Melati Suryodarmo’s Exergie VS Adele’s Someone Like You (2012-2016)

In April 19, 2012, someone randomly uploaded what he might thought as a joke in YouTube.


On the same day, April 19, 2012, the witty WorldStarHipHop framed it as their WTF Clip Of The Week with the subtitle Woman In Tight Dress Slips On Butter For Twenty Minutes.. Talking About This Is Art!


Again, on the same day, April 19, 2012, Vice‘s Clive Martin reacted WorldStarHipHop. (And, yes, the Internet is THAT fast–eds.)

It’s becoming increasingly clear to those in the know that is one of the most important cultural barometers in the world today. Haters might have you believe that it’s just a series of shaky subway punch-ups, 17-year-old Floridian girls posing in front of their webcams and an endless succession of dreadful unsigned MCs. But as the saying goes, fuck da h8rs, because WorldStar is one of the best places to see provocative outsider culture before the suits get their hands on it.

I’ll admit that, until now, the content on the site has erred towards the more lowbrow side of things – a little bit more Sunday Sport than Vanity Fair. But now that they’ve done the groundwork, WorldStar are dipping their toes into the world of fine art. And judging by the hits on this video, their audience is starting to appreciate it, too.

The video in question is snappily titled “WTF Clip Of The Week: Woman In Tight Dress Slips On Butter For Twenty Minutes.. Talking About This Is Art!” and it’s gone viral. (You might think they’re undermining the art with that title, but remember, people were saying “WTF” about the Impressionists at one point, too.)

It’s a strange piece for sure and, as always, people are asking what it means. The WSHH commenters have their own opinions but I thought I would cast my G in GCSE art expertise over the video and offer a few helpful interpretations.
Theory #1: It’s a post-feminist statement on the struggles of the modern woman in a patriarchal society.

She’s just a downtrodden sister, trying to stand on her own two feet in a man’s world, but the floor keeps falling from beneath her. Societal pressure and gender conventions have forced her into wearing a tight dress and heels, but this conflicts with the domestic ideal (which the butter obviously represents). It’s a new take on the “whore in the bedroom, goddess in the kitchen” rhetoric, shown skilfully through the medium of dance. She’s a Yoko Ono for the Iggy Azalea generation.

Theory #2: It’s about how making yourself desirable can become degrading.

The tight dress and the stilettos tell us that she is portraying a woman who is looking for a partner, but degrading herself in the process. It’s a theme previously explored through Lars Von Trier’s Breaking The Waves and the work of Nicki Minaj. The performance is a comment on the lengths we will go to make ourselves become desirable, even if we look ridiculous in the process. The uncompromising nature of it is designed to embarrass the male audience members into considering the way they objectify women, whereas the heavy falls are symbolic of the physical and psychological damage that trying to be attractive to men can do to women. She’s a sex martyr.

Theory #3: It’s about the female fear of impending motherhood.

OK, I don’t want to jump to conclusions here and have my own bad sitcom moment by assuming that she’s pregnant when she might not be. I’ve seen too many repeats of Just Shoot Me to think that’s a good idea. But I’m willing to go out on a limb for the sake of art criticism and say she’s either got a bun in the oven or a lifetime CAMRA membership with a belly like that. Thus, it could well be a female take on the Eraserhead theme, only this time it’s a woman who is afraid to express her innate fear of parenthood. As for the butter, well, I’m not sure where that fits into this one. It’s just a theory; I’ll work on it.

Theory #4: It’s about the inner conflict between our bourgeois pretensions and our animalistic urges.

She is playing a stereotype of the modern Westerner, dolled up to the nines in expensive clothing, trying to fool herself that we’re not all just shaved beasts. We’ve been hiding away from our animalistic nature for too long, and like any forbidden fruit, the fascination with the other way grows. She’s playing the role of a modern city dweller, who one day suddenly hears the drums of the beatniks on the subway, and becomes entranced by them. The spirit of the beat generation shoots right through her. She’s transported back to the cradle of civilisation and a time before materialism took precedence. She slips into a jungle trance, seeing visions of the old world as a new Eden opens up before her. The butter represents her trampling on her previous existence and heading back to the primitive. It’s What Dreams May Come meets Fern Gully.

Theory #5: It’s about voyeurism.

