In Defense of Pretension

If you are in the business of creating art for public consumption, have a reason for doing it, and try to show some skill.

On Sunday, July 2nd I saw what I have since been referring to as the ‘worst thing I’ve ever seen on stage’. Which is of course not quite right, and is instead shorthand (as such hyperbole often is) for a more complicated truth.

It was the worst show I’ve ever seen by a reputable company with considerable buzz going on. Which means of course that we had the classic failure to meet expectations. I was hoping to write a review of the piece in this space, but it was so off-putting that this is the closest we’re going to come.

The travesty of July 2nd was supposed to be a faux modern dance piece set to the music of a rising local musician. I like (most) modern dance. I like clever deconstructions. I like local musicians. So I ‘treated’ my fiancee to a show.

This was however not a deconstruction. There was no modern dance except by the most loose of definitions, and the ‘movement’ on stage had absolutely no relation to the music. This piece also fell prey to the most insidious of fallacies: Announced Lack of Pretension.

Oh pretension, enemy of the common man.

Everyone “hates” pretension. In the same way that ‘everyone’ hates Linkin Park (still sell half a million every time out), and every one hates Jerry Bruckheimer. They don’t.

People hate things they hate, and then pick a reason to tack on later. Pretentiousness is an easy bugaboo to tack on because in our ‘egalitarian’ society the only thing worse than socialism is elitism. And elitism is only elitism if it leaves you out.

Insofar as theatre production, the pretension that people mean when they toss it about as a slur is almost always directed at the intent, not the execution. A character behaving pretentiously won’t get slurred (though that character will almost always be a villain), a producer throwing around words like deconstruction generally will.

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Here we run into the problem of dictionary definition versus accepted colloquial use. M-W.com has some useful definitions, 1. Poseur, 2. Ambitious. Colloquial usage almost always means ‘elitist prick’.

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I get accused of being pretentious all the time. And well… the accusers are mostly right, by all three definitions above. But the difference between 1 and 2 is success, and the difference between Merriam-Webster and the colloquial is the audience’s understanding.

If my work doesn’t overreach my boasting I am a poseur. And if my work doesn’t get through to my audience I am at best a poor storyteller and at worst… well – elitist prick it is.

But there is nothing more pretentious (definition 1) than announcing to the world that the work you are presenting is for the Common Man! Unlike the elitist pricks over there! Announcing lack of pretension is the equivalent of apologizing in advance. If you aren’t trying to do something with your production, no matter how low your aim, it starts dead and can only rot from there.

The very act of asking that people pay to see you do something is pretentious. It assumes that what you are presenting has real world value. So in return for that pretension offer them a real product made with some skill for a reason. The reason doesn’t need to have four syllables and be vetted by Jill Dolan’s Performance as Public Practice coterie. They can be very simple.

  1. I/We want to make people laugh
  2. I/We want to make people cry (I use this one quite a bit)
  3. I/We am/are really good at dance
  4. I/We like singing and think people should pay us for it
  5. I/We want to change your mind about the plight of banana farmers

The July 2nd travesty failed because it wasn’t trying to do anything. If it had been a deconstruction of modern dance, if it had begun as a ‘straight’ dance piece and devolved into the muddled contact improv mess that it was with the same amount of glee that the performers were exhibiting? Or if it had been about freeing dance from the structure of modern dance and focused on just feeling the music while doing the Living Room Boogie. It would have been riveting. But pretentious.

I need to confess… my fiancee and I were among the few that didn’t stand during curtain call. The house loved it. They almost sold out their entire Thursday to Sunday engagement.

So I obviously have no idea what I’m talking about.

HOMEWORK

Why am I wrong?

How can we achieve pretentious goals without being elitist pricks?

Is there a good example of art made for NO REASON that was any good?

  • Ian W. Hill

    Why am I wrong?

    As far as I can see, you aren’t. I’m looking over this again, and not finding anything to disagree with here . . . in fact I’d like to quote something you said that I say in pretty much the same words, fairly often:

    But there is nothing more pretentious (definition 1) than announcing to the world that the work you are presenting is for the Common Man! Unlike the elitist pricks over there! Announcing lack of pretension is the equivalent of apologizing in advance. If you aren’t trying to do something with your production, no matter how low your aim, it starts dead and can only rot from there.

    How can we achieve pretentious goals without being elitist pricks?

    By not being elitist pricks, period. Which means simply liking what you’re liking and doing what you’re doing and committing to it without apology, and keeping an open mind towards all the world has to offer in influence and input. By being a worker and craftsperson first, before being an “artist” (if you are, as I like to think I am, great, but the nuts-and-bolts WORK comes first, even in making the most intellectually ambitious and “elitist” art).

    Is there a good example of art made for NO REASON that was any good?

    As there are always exceptions, I’m sure I must have seen one at some point — sometimes, chance falls in such a way that a piece not created to try and do something actually DOES something. Then, if you can, you judge the piece and not the intentions (it’s always the work, not the artist/craftsperson to trust).

    I have the feeling I must have seen one, but off the top of my head I can’t think of one.

    IWH

  • J.D.

    Oh my God, man! Thank you for articulating so well what I,too, have experienced over the years.

    Recently, I attended a festival and was shocked by how badly it was put together. Admittedly I had high expectations, as I have recently left a theatre community who plays poor in the martyred way you describe in an earlier post. The play was good. Anywho…the acting, the blocking, the set were all bad, and the audience (except me and my partner) stood at the end. The audience was primarily theatre people, from what I gleaned from the pre-show conversation.

    It’s not enough to do do theatre. It must be done well. Otherwise it’s like spitting at the audience. Which is a whole different kind of theatre, in and of itself.

    Glad to have found your blog.
    Cheers,
    J.D.