish, fear-filled criticism, Ulysses will be read when everything you see and touch around you has crumbled into dust.

Why are some people afraid of other people’s tastes? Do they feel that they can’t or won’t measure up? I think labeling someone or something as pretentious shifts the attention away from our own lack of understanding to the artist or the fan inspiring our insecurity. Suspicion is enough to justify contempt.

I don’t think Will Hunting would like Stephen Fry very much.