Beckett with a Smiley Face

This appeared in the New Statesman 4-10 March 2016: 16.

Beckett with a Smiley Face


Dan Fox’s Pretentiousness: Why It Matters is as provocative and witty as its title. Taking his cue from Brian Eno (whose career he describes as “a successful experiment in pretension”), Fox, an art critic, sets about reclaiming the P-word. Indeed, the whole book is a gloss on Eno’s contention that “pretending is the most important thing we do” because it enables us to discover “what it would be like to be otherwise”. It is a self-help manual for those, brought up on David Bowie, who doubt that there is a self to help.

More often than not, the accusation of pretentiousness is levelled at people who get ideas above their station. It cuts them down to size. Fox turns this on its head by celebrating the aspiration to a life less ordinary. In the current cultural climate, it is downright subversive.

The author’s subject is the slippage from pretending — what is done at the kids’ table – to pretension, which “goes on over the wine and cheese course with the grown-ups”. How does an activity that is considered crucial to the healthy development of children become contemptible in adults? In a “back-of-an-envelope history of acting”, Fox asks where this stigma originates, exploring Plato’s mistrust of actors but also the adoption of classical rhetoric by politicians and lawyers, whereby the “history of pretence” became bound up with the “history of power”. Finally, the evolution towards a naturalistic style of acting accompanied the rise of individualism and the Romantic quest for “the truth of one’s inner self”. Pretending was now beyond the pale.

Authenticity raises the issue of authentication – the “legitimacy we confer, or not, on a performance”. It is “a matter of authority, of who gets to pass judgement on whether or not you are ‘being yourself'”. Fox notes that the modern artist’s mission is to seek “creative freedom” but fails to point out that this autonomy can also be the source of his or her lack of legitimacy. He describes the “gap between expectation and actuality” – which derives from this creative freedom – as “a productive necessity rather than a flaw”. Failure is the process “by which the arts move forward”. This is Beckett with a smiley face.

The rest of Fox’s argument covers class: accents, politics, gentrification and inverted snobbery. Unlike pretending, pretension “carries with it the sting of class betrayal, especially in the UK, where class is a neurosis as much as a set of social conditions”. The accusation of pretentiousness is “a form of social control”, designed to keep people in their place and protect the status quo.

Pretentiousness achieves a pleasing congruence between style and substance. After all, the essay – experimental by definition, not content with being itself – is arguably the most pretentious genre still in currency. Dan Fox’s shape-shifting work displays many of its hallmarks. It opens with a few etymological considerations and then unfolds organically, one idea leading to another, exemplifying Brian Dillon’s description of the essay as “a way of writing oneself into the unknown”.

There are downsides to this narrative drift. The author’s ruminations lead him, on occasion, to retread ground. In certain passages, the book feels freighted with too many examples. On the other hand, discussing the notion of authenticity without mentioning Kierkegaard or Heidegger seems remiss (although that probably says more about my pedantry than any shortcomings on the author’s part).

Nonetheless, the breadth of reference is staggering – taking in history, cinema, drama, politics, literature, sociology and music. It reflects the “magpie cultural education” that “pop’s intellectual permissiveness” once provided. Without giving in to nostalgia, Fox harks back to more progressive times when culture was not the preserve of the privileged. From this vantage point, his essay ties in with the writings of Mark Fisher (whom he quotes), Owen Hatherley and Simon Reynolds.

The final, autobiographical chapter is the strongest and most moving. It charts the author’s journey from Wheatley, a village in Oxfordshire where he grew up in the late 1980s, to New York City, where he now co-edits the contemporary art magazine frieze. It is a celebration of overreaching ambition; a paean to “dreaming big in small cities” at a point when pop music (which “never asked anyone for permission to be pretentious”) acted as a gateway to a wider world of culture. Music connects the young author to Manhattan and Berlin, even though he has “barely been an hour down the motorway to London”. On day trips to Oxford, he feels the presence of Andy Warhol in a student’s striped T-shirt or Nico in a local branch of Chelsea Girl.

Fox ends by fast-forwarding to his present life in New York. Near his apartment, there is “an Essex Street, a Ludlow Street, a Norfolk Street, and a Suffolk Street”. He wonders what these British toponyms would have conjured up, had he grown up “on the Lower East Side rather than in the English countryside”. Having read this book in Paris, I find myself longing for Wheatley. Life, as Rimbaud never quite said, is elsewhere.

In Fox’s interpretation, pretentiousness is culturally – rather than socially – aspirational. It is “permission for the imagination”, allowing us to transfigure our mundane surroundings and soar above what Keats called “busy common-sense”.

