Battling the Imaginary Pretentious.

28 Jun

Guest post today by my friend, writer, film maker and photographer Samuel Webster.  The Sydney Dance Company recently performed the show  2 One Another, an interpretation of Samuel’s poetry.

Just to demonstrate how current we are on Sheep, I note that the prestigious published on this topic JUST A MERE FEW MOMENTS AGO.

Over to Samuel:

It’s been three months since my last collaboration opened at the Sydney Theatre, and I’ve talked a lot about it. I had been working with Rafael Bonachela and Sydney Dance Company on 2 One Another, and before it hit the stage, I had to do the usual rounds of media to promote and discuss the show. I’ve never minded doing interviews – I don’t find it a grind – because I enjoy talking about my work. Part of that is pure egotism, I’m sure, but I think there’s something more to it. Personally, I think I’m still finding the ‘mythology’ which pop artist Momus has referred to in his own work.

That mythology is part method and part a system of thought. The latter is such that even as I write this, the first time I have done so since undertaking the task of writing poetry for dancers, I find it evolving. It is the system of thought, beyond technique, which gives an individual artist some style. It’s that system which allows me to feel comfortable promoting myself as a film maker and poet, a photographer and painter. Because it sits above the technique and medium and informs the message.

It is this state of mind that I took into the studio. Without it, a poet working with dancers might turn out to be as strange as it sounds. By adapting myself as someone who represents and interprets, and forgetting the technical element with which I do so, I feel that I can work in any scenario based in impulse response. It is for this reason that none of the interviews filed about the show refer to the technical. Though I have made some effort to describe the kind of output that the process created, that was not the focus of the work. The focus of the work was always about building that mythology, contained and centralised in the dance studio, to inform the creation of abstract work. It is my firm belief that, unlike other forms of art, modern dance would cease to exist if it let go of the necessity for mythology. For me, contemporary dance’s means of representation is far too abstract to sustain without some grander consideration. Working with Rafael Bonachela may have spoiled me on this fact, because he is a very intelligent choreographer who has almost completely succumbed to the whimsy of such ‘mythological’ elements, yet has the technical ability to back it up. In fact, he is one of the artists I aspire to be like for this reason. I have not yet found the place where I can surrender to those elements, though I suspect that is part of an artist’s ongoing development. This is not to say that I wish to find my place in complete abstraction, but rather, I would like to train myself in a method which mythologises the real.

Reality is the catalyst for abstract expression – it is the anchor for grander ideas. Over the last few years, I’ve found myself strangely enamoured by work which finds itself in reality. Like Billy Collins naming the silence between himself and his dead father, or the way modern poets experiment with Twitter as a social medium of brevity. These are intellectual rich endeavours, yet sit in a plain of reality I find comforting. However, the appeal of such things has the by-product of leading me away from the simple enjoyment of the popular. Pop music is the first casualty, but film is sure to follow as I sink deeper into the comfort of pretence.

That dreaded term, ‘pretentious’, seems now to be the empty dismissal of anything lacklustre to which effort seems to have been applied. Indeed, even engaging with it is likely to have me branded likewise. Nevertheless, I don’t see any reason to shy away from an idea for the sake of avoiding marginalisation.

It seems that the term ‘pretentious’ is the cry of the less engaged when feeling forced to think beyond the pure aesthetic of a piece of art. Why does that drive me away from pop culture? Because, those who really engage with the genre can come to one of two ends:

  1. Pop culture is naturally, and intentionally, devoid of meaning.
  2. Pop culture is unaware of the triviality of the tropes it propagates.

Pop musicians and blockbuster directors don’t guide us either way, because a belief in either direction requires conviction to the cause. Admitting superficiality could be a death knell for an artist who has been perceived otherwise.

So, instead of degrade a genre which the majority enjoys, we say that ”art has changed” and the art which refuses to change is “pretentious.” The term pretence literally refers to the act of intentional deception. But by that virtue, all art is pretentious, because even the furthest attempts at portraying reality are not without some form of deception. This is not a bad thing, because deception (a magician’s disappearing act) is not the same as insincerity (a loaded roulette wheel). Pretence seems necessary to me, so ‘pretentious’ as a term should not be used to degrade cerebral art.

Additionally, the notion of Art evolving into Pop Culture we see today is patently false. If anything, art has split into Intentional Art and Entertainment, and it did so because people engaged in the Entertainment business hijacked it with considerable amounts of money.