Can’t you see that she’s doing this on purpose? She’s recreating some of the darker happenings of the World Wide Web in a live environment and turning the audience’s voyeurism against them. Much like GG Allin or Michael Barrymore, she is a performer who revels in making her audience feel uncomfortable. She’s letting us know that voyeurism should be as bad for the voyeur as it is for the voyee. She uses the tools of flagrant exhibitionism and borderline self-harm to shock and awe an audience who think they’ve seen it all before. She’s asking the men in the audience to consider if the things they look at when they’re alone seem disgusting when viewed with others.

Theory #6: It’s a scathing critique of the barbaric practices of the dairy industry.

Anyone who’s read Fast Food Nation or seen of one Dom Littlewood’s poignant exposees on the subject will know that the world of dairy is a murky one, only rivalled by the tobacco and weapons industries in terms of elite obfuscation. But our favourite butter-skater is an artist, not a reporter, so she utilises the medium of performance for her cultural whistleblowing. The butter represents the natural world, and the stilettos are the inhumanity we enforce upon it. The greasy residue left behind is what we are left with. It’s not the subtlest way of making the point, but truly great art has the bravery to bypass subtlety and go straight for your viscera.

…Or maybe she’s just somebody who severely misjudged what the commenters are looking for in a “WSHH Honey”. Who knows? It’s art.


Not so long after, still in April, 2012, BBC America‘s Fraser McAlpine laid out some facts.

Adele ‘Butterdance’ Video Explained

So there’s a mildly viral thing that’s doing the rounds in which a very stern faced lady in a little black dress and formal shoes attempts to perform a dance routine on top of a pile of butter, to the tune of “Someone Like You” by Adele.

You might want to pause a moment to read that paragraph again, if you’ve not seen the video. Ready? OK.

Now, as is often the case with internet excitement, the level of hysteria is not matched in any way with the level of understanding as to what is going on. And here are the facts:

1: It’s not in any sense about Adele. The original video is a piece of performance art from 2010, in which Melati Suryodarmo does indeed walk (and fall over) on butter, but to the soundtrack of some tribal drumming:

2: Consequently it cannot be said to be a commentary on Adele’s weight as a high-profile media figure. It’s unlikely to be about the media in any sense.

3: Speaking about her work in general (on her website), Melati says this: “I aim to create a concentrated level of intensity without the use of narrative structures. Talking about politics, society or psychology makes no sense to me if the nerves are not able to digest the information. I love it when a performance reaches a level of factual absurdity.”

4: It’s pretty clear she has achieved this.

5: It’s unclear as to why the person who changed the soundtrack of the video decided to go with Adele’s song, what mental process happened which assisted the jump from Melati and butter to Adele. Maybe it’s better not to follow that line of questioning too far, it might prove to be offensive.

6: There is clearly nothing in the world that cannot be set to the soundtrack of “Someone Like You” by Adele and come out looking a little more dignified (at first). That’s clearly why it’s funny.

These are all the facts.


More than a year later, September/October, 2013, ArtAsiaPacific‘s contributor Sylvia Tsai wrote a profile of the artist completely not acknowledging the online rumors on her

Unspoken Language: Melati Suryodarmo

She enters the space to sounds of beating Indonesian drums. Stepping on 20 slabs of butter positioned in the center of the floor, she starts to dance; the movements of her body become faster and faster as the beats accelerate. She slips and falls, hitting the floor, but rises and continues. As the butter melts, her falls become more frequent and violent. Fear is visible in her eyes each time she loses control. After 20 minutes, exhausted and covered in butter, she takes off her heels and leaves.

First presented in 2000 at the Hebbel Theatre in Berlin, Exergie – Butter Dance has become an iconic work for performance artist Melati Suryodarmo. We meet amid the frenzy of the inaugural Art Basel in Hong Kong at the Pawn, a casual, trendy lounge in Wan Chai district. Petite and attired in an all-black outfit—the classic artist’s look—she is also sporting her signature ruby-hued high heels. Suryodarmo laughs as she tells me that she never thought of becoming an artist. Having received her first degree in international relations at the Universitas Padjadjaran in Bandung, Indonesia, she moved in 1994 with her first husband to Braunschweig, Germany, planning to continue her education. Unable to find a suitable program, she instead spent her first year retouching photographs.


Portrait of Melati Suryodarmo at the Pawn, Hong Kong, 2013. Photo by Ann Woo for ArtAsiaPacific.

