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An essay by Dan Fox

Pretentiousness is the engine oil of culture; the essential lubricant in the development of all arts, high, low, or middle.

April 5, 2016
5 x 7.5 | 144 Pages
Trade Paper

Thanks to a 2013 ADA Access Improvement Grant administered by VSA Minnesota for the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council, this title is also formatted for screen readers which make text accessible to the blind and visually impaired.

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ISBN: 978-1-56689-428-9.



Pretentiousness is for anyone who has braved being different, whether that’s making a stand against artistic consensus or running the gauntlet of the last bus home dressed differently from everyone else. It’s an essential ingredient in pop music and high art. Why do we choose accusations of elitism over open-mindedness? What do our anxieties about “pretending” say about us?

Dan Fox is a British writer, musician, editor, and filmmaker currently living in New York. He is the co-editor of frieze, Europe’s foremost magazine of contemporary art and culture.


“A nimble case for pretentiousness as a willingness to take risks.” —New York Times Sunday Book Review, “Editors’ Choice”

“Reading Fox is like watching a gymnast perform a floor routine. He vaults and tumbles ideas and arguments, seamlessly incorporating criticism, pop culture, and stories form his own life, and sticks every landing.” —Los Angeles Review of Books

“Dan Fox’s book celebrates the art in artifice, the let’s pretend in pretentiousness, arriving at an eloquent, important understanding of how culture has always provided an escape from the dreariness of routine work and productive life.  Exhaustively researched and passionately written, recognizing those who audaciously ‘pretend’ to beauty beyond their present means, Pretentiousness is a deeply optimistic and affirming book.”—Chris Kraus, author of I Love Dick

“Fox makes clear how certain types of performances and acts are interwoven in the masks or selves that people adopt in everyday life. . . . His book stands as a convincing philosophical investigation into a wide-ranging concept that governs much of the way people behave.” —Publishers Weekly

“Fox also cites the work of George Orwell and Susan Sontag repeatedly, and in this book he has written an intellectually rigorous study of culture that echoes the scope of their work. His argument is convincing, and it may leave readers with a newfound respect for the term that gives his book its title.” Star Tribune 

“[Fox] elucidates in an intelligent and conversational style the many complex layers of aesthetic, class and social discomfort that often arise in the face of pretentiousness.” Chicago Tribune 

“Fox is a nimble writer, and his brief book includes surprisingly rich detours through history, philosophy, criticism, literature, ‘Withnail and I’ and more besides. . . . Fox is attuned to the way tastes feel important because of everything that goes into them—class, education, upbringing—making them the embodiment of where we were from, and where we want to be.” —New York Times Sunday Book Review

“This shrewd book argues that pretentiousness is central to our progress and our individuality.” —The Guardian

“In Pretentiousness: Why It Matters, Fox . . . offers a defense of acting like someone you’re not. It’s the way we cross boundaries and discover new lands.” —New York Post

“This thoughtful essay will be balm to those who dare to be elitist, to snub artistic consensus.” —Toronto Star

“Epoch-making, epic, historic, unforgettable, triumphant, age-old, inevitable, inexorable, and veritable. Pretentiousness will never look the same.” —Elif Batuman, author of The Possessed

“One of this book’s delights is its subtle and witty handling of the relevant etymologies. . . . This engaging study is at its most persuasive when it insists that pretentiousness and ‘the permissions it gives—the licence to try new experiences, to experiment with ideas, to see if you want to live your life another way’—is a vehicle not just for social vitality, but for individual freedom.” Times Literary Supplement (UK)

“Brief and elegantly righteous.” —The Guardian

Pretentiousness is impressively broad in its exploration of its subject . . . there is something deeply humane, and even touching, in Fox’s unwillingness to see any form or pretentiousness as bad. . . Fox has written a hopeful and stirring defense not just of pretentiousness in all its forms, but of the value of art itself.” —Slate

“Lucidly written and ultimately enlightening, Dan Fox’s essay is a must-read.” —Largehearted Boy

“If you read only one part of this bracing, lively, espresso shot of a book, I’d probably choose the final chapter. But there’s so much good stuff in this essay: insights about art, fashion, acting, music, film, culture, as well as urban and small-town life. I read it in one sitting and it spoke to so much of my life experience that it felt like I’d been waiting for it for years.” The Millions 