Perhaps, we could redefine the way we refer to the cultural landscape: ‘Art’ could refer to the use of a medium to bring about a point of some philosophical or intellectual statement or engagement; ‘Culture’, the repetition of specific tropes within a society which promote engagement and work toward some form of identifiable structure; ‘Entertainment’, is the use of a creative medium to fascinate and engage without aspiration to a developing consciousness. Instead of just accepting that the modern world’s concept of art is preoccupied with nightclubs and the hedonistic exploits therein, why not establish pop music as entertainment and deconstruct it through aesthetics instead of philosophical arguments?

Of course, none of this is particularly new, though we have more and more platforms on which to discuss it.  In 1988, Momus released “Tender Pervert”, a stand out track of which claims: “Whenever I played my protest songs, the press applauded me, rolled out the red carpet and parted the red sea. But the petit bourgeois philistines stayed away. They preferred their artists to have nothing to say.” (I Was a Maoist Intellectual)

If the music industry claims to be interested in art, why did people call for censorship when Sinead O’Connor tore an image of the Pope on national television? Why is such an act not standard fare?

A year after releasing Tender Pervert, Momus responded to the accusation that he could be considered pretentious with this: “You’ve got to have a mythology, a set of ideas to live by. Otherwise you have to get your ideas from News at 10 or Brookside or something. Pretentious – okay, I’ve read a couple of books in my time, because I was lonely and had nothing better to do on a Friday night than read Nabokov. I would probably have preferred to go down to the Stretton discotheque and boogie down, but that’s not the way my life turned out.”

To consider the pretence of something is like breaking apart the “technical playground” of the Ferris Wheel. Sure, knowledge of physics isn’t a requirement to enjoy the ride, but the manipulation of that knowledge, on the engineer’s behalf, is key.

The problem with conflating pretence and insincerity is simple. What should be niche, high order thinking, is dismissed because of some consideration that says an aspiration toward intelligence cannot occur without some level of arrogance. This way of thinking implies that the intellect exists only for perpetuating elitism, when it is more frequently the case that art aims to destroy the bourgeois, not strengthen it. In fact, if there’s anything that perpetuates the elite, it’s the pop music industry which profits hugely while paying artists a pittance.

With lovers of entertainment judging the progression of art, it seems that the only way to avoid the cry of arrogance seems to be to shoot for the middle-ground. This is the problem with bundling the arts and entertainment together. It is a bundling which places soviet war anthems alongside UK dance hits. The genre matches but the intention, reception and intellectual potential differ. Sadly, funding is also lumped together in this way, such that $1 million dollars for the rights to Annie is quoted, alongside grants for new opera, dance and theatrical works, as ‘funding for the arts’ when they are quite different in form.

My next project is to shoot images in Tuscany, to experiment with the concept of memory and history and clashing nostalgias. Is this pretentious? Of course. It is an engagement with a localised mythology, defined by geography and constrained by medium. Without a doubt, the focus will be intentional and the colour balance deliberately manipulated. To lose the mythology would be to turn myself over to pure aestheticism and publish only those images which matched the generic representation of Italy. There may be those who have no need for deeper considerations than this but, for me, that is not art; it is entertainment. I have no wish to be an entertainer.

Read more about Samuel Webster here.


10 Responses to “Battling the Imaginary Pretentious.”

  1. paul walter June 28, 2012 at 3:01 pm #

    “..but the petit bourgeois philistines stayed away… (I was a Maoist intellectual)”.
    “We haven’t had that spirit here since nineteen sixty-nine.”:
    Eagles, Hotel California.


    • Hypocritophobe June 28, 2012 at 3:16 pm #

      ..they stab it with their steely knives but they just can’t kill the beast….

      (The rest)

      To which, in the name of art,literature and humour, I recommend this;


      • Hypocritophobe June 28, 2012 at 3:21 pm #

        Addendum(sorry-people-not trying to hijack..)In a 2009 interview, Plain Dealer music critic John Soeder asked Don Henley this about the lyrics:

        “On “Hotel California,” you sing: “So I called up the captain / ‘Please bring me my wine’ / He said, ‘We haven’t had that spirit here since 1969.'” I realize I’m probably not the first to bring this to your attention, but wine isn’t a spirit. Wine is fermented; spirits are distilled. Do you regret that lyric?”

