Why I’m pretentious -- and proud of it

We accuse someone of pretentiousness to call out false authority and deflate delusions of grandeur. But we’re also using the word as a tool of class policing: a way to tell a person to stop putting on airs and graces. In Britain, where we obsess over class fidelity and betrayal to the point of neurosis, to charge a person with pretension is to accuse them of behaving in ways they are not qualified for, because of their economic circumstances or educational background. (She can’t possibly have an interest in modern art, because she grew up on a council estate and it is pretentious for her to believe she can expand her horizons — her interest surely must be an affectation.) Pretension is confusing: the term is a tool for puncturing pomposity but it can equally function as a mechanism of disempowerment — a form of anti-intellectualism and prejudice against difference, a way of bullying people out of curiosity about the world around them.
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Pretension can never be fully absolved of its associations with snobbery, but whereas the snob is obsessed by what other people are thinking of them, the pretentious person might be acting out of innocence. A person’s interests or creative efforts might look ridiculous to others, but in many instances they come from a place of sincerity, marking a genuine interest in some aspect of their life or the world around them. A pretentious person may simply be an amateur, having a go out of enthusiasm. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re good at what they do, but it marks the willingness to try, and across the arts, that willingness to make an effort and possibly fail is vital to creative progress. The person who embarks on an artistic project with the knowledge that it will succeed, knowing precisely what it will look or sound like, will rarely discover anything new in the process. As Woody Allen once said: “If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.”

Before firing the charge of pretension, first answer the question: “Pretending to be what?” The accuser of pretension rarely itemises both what is being aspired to, and just why it fails to make the grade — for example, the guilty party’s amateur hour antics flatter your own professional discernment.