Q: Who is pretentious?

A: To answer such a question, we have to start with the definition of the word. As usual, I turn to Webster:

Main Entry: pre•ten•tious
Pronunciation: pri-‘ten(t)-sh&s
Function: adjective
Etymology: French prétentieux, from prétention pretension, from Medieval Latin pretention-, pretentio, from Latin praetendere
1 : characterized by pretension : as a : making usually unjustified or excessive claims (as of value or standing) b : expressive of affected, unwarranted, or exaggerated importance, worth, or stature
2 : making demands on one’s skill, ability, or means : AMBITIOUS
synonym see SHOWY
– pre•ten•tious•ly adverb
– pre•ten•tious•ness noun

That seems pretty simple. Who is pretentious? Somebody displaying pretension. So what the heck is that?!? Well, here’s the definition for pretension:

Main Entry: 1pre•ten•sion
Pronunciation: pri-‘ten(t)-sh&n
Function: noun
1 : an allegation of doubtful value : PRETEXT
2 : a claim or an effort to establish a claim
3 : a claim or right to attention or honor because of merit
4 : an aspiration or intention that may or may not reach fulfillment
synonym see AMBITION
– pre•ten•sion•less /-l&s/ adjective

That seems pretty cut and dry. But I’m sure that Patrick didn’t want simply to know what pretentious meant, and the loose categorization of those who make “doubtfully valuable allegations” as pretentious. No, I suspect Patrick wants to know who I think is pretentious, and moreover, why.

Those of you 5 or 6 readers out there likely know my hatred for the overuse of the word “pretentious” in descriptions of art – be it music or film. It’s not so much that I hate simply the word, or even it’s frequency of utterance. It’s more a misuse. Abuse, really.

I feel that most folks use that synonym that Webster listed up above: showy. Furthermore, I believe they use such a word to describe what they believe is showy without evidence of whether or not such a piece of art really fits such a categorization. Such oversimplification of “pretentious” is detectable when the offender explains his or her reasons for using the word. In countless articles, forum posts, and conversations, people describe their impression of the artists intent. Sure, they believe the artist is being showy, whether it’s the dialogue in an “indie” film, or Sufjan Stevens’ song titles on his Illinois album. But does their aversion to these artistic products stem from unjustified or excessive claims by the artist? Are these artists overstating their own value? Such claims, if they exist, rarely find their way into the vitriolic verbiage of critics who cry “pretentious!”

So who do I think is pretentious? Those critics, whether professional, forum-posting, or casual arm-chair remarking, who call out “pretentious” without a thorough understanding of its meaning, against art they simply find too ornamental. Such people are themselves making unjustified value judgments.

Thus concludes Ask Dan #1. Thanks, Patrick, for the question!

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