On 8 March 2016, this review was posted on the New Statesman‘s website under the title “When Did Pretentiousness Become Such a Dirty Word?”

It was prefaced thus: Dan Fox’s new book sets out to reclaim the P-word with an impressively broad-ranging study of art, literature and culture.

Writing as a Form of Displacement

Ben Lerner, Interview by Max Liu, frieze 16 March 2015

I always have to claim not to be doing something in order to do it. . . . You don’t always write what you set out to write, so writing can be a form of displacement.

. . . As a poet, I also ask myself how silence informs words. How is silence felt? How is negative space activated in a poem? So, in both my fiction and my poetry, I’m exploring the ways in which an absence can be felt as a presence.

Keatsian Music

Ben Lerner, “The Actual World,” Frieze 156 (June-August 2013)

… Instead of talking myself out of this (largely indefensible) distinction between the actuality of visual art and the virtuality of the literary, I’ve come to embrace it; I’ve come to think that one of the powers of literature is precisely how it can describe and stage encounters with works of art that can’t or don’t exist, or how it can resituate actual works of art in virtual conditions. Literature can function as a laboratory in which we test responses to unrealized or unrealizable art works, or in which we embed real works in imagined conditions in order to track their effects.

The traditional literary response to a nonverbal work of art is the ekphrastic poem — a poem that uses verbal art to engage a visual one. While the ekphrastic poem is in part judged by its powers of description, the thing it describes can be fiction. The classic example of ekphrasis, for instance — the description of Achilles’s shield in Homer’s The Iliad — is so elaborate as to cease to be realistic; no actual shield could contain all that detail. (This makes sense, since the shield was made by a god.) The verbal, while pretending to give life to the visual, often transcends it: words can describe a shield we can’t actually make, can’t even paint. (Just don’t take a shield made out of words into battle.) Or consider another canonical example of ekphrasis, John Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ (1820), wherein we encounter a description of an impossible music prompted by a meditation on a plastic form: ‘Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on: / Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d / Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone.’ My point is that ekphrastic literature is often a virtual form: it describes something that can’t be made given the limitations of the actual world.

For me, at least at the moment, the novel, not the poem, is the privileged form for the kind of virtuality I’m describing. I think of the novel as a fundamentally curatorial form, as a genre that assimilates and arranges and dramatizes encounters with other genres: poetry, criticism and so on….

[T. J.] Clark is rigorously involved with two real canvases, of course, but the novel is a space wherein such an experiment in art writing can take place before the existence of the art itself, where an encounter can be staged between individuals and/or art works that are not or cannot be made actual. Fiction that describes encounters with artificial objects that don’t yet or can’t yet exist is usually called ‘science fiction’ — a prose that attempts to make discernable the shape of an unrealizable technological culture. But we could also organize a genre of ‘speculative fiction’ around virtual arts: Keatsian music; a painting that never dries. Writing is particularly suited to figuring what we can desire or fear but can’t (now) make, especially relative to those arts that depend on seeing.

Banishing the ‘literary’ — the temporal, the representational — from visual art was a major (if unsuccessful) 20th-century critical project. And those artists — like Judd — who moved away from traditional media altogether to real objects and real space further made the kind of virtuality I’m describing the domain of the literary. We’re often told that the figure within the work was replaced with the viewer standing before it. Ejecting the virtual from the object increased the former’s power: now it could reabsorb the object along with is viewer. Literary virtuality became the ghost of the actual, driving certain artists crazy, driving them conceptual. Perhaps we can think of contemporary artists’ increasing interest in literary techniques in part as a desire to reincorporate the power of the virtual back into their work.

So what is the power of the virtual? Michael Clune, a brilliant young literary critic, argues in his book, Writing Against Time (2013), that certain writers ‘invent virtual techniques, imaginary forms for arresting neurobiological time by overcoming the brain’s stubborn boundaries’. This isn’t something literary form can actually accomplish — Keats’s imaginary music can’t be played. Instead, Clune writes, ‘the mode is ekphrastic. These writers create images of more powerful images; they fashion techniques for imagining better techniques.’ ‘Like an airplane designer examining a bird’s wing’, the writer of the virtual ‘studies life to overcome its limits’. Clune is particularly focused on representations of works that defeat time, but we can say more generally that the virtuality of literature allows it to produce images of impracticable techniques — to open a space where the visual artist can desire and think beyond the stubborn boundaries of her materials. Instead of grounding the (often competitive) relationship of verbal and visual art in their similarity — Ut pictura poesis — I think the relationship is most fecund when writers concede the actual to artists.