attempting to impress by affecting greater importance, talent, culture, etc., than is actually possessed. (Oxford Languages)
making usually unjustified or excessive claims (as of value or standing) (Merriam Webster Dictionary)
trying to appear or sound more important or clever than you are, especially in matters of art and literature: (Cambridge Dictionary)
characterized by assumption of dignity or importance, especially when exaggerated or undeserved: (Dictionary.com)
making claim to or creating an appearance of (often undeserved) importance or distinction (Vocabulary.com)
If you say that someone or something is pretentious, you mean that they try to seem important or significant, but you do not think that they are. (Collins Dictionary)
Just as beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, who and what is pretentious will always be contentious.
Pretentiousness has become a catch-all way to snuff out the light of people flying too close to the sun. Many people, myself included, have trouble defining what is pretentiousness in a clear way (refer to definitions included at the beginning if I start to lose you), and instead reach for archetypes of people to use as a template for comparison. That may be the self-obsessed artist who exclusively wears black turtlenecks and speaks with so much art-speak jargon that they are nearly unintelligible, or the socialite who shows up to the fully booked restaurant bitching “do you not know who I am?” In my life, shows of off-putting grandiosity or implied superiority, that feeling of being spoken down to – it greatly offends me. In labelling it pretentious, rather than simple arrogance or condescension, you simultaneously let the offender know they are acting obnoxiously, and that they don’t have the intellect, talent, virtue, or whatever it may be to justify their behaviour. As a Scorpio, I’ve always gravitated towards concise and cutting defences and don’t always rise above the low blow when I do finally decide to speak my mind. I am guilty of pointing my finger and shouting that the emperor is naked.
Because of its overuse, there’s much debate over whether pretension is good or bad. Since it is colloquially used to insult, many academics have run to its defence and to challenge readers to think again about their ideas of pretentiousness.
One such popular resource is the novel by Dan Fox “Pretentiousness: Why It Matters”. Fox defends pretension as a necessary part of upward social mobility and sees the label of pretentious like a weapon used to keep others down. Referring to those outwardly using the pejorative meaning of pretentiousness he explains, ''The pretentious flaws of others affirm your own intellectual or aesthetic expertise. Simultaneously, their fakery highlights the contours of your down-to-earth character and virtuous ordinariness.'' While it is clear that Fox values pretentiousness and also self-describes as pretentious, in her review of the novel titled “With Noses Held High”, Becca Rothfeld points out that Fox never comes to one clear definition.
So, which is it “friction between expectation and reality, or an inflated sense of self-worth?” Are you a good witch or a bad witch?
I believe there are ways of acting that could be defined as pretentious according to its general definition associated with pretending that should not be shamed, that need be accepted as much as any social performance in society, creative or not, as people attempt to become more than themselves. To anyone who’s ever felt imposter syndrome while trying something new but played their part and faked it until they made it, you too understand the importance of temporary pretension. When being pretentious is defined as an attempt to seem more important than you are, that feeling might come up for people of both over- and under-inflated egos.
However, pretension’s wide definition also leaves room for forms of pretension that give rise to that instinctive cringe and distaste that would cause viewers to reach for the disparaging sense of the word. Pretentiousness that is deceitful, self-important, manipulative, “the team-mate of arrogance, condescension, careerism and pomposity.”
This darker side of pretension explains its generally bad reputation, associations, and concerning results in studies of personality. For example, in a Study of Personality using the HEXACO personality dimension Honesty-Humility, they were able to effectively predict psychopathy, egoism, pretentiousness, immorality, and Machiavellianism where Honesty-Humility were low.
I think it gets so complicated figuring out what is pretentious and to whom and am I pretentious for calling something pretentious and on and on because of the concept of near enemies.
Brene brown has brought much attention to the concept, especially the near enemies of sympathy and empathy. Two different acts that can look almost the same but cause vastly different results: one driving connection, and the other totally distancing ourselves from the suffering of others.
Near enemies can explain why emotional abuse can be so hard to spot and to wrap your head around, especially in a traumatized state, because it’s not always the yelling/insulting, it can be the ignoring/acting nonchalant that almost looks like equanimity and calmness and makes the traumatized individual look that much crazier.
In this case you have the near enemy of self-worth: self-importance.
You do not hurt and need not offend anyone else (besides those who are terminally bitter) for recognizing that you and your creative outputs are an important part of yourself even if others may think it pretentious; it is in pushing your self-importance on others, similar to interrupting in a conversation, that you make the statement that you are more important. You are superior. You start getting friendly with a pretension that straddles condescension. If you’re going to do that, without the more objective skill/intelligence/talent to back that up, prepare for others to let you know and hit you with a scarlet letter P.
Although sometimes you will need to swallow the insult of pretentiousness in the pursuit of testing your potential as an artist and trying out new things, I have to disagree that we can write off the insult of pretentious as always saying more about the accuser than the accused. If those who care about you or who’s opinion you value are giving you this feedback, your pretension might be moving into pre-condescending, pre-egoist, pre-narcissistic territories.
Dr. Iskra Fileva explains in her article “How People Become Pretentious” that Pretentiousness grows out of an awareness the social self: “a likeness of us that exists in the eyes of others”. Pretentiousness may arise from a genuine belief that you are better than another or from an insecurity of being ordinary. Circling back to my girl Brene, Brown also defines narcissism as the “shame-based fear of being ordinary.”
In the art world, uniqueness is consistently rewarded, strived for. The last thing you want is to be mundane or cliché. Creative spaces breed and reward pretension. As humans, we are social creatures motivated by rewards and it’s easy to head down that road if left unchecked. Every artist will be unique to an extent, the same way each person has their own voice or penmanship, but I think it is essential to acknowledge your similarities, balance your comparing and contrasting. Don’t just compare yourself with the greats. Become aware of other local artists trying to develop themselves just like you. If it pains you to be compared to an artist of similar notoriety, that might be telling.
In seeking to differentiate yourself from those you are speaking to, when what they are is what you fear to be, you can only expect to insult and offend, not connect. These “ordinary” people may be lumped into the category of ‘worthy fan’ rather than ‘worthy companion’ or ‘equal’, and that sucks.
So, if you’re an artist feeling insecure and googling “Am I pretentious?” in those reflective hours of the early morning in hopes of gaining some perspective, I would argue that it’s not the question of if you’re being entirely authentic that matters. It comes down to why do you create. Are you a good witch or a bad witch? Do you make art to be understood, to connect with others and feel mutually inspired? Or do you seek to inspire others while keeping a safe distance from the plebes that fund your career? Do you feel terrified of being as ordinary as those engaging with your art? ... Do you feel grounded in knowing that art is an important part of yourself or are you self-important? That can be our next journal prompt.