Dan Fox and the Virtues of Pretension


Taking on the mantle of pretension’s advocate may not seem a desirable role; the word pretension carries with it deeply embedded insinuations of artificiality and elitism. As a frequently hurled accusation it can inflict a deadening silence. For Dan Fox, the art critic, editor, and author who has taken on the aforementioned role with his literary debut Pretentiousness: Why it Matters (Coffee House Press), the disparaging intent behind the charge of pretentiousness is one reason to take the cause as his own. As he argues, the use of the word pretentiousness as a strike against creative pursuits is a disservice to the arts, intellectualism, and social mobility.

“Working in contemporary art, and as an editor of Frieze magazine, it’s a word I’ve heard for a long time fired in the direction of things that I’m interested in, like contemporary art, experimental movies, and weird music,” Fox tells us. “All of the people I know who were involved in the art world or these kinds of fields were doing things very, very earnestly, but there is this accusation that they’re somehow pretending to be something they’re not, that it’s an affectation, that they’re not being sincere. I got interested in why there was that discrepancy in the way people perceive those who do artistic jobs,” he continues. “During the course of writing the book, I began to realize that there were some bigger issues having to do with social mobility, class, and how the word pretentiousness relates to our fears and anxiety about status and intellectual curiosity.”

Fox traces pretentiousness back to its Latin roots (prae, before’ and tendere, ‘to stretch’ or ‘extend’) through to his own. As a child raised in a middle class household in the village of Wheatley, England, Fox enjoyed largely unrestrained exploration of his artistic interests, whether that meant visits to the Tate Modern and plays at the Oxford Playhouse or reading style magazines like The Face and playing in a band named The Jennifers as a young teen. He read broadly, listened to records, and chose to study Fine Art at Oxford University, which is where “pretentious” became the insult of choice against his pursuits and remains so to this day. When we met Fox in New York, where he has been based since 2009, he came across as distinctly unaffected while speaking of his family, work, politics, and more.

HALEY WEISS: When did you first encounter pretentiousness as an accusation?

DAN FOX: I think it was when I got to art school. I went to art school in the context of a broader university so there were lots of people studying other subjects there—it wasn’t just art students. I got some snarky or quizzical responses from people there when I told them I was studying fine art. I remember one person saying to me, “It must be really nice doing your hobby for a degree.” It was slightly condescending, as if it wasn’t really a worthwhile field of study and there were much more serious subjects you should be studying.

WEISS: I think I first encountered it when I was leaving for art school, especially in my hometown.

FOX: Exactly, you get a lot of flack for it, which is a traditional part of the art school experience as well. If you’re the creative, artsy one who goes off to study painting or filmmaking, you’re often seen as an outsider partly because traditionally, it has never been seen as a way to have a career. It’s like the old song [by Noël Coward] that goes, “Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage.” Don’t send your daughter to art school.

WEISS: When did you switch from making art in school to writing about art?

FOX: It was soon after I moved to London. I was about a year out of art school, had a few part-time jobs, and just really needed some work. I couldn’t afford to do an MFA or anything like that. I saw that Frieze magazine had an internship going and there’s the catch-22 of “you can’t get a job unless you have experience,” but you need to get the experience, but you also need to earn some money. I was sleeping on a friend’s kitchen floor at that point and did the internship at Frieze for a couple of months. It was at a point when they were still in a tiny office in Soho in London and they were looking to expand their editorial staff. They asked me to join, which was great, and around that time they also asked me whether I was interested in writing. [With] the kind of artwork I had been making at that point, I had reached a bit of a dead end with or some sort of impasse. Writing about art and writing about what other people were doing seemed at that point to be more interesting than making it myself; it provided opportunities to meet interesting people, to travel, and to go and look at curious, odd, interesting things. It was providing me with more stimulus than making art, which was just making me feel anxious. I swiftly realized that writing and criticism is a very creative form and one could address one’s own intellectual curiosity through that in hopefully exciting ways.

WEISS: When you were on the receiving end of accusations of pretentiousness in art school and after the fact working in contemporary art, how did you respond to them? I know you wrote that “self-deprecation is nothing if not good manners,” so were you just self-deprecating about it?

FOX: I think that one way of diffusing an insult like that is to turn it around and laugh at yourself—that’s a way of coping with it—and another is to just ignore it. But one response I had was around the time of a show at the Tate [Modern] called “Altermodern” in 2009. It got roundly slammed in the British press and I wrote a piece for Frieze looking at all the press and how they were uniformly quite xenophobic, because it was curated by a French guy, Nicolas Bourriaud. There [was this] conflation of someone being French and interesting intellectual ideas, and they were kind of mixing the two up into an anti-intellectual stew. I wrote this response to that, which was a bit more impassioned and trying to square up to this general sense of crypto-xenophobic anti-intellectualism that the British press was showing towards this show. The show had its faults, it wasn’t a perfect show by any means, but I thought that the accusations, which were often circulating around this idea of pretentiousness and something having ideas above its station—I got fired up about that. In response, people fired back at me and accused me of intellectual policing and all kinds of other things. I’ve tried various ways of responding to the pretentiousness accusation, and this book is just my latest. [laughs]

WEISS: Why do you think class betrayal is such a sensitive topic when social mobility is so valued?

