I'm guilty of it. I've used the word pretentious as abludgeon to beat down the ambitious, to mock attempts at being intellectual or to surprise or to throw an audience's expectations out of whack. But every time I see someone else use it, I feel ashamed of having ever done it myself, because there may be no more pretentious act than dubbing someone else's work pretentious. This struck me yesterday when reading a little review of Hal Hartley's latest movie in Time Out New York, a review that demonstrated a fairly shallow familiarity with Hartley's previous work before dismissing his recent film as having "pretentious dialogue." Hartley strikes me as one of the least pretentious filmmakers working, because he's operating independent of current prevailing notions of cool. But because he takes on diffuse ideas and approaches questions of social theory with the unconventional methods they typically demand in order to yield fresh insights, he is routinely dubbed pretentious, his pretense being the idea that a filmmaker should attempt to do anything other than flatter its audience, bathe them in attitude and tittilate them with sex and violence.
There are many problems with pretentious as epithet, the largest being the problem of the imputation of the critic's own lofty point of view. When you call something else pretentious -- that is, accuse a work of having a phony intellectual content, a shallowness masquerading as depth -- you set yourself up as the transcendent arbiter of intellect; you grant yourself a superintellect that never fails to understand what others have been attempting and can parcel out precisely how much intellectual validity their efforts warrant. But no critic can stand on that Archimedian ground, even if we were to agree that there is some kind of objective intellectualism that could be measured and quantified. Ad then there is the problem of the parasitical critic, who feeds off of the work of other artists to build his own self-esteem -- he sits back and points out the intellectual shortcomings of other people's work while never having to trouble to venture his own. His ability to find "pretension" in all efforts to wrestle with complexity justifies his own failures to act, to make something, to attempt to hunt bigger game than the aesthetic success of the work of other artists. Not all critics are parasites, and of course criticism can be a constructive medium of its own. But the pretentious critics are never more than bloodsuckers, feeding on other artists to nourish their own superiority. Such critics defend their nebulous intellectual turf with lofty insults because they are afraid to actually stalk it and find out what contradictions and inconscistencies and complexities lurk there. Pretentious as epithet is a vital pillar of anti-intellectualism, allowing bully reactionary critics to shout down anything that threatens the status quo of debased culture subservient to the oligarchy and the hydraulics of consumerism.