“My story is very weird, actually. I loved reading at Braunschweig’s botanical gardens, and one day sitting next to me was a Japanese woman wearing big black sunglasses. We struck up a conversation and she mentioned she was a Butoh dancer, teaching performance art at the city’s Hochschule für Bildende Künste (HBK). Her comment caught my attention as I had previously attended a Butoh workshop in Japan. I mentioned this to her and she asked what I was doing in Braunschweig. I told her I was only doing photo work, so she invited me to join her class.”

The mysterious woman turned out to be Anzu Furukawa, the renowned Japanese Butoh dancer and choreographer, who Suryodarmo now considers among her most important influences. “Anzu was the one who discovered me and unveiled my abilities,” she reflects. Suryodarmo became Furukawa’s student in the performance-art program at HBK, with classes that followed a grueling schedule, starting at half past seven in the morning. Furukawa was a tough mentor who taught Suryodarmo how to create and organize stage productions, including choreography and costume making.

While still under Furukawa’s guidance, Suryodarmo presented her first solo performance piece, Rindu (1996), in a dimly lit cellar space in Berlin. Slapping her body and eventually the floor, the pain she subjected herself to reflected her loneliness as a foreigner in Germany and her culture shock in these new surroundings. In the mid-1990s, Berlin was burgeoning with underground spaces—young artists occupied houses as studios and venues for impromptu happenings—and this first foray into performance took place in an art space on Auguststrasse in former East Berlin. Only six people attended, yet, looking back, Suryodarmo explains to me that the experience wasn’t so much about the work itself, but her willingness to do something. “Anzu has always told me not to wait for someone to give you an opportunity. You have to make your own chances and not wait to get curated or invited. Her outlook was brilliant.”

Despite her chance encounter with performance art, Suryodarmo continued the program at HBK after Furukawa left the faculty, and soon met another notable professor. She chuckles when reflecting on her first encounter with Marina Abramović: “I didn’t know who she was, but I remember there were 80 students in her class that first day and she only allowed a maximum of 20.” Suryodarmo continues, “Marina asked everyone why they would like to be in her class. When she turned to me, I said, ‘I want to continue my studies where the last professor left off.’ She looked unimpressed and asked me again. This time I replied, ‘I think you’re very beautiful and I believe I can trust you’—a very silly answer. But that got her to laugh and to accept me in her class.”

Not only was Suryodarmo admitted to Abramović’s class, but she later became her assistant. While Furukawa taught the young Suryodarmo how to organize productions, Abramović’s approach focused on durational solo works, in which the concept of time is pushed to the fore (such works typically exceed an hour and a half), challenging both artist and audience while also transforming perceptions of space. In 2003, Suryodarmo and her classmates performed as living installations at the opening of the 50th Venice Biennale. She remembers that moment not only because it was Venice, but also because it was a three-hour performance executed in the Giardini della Biennale in astonishing 46-degree Celsius heat. “Marina was in a wheelchair at the time, so her then-husband, Paolo Canevari, came around and sprayed us with water,” she recalls fondly.

Most of Suryodarmo’s performances are durational pieces, giving her time to build up tension relating to a repeated action or to the concept of the work. It’s during these moments that a nonverbal language develops between Suryodarmo and the viewers—one based on basic emotions and on the process of endurance, both physical and psychological. In her recent work I Am a Ghost in My Own House (2012), staged at the opening of her solo exhibition at Lawangwangi Creative Space in Bandung, Suryodarmo crushed and ground charcoal briquettes in the exhibition hall for 12 hours. She communicated a sense of loss by taking charcoal, a substance that has potential to generate energy, and destroying it. As in her other works, she pushes against her physical limits and uses her actions to reveal deeper emotional layers to the audience.

When we meet, Suryodarmo is in town for the fair, showing photos and mattresses from Dialogue With My Sleepless Tyrant (2013) with Yogyakarta’s Ark Galerie. The work is inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Princess and the Pea,” in which a girl’s claim to be a princess is tested by her sensitivity to a pea hidden in her bed. In a two-hour performance, Suryodarmo lies in between a stack of 18 mattresses, with only her head exposed. She breathes regularly but, when the weight becomes too much, turns her body and frees herself by lifting the mattresses until they topple, relieving herself of their pressure, or, seen in another way, of the social pressures forced upon women.

Suryodarmo also works in other mediums, and reveals that she is just finishing a single-channel video about maritime life in various fishing villages in West Sumatra, Bali and West Sulawesi. The Lover Across the Sea is inspired by the women—the wives and the lovers—who are left behind when the men go out to sea, and by humanistic expressions of letting go, surrender, love and hope.