FOX: That’s a great question and I don’t think I’m qualified to give you a full answer. In Britain, class is a neurosis. You judge people from the moment they open their mouth and start speaking: what their accent represents in terms of where they were educated, what part of the country they’re from, what kind of class background they have. There’s something quite tribal about it, about sticking to your own. It has to do with maintaining the status quo and that if everyone knows their station, then society will be okay. There’s this idea that we all play a social role and if you just play the role you’ve been given, then you’ll be fine.

It’s not just in terms of an upward class mobility; there’s a very privileged position, which affects a sort of downward or “slumming it” affect, like the rich kid who pretends they’re a bit more blue collar than they really are, which is just as much a form of pretension as someone pretending they’re further up the status ladder. There is a tendency for people to self-identify as “ordinary” when accusing another person of pretension. It is also often a way for a person to assert their own character as being down-to-earth, for instance, or plain-speaking, modest, and so on. It’s a way of defining yourself against them… If I am “ordinary,” then I am playing fair, I’m being honest, I’m not part of the bigger social problem and I should show solidarity to those who are like me. The pretentious person, in the context of class, is assumed to be thinking of themselves as “better” than other people, to be playing an active part in supporting hierarchies or elitist attitudes.

WEISS: I couldn’t help but think about the language of politicians when reading your book, especially with the primaries taking place. There’s this desire for a politician to be a populist figure who speaks to the people like the people, but that seems at odds with wanting your president to be smarter than you and aspirational. Is that something you’ve been thinking about hearing all of this political chatter?

FOX: Yes—the contortions and games of identity that these politicians play on themselves almost everyday is kind of extraordinary. Trump, for instance, speaks like a five-year-old in these vague generalities but then also makes out that he’s an expert on everything; he’s trying to have his cake and eat it. He’s someone who is pretending that he’s for the working person but comes from this enormously privileged background. I think that has to do with our own tangled desires of what we want from our politicians. On the one hand, yes, we want a steady hand on the tiller, someone who’s comfortable with the captains of industry and high-level diplomatic talks, but we also like it when they roll up their sleeves and talk about the humble background that they come from… The way that politicians perform their own “ordinariness” or their own “extraordinariness” is fascinating; it all seems to change with the wind according to what is needed minute-to-minute.

WEISS: I read that while you were growing up, David Bowie was important to you and that after he passed away, you left flowers outside of his apartment. Could tell me a bit about his significance to you as a musician and creative figure, and what the experience was like for you when you found out that he had passed away?

FOX: I had never before felt any sense of grief for a public figure, someone I’ve never met before, or a famous person. It’s sad when you hear the news but I didn’t feel a wellspring of grief or anything like that, but I felt oddly out of sorts that morning when I heard. I walked up to his apartment on Lafayette Street, just to see the crowds there, and on the way I bought some flowers from a local deli. I left them [outside his apartment] and I walked away. When I was walking back to work part of me, the sort of rational part of my brain, just thought, “That was a bit corny, that was a mawkish thing to do.” Another part of my brain realized that those flowers weren’t necessarily for this famous musician—they were actually for what he represented.

What he represented to me was a lot of things. I got into him through my older brother Mark, who went to the same local high school that I did and always was, and still is, a really incredibly creative person. In the small town that we grew up in, he was a New Romantic, he was a Soulboy, he was into The Smiths, and he would wear [all] of the gear and really risk life and limb going through a small town dressed like that. He introduced me to Bowie when I was a teenager and those songs, which are songs about loneliness and feeling different, of course appealed to me as an arty adolescent—which doesn’t make me special, that’s what he did for millions of people. But it was a sense of cultural literacy that I also got through Bowie. You could look at a Bowie record sleeve and there would be something scrawled on the sleeve notes about The Velvet Underground or about Andy Warhol and you’d think, “Who’s that?” So you’d go to the school library and look it up, to a record store, or I’d ask my brother. You’d look at another record sleeve and see his pose was based on a German Expressionist painting or you’d read an interview with him and he’d mention William Burroughs, Roland Barthes, or Bertolt Brecht. Bowie provided a model of autodidacticism where you could become culturally literate outside the academy. You could find out a lot about the world and other creative lives and projects through the prism of this particular musician. There are lots of bands and musicians that have done that, he’s not necessarily unique in that regard, but he was certainly a significant one for me.

I also think that a lot of the ways in which he comported himself as a creative person are really relevant to artists and the way they work. There’s a sense of collaboration and community; he was someone who always celebrated working with other people. There’s a sense of restlessness, of wanting to do lots of different things—for better or for worse—whether it’s acting, writing, or painting as well as making music. There’s a sense of knowing when to stop and take a break from things, to step back from the work you’re making, and of changing things up to keep them interesting for yourself. There’s having a sense of humor about yourself and self-deprecation, and just maintaining a sense of possibility, that there are other places in the world to go and explore.