        Henley responded,

        “Thanks for the tutorial and, no, you’re not the first to bring this to my attention—and you’re not the first to completely misinterpret the lyric and miss the metaphor. Believe me, I’ve consumed enough alcoholic beverages in my time to know how they are made and what the proper nomenclature is. But that line in the song has little or nothing to do with alcoholic beverages. It’s a sociopolitical statement. My only regret would be having to explain it in detail to you, which would defeat the purpose of using literary devices in songwriting and lower the discussion to some silly and irrelevant argument about chemical processes.”[16]

        According to Glenn Frey’s liner notes for The Very Best of Eagles, the use of the word “steely” in the lyric (referring to knives) was a playful nod to band Steely Dan, who had included the lyric “Turn up the Eagles, the neighbors are listening” in their song “Everything You Did”.


  2. samjandwich June 28, 2012 at 4:42 pm #

    Hi Sam,

    Good to find a namesake. I should probably declare at the outset that Sam Jandwich is a pseudonymn – not my real name – however I suppose you could say that it is more representative of my Mythology” than my real name is.

    I’m not sure I quite agree with your article, though I’m not sure I’m quite capable of explaining why. Suffice to say though I think that the term “pretence” can be a valid description to put on a piece of art, but that depends largely on who is saying it. If it is said as an overcompensation for someone’s lack of inclination to engage with it, in the sense of “the cry of the less engaged when feeling forced to think beyond the pure aesthetic”, then you probably could say this is an illegitimate use of the word. It’s what a philistine would do.

    However if someone considering a piece of art finds it naive, gauche, simplistic etc, then I could understand how they could use the term “pretentious” to describe it, since if it is naive then that essentially means that it purports to be something more significant than it actually is.

    The trouble is, as the artist, or even just as a bystander, how do you determine whether the critic is coming from a position of ignorant disengagement, or of jaded, supereducated contempt? Unless you know the person well, and can successfully shout down their opinion, you just can’t

    Artists and critics alike, where they present/consider themselves as such, exist on a continuum of sophistication, their place on which being determined by their relative level of intellectual, spiritual, emotional development. but pop culture is on the same plane as any other art. A 12 year old will find Justin Bieber fascinating, whereas a 16 year old will probably find him quite lame. but he means something to someone. Further, the ideas contained within this continuum are free to transfer themselves, and each other, between the various “rungs”. And it may be the case that the “high end” of art is the most productive engine room for ideas, but there is also some upward migration as well.

    Once an idea gains widespread currency, even if it was groundbreakingly revolutionary when first proposed, it becomes part of “pop culture”, since it no longer expands the general population’s cnsciusness when it’s prepetuated (though won’t necessarily stay there forever – hence the phenomenon of retro revivals).

    It’s simply a process through which ideas are formed, propagated and consumed, but ultimately context-based, and ephemeral.

    Which, to take a giant leap, is why I subscribe to the view that aesthetics is the only way that’s really meaningful for understanding any piece of creativity. Art’s usefulness can I think be explained in terms off its ability to help us to create beauty, but when it comes down to it, it’s only instrumental, whereas beauty lasts forever, and is untouchable by the concept of pretentiousness.


  3. doug quixote June 29, 2012 at 6:59 am #

    Not quite sure is this is to do with pretensions or not, but here goes :

    For the record, I am all in favour of hirsute females. Let it grow free!


  4. Nick June 29, 2012 at 10:39 pm #

    Samuel, thanks for that. I’m not sure I agree that there was a ‘split’ at some point, but you draw a valid distinction between entertainment and art. Entertainment means making all those decisions like ‘will it appeal to the audience’, ‘what will they think’ etc. In short, the opposite of what art is about.

    As you concede though, the problem with ‘worrying about being perceived as pretentious’, is you kind of risk falling into the same trap. Something I appreciated having drilled into me years ago was a really strong understanding that these are your ideas, not anybody else’s. Who cares what other people think of them. Just do whatever it takes to make them happen. The public aren’t there to allay your fears about yourself, or whether your work is any good. If you’re not convinced, nobody else is going to be convinced for you.

    For me, that was one of the best things postmodernism had to teach us. It really didn’t matter which art school you chose to come from. The major downside was that it led to a glut of individuality. The exponents of 90’s cool and 00’s hipsterism the Salon author refers to. Everyone saying pretty much the same thing with minor variations in style to put their own stamp on it etc etc. The current era is largely about striking the balance (in art and broader culture).