“What Fox did with this little book is brilliant. It isn’t looking down on anybody, rather it’s Fox questioning why we’re so hellbent on looking down on intelligence, on loving great art, and why ‘Anti-intellectualism’ seems to be so in fashion when that in itself is really its own brand of pretentiousness.” —Vol. 1 Brooklyn

“Fox’s redemption of pretentiousness is a persuasive one, in terms of drawing out its positive creative potential, and revealing the prejudice which often underlies accusations of pretension.” Minor Literatures

“More than being part of an ‘acceptable creative act,’ for Fox pretentiousness is integral as an engine of self-creation—and we should all be more forgiving of it, at least sometimes.” Flash Art

“Fox’s ‘concise yet wide-ranging’ treatise ‘pulls in unexpected and insightful threads’ from a wide array of thinkers.” The Week

“In Pretentiousness, British author Dan Fox writes an unpretentious and effective overview of the role of pretense in the arts. . . . Fox’s nonjudgmental tact demonstrates sensitivity to readers of all stripes.” —Brazos Bookstore

“Fox’s mission in Pretentiousness is to reclaim the term from its critics and, in so doing, neutralize the stick of populism.” 3 Quarks Daily

“Writing in a conversational voice that’s flexible enough to lead discussions of Greek theater and Victorian satire, as well as to reflect on his own middle-class upbringing, Fox’s encyclopedic knowledge of cultural offerings high and low allows him to ponder what the concept of pretentiousness tells us about the relationship between art and power and the spaces where they collide.” Heavy Feather Review

“Although the title is sure to elicit some knee-jerk reactions, Fox is an even-handed and likable guide on this journey. His ostensible defense of pretentiousness is simply a reminder that we’re all figuring it out as we go.” The Rumpus

“Fox’s book is an elegant and convincing defense.” Vulture

“In this wide-ranging study, Fox, the editor of Frieze, reclaims pretentiousness as a generative force in contemporary art.” Flavorwire

“[Pretentiousness provides] a compelling example of. . . the perverse move of taking a pejorative term and reclaiming it as praise.” March Sadness

“Witty and insightful. . . . Knowing what it is like to be someone else is an essential part not just of cultural creation but of empathy itself. Not being ourselves is, as Fox shows, what it means to be human.” —Intelligent Life

“A celebration of the weird, the challenging, the ambitious, and everything that makes art, music, pop culture, and life interesting.” —Porter Square Books, Staff Picks

“Fox is talking about social mobility: how a working-class boy who appreciates the avant garde might well be improving his life. ‘We should encourage these people,’ says Fox, ‘not pillory them as pretentious.’” —Monocle

“In tackling so directly a term—‘pretentiousness’—that has been thrown around too lightly for too long, Dan Fox has opened a fascinating, illuminating and barely-glimpsed-before perspective onto both culture and criticism. With clarity and persuasive argument, he proves from an etymological basis that pretentiousness can be both good and bad—necessary, even, to cultural and artistic good health. This insightful book should be read like a contemporary reprise of an eighteenth-century essay on critical manners, for it shares with such texts the winning combination of wit, good sense, and intellectual rigor.” —Michael Bracewell, author of England is Mine

“We level charges of pretension at what violates our tribal sense of normality—as if ‘normal’ were a definable thing, and as if pretentious art weren’t hugely popular.” —The Rumpus

Pretentiousness: Why it Matters is more than a smartly counterintuitive encomium: it’s a lucid and impassioned defense of thinking, creating, and, ultimately, living in a world increasingly dominated by the massed forces of social and intellectual conservatism.” —Tom McCarthy, author of Satin Island

“Fox makes a very good case for a reevaluation of the word ‘pretentious.’ The desire to be more than we are shouldn’t be belittled. Meticulously researched, persuasively argued—where would we be as a culture if no one was prepared to risk coming across as pretentious? Absolument nowhere, darling—that’s where.” —Jarvis Cocker

“Dan Fox’s Pretentiousness: Why It Matters is as provocative and witty as its title.” —The New Statesman