    Pretense is essential to art. When Leonard Cohen sings Dance Me To The End Of Love – about new love flourishing in a concentration camp – is it important we believe that this actually happened to him? That he has some kind of first hand insight into the story? Pretense means accepting that’s there’s a departure and a reference point. It’s Cohen’s job as the artist to get inside that idea and try to understand it as best he can. So that we, the listeners and viewers, if he succeeds and through doing so, managed to create that magic spark, get to do exactly the same thing experiencing it for ourselves…

    Pretentiousness, on the other -– in the sense the the public and the Boltistas, and perhaps the Creans might use the word -– I see as being not so much about the sophistication of the ideas as such, but the perception of ‘artistic entitlement’. That artists are people who think they’re too good to drive buses for a living. “I can’t work to earn extra money on the side because I’m an artist, and I shouldn’t have to!” To a large extent this is a ridiculous generalisation, and clearly someone who thinks this doesn’t know many practising artists.

    But it’s also not without some truth either. The sheer number of young film-types who think they’ve suddenly got their big break and all that lowly bar work is behind them now. What? You still work here? You should see what I’m doing now (mind you, still being paid next to nothing for). Let me tell you all about it for the next half hour. Artists can be as pretentious about what they do as anybody else in any field: it’s a common enough expression of insecurity.

    Moving on though, like the other Sam I think, I wasn’t overly comfortable with the shot at Annie, and the idea that it’s undeserving of funding because ‘that’s not real art’. To me, that does come across as not much more than a personal judgement call. I’m no fan of musical theatre, but even I can remember being taken to see Annie as a four or five year old, and being introduced to some pretty lofty ideas for someone that age. That there’s people a lot poorer than you in the world, as well as people a lot richer. That generosity of heart and spirit is a good thing, no matter what your situation. The foibles of drunkenness. The idea that some people are greedy and act badly, but there’s often an underlying reason for it. That we all know what it feels like to be hurt. The importance of working together to achieve what you want. Lots of stuff there that’s great for kids to learn. It’s a story about kids, for kids.

    I really don’t have a problem with it, and I’m really not sold on the idea that the art we fund has to be ‘newly written’ or ‘Australian’ or anything else.

    I’ve said something similar thing recently, but if you support the arts, you support the arts. If you think the government should be providing more arts funding, push for more art funding. In the process, I think it’s worth trying to avoid going down the political path of arguing that some cultural forms deserve it, and others don’t, because they’ve had their day, or they’re too ‘entertainment based’, or whatever it is that doesn’t appeal. I suspect Annie is providing employment for scores of artists in lots of different fields. They all have the same right to receive government funding to make their art as anyone else you or I might think is doing something ‘more important’, or which ‘matters more’.

    That’s another area where pretentiousness can creep in. Too much worrying about what other people are doing, and having to justify what you do in comparison, and where the money’s going, and “there’s not enough money to go around!” Actually, there is, and it’s just a matter of lobbying harder for it, and preferably with everybody on side – the opera community, the big orchestras etc etc. Not in the way that “they have something we want, we think we deserve it more, and we want to take it for ourselves”…

    Perhaps I’m talking at cross-purposes, but the funding thing has been on my mind a lot lately, and it seemed like it might be the nub of what you were getting at?


  5. Hypocritophobe June 29, 2012 at 10:46 pm #

    Even artists know they are surrounded by pretentious wankers, calling themselves artists.
    It’s a human thing.


  6. Hypocritophobe June 29, 2012 at 11:01 pm #

    Speaking of pretentious and imaginary, here’s the confirmed liar(greens and the CIA) creating an internal smokescreen.
    Bad luck Clive,we all know the tale about the boy who cried wolf.It seems he grows up (physically ONLY) to be a gravity-challenged, know-all arsehole.


  7. hudsongodfrey June 30, 2012 at 12:18 am #

    I think that the distinction to be made is that while not always strictly entertaining in the sense that pop culture disseminates, neither is art that is publicly funded strictly for art’s sake. It is there to be appreciated by somebody, to inspire someone or to enter into the public record an expression of some enduring intrinsic worth. Just being pretentious for a hobby doesn’t stand up to that kind of scrutiny.

    In that sense I think what has been written here perhaps says an awful lot about what the artist does not want to become without engaging with what he does hope to achieve and how he expects others in turn to engage with that. Which is either ironic in terms of the artistic notion being expressed as a kind of negative, or a pity because what I was left with was a sense that something creative is afoot that might have tantalising potential while at the same time being frustratingly absent from the conversation that we’re able to have until the project happens and something gets actualised for us to appreciate.

    Either way I wish him luck.


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