Given the time-based and ephemeral nature of performance art, I ask Suryodarmo if she has any advice for viewers who may not know how to approach the medium. She simply replies, “Performance art unites the concept and the performative body. The work lies within the actions of that specific place and time, and involves a frontal communication between the artist and the public. With this in mind, I can only encourage people to watch and experience performance art more and more.”


003-melati-suryodarmo-vSoon after, October, 2013, Harpers’ Bazaar published Marina Abramovic’s selection of young provocateurs #TheList: Art Class and Melati was number three on the list with the note: “[…] born in Surakarta, Indonesia and lives and works in Gross Gleidingen, Germany and Solo, Indonesia. The artist’s work centers on engaging with redundant, often very difficult and long actions, in turn overcoming extremes and often resulting in very beautiful imagery. One of her most famous work is “Exergie butter dance” in which the artist dances sexually while on a platform made of butter bars.


A year after, June 13, 2014, the New York Times‘ Rachel Will took side 

Indonesia’s Maverick Performance Artist

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Two years ago, the Indonesian performance artist Melati Suryodarmo gained YouTube notoriety when a version of her “Exergie — butter dance” was posted to the website. Originally accompanied by Indonesian drum percussion, the reworked clip set Ms. Suryodarmo’s performance of a traditional Indonesian-inspired dance on 20 blocks of melting butter to Adele’s “Someone Like You.”

For the dance, first performed at the Hebbel Theater in Berlin in 2000, Ms. Suryodarmo wears a short black dress and red heels. She slips and falls to the ground repeatedly and exits the stage after 20 minutes, covered in butter.

The “Adele Butterdance” clip has garnered more than 1 million views and 2,000 comments. It has bolstered the original video, which now has more views than the remake. It has also turned Ms. Suryodarmo, now 44, into one of the most famous performance artists to come out of Indonesia, where classical and traditional dance dominate the culture scene.

The piece — both the Adele-dubbed version and the real one — provokes a mix of responses, but that hasn’t deterred her. “Any artist should be ready for misinterpretation from the public,” said Ms. Suryodarmo in a recent telephone interview ahead of a performance at the Indonesian contemporary art festival ART|JOG, which runs through June 22. “Every public has their own personal experiences that influence their perception, and this freedom is great. I want to give that freedom to the public so it doesn’t matter if people insult me or yell at me or admire me, I don’t care what they think.”

Performance art is still relatively unknown in Indonesia. The 1980s marked a high point for the art form in the country when some groups used experimental theater as a means of protest against the authoritarian leader Suharto. Since then, however, diminishing support from the arts community has made funding scarce and performance art less popular.

But Ms. Suryodarmo continues to perform her work and to spread performance art in Indonesia. Her annual Undisclosed Territory workshop, held in her native Solo, Indonesia, a small town in central Java, focuses on the education and promotion of the performing arts by inviting international artists to mentor promising young artists. Now in its eighth year, the weeklong event will be held in her studio in August through private donors.

Ms. Suryodarmo’s roots in the arts can be traced back to her parents. Her father, Suprapto Suryodarmo, is the purveyor of Amerta, a meditative dance practice and her mother, who died in 1987, was a traditional Javanese dancer. She credits a chance meeting in Germany with the Japanese Butoh dancer Anzu Furukawa for her start in performance art.

She went on to study under Ms. Furukawa at Braunschweig University of Art in Germany. “Everything happened by accident honestly, I left my country and I had no plan, I had no dream,” Ms. Suryodarmo said. “Anzu always said ‘I do not want to make you become a dancer,’ she just said the first step is to go into the understanding of the body.”

At the university, Ms. Suryodarmo also studied under Marina Abramovic. She would later serve as Ms. Abramovic’s assistant and perform alongside her with a group of students at the 2003 Venice Biennale.

“Her work is very strong, very charismatic, extremely mesmerizing when she performs,” Ms. Abramovic said by phone. “You can’t take your eyes off her.”

She later added by email, “The most important thing a performance artist can do is to create a charismatic space around them and connect with the public. This is not easy, but Melati has the qualities and abilities to achieve this.”

Now Ms. Suryodarmo splits her time between Gross Gleidingen in northern Germany and Solo, with performances around the world. Her varied and physically demanding performances range from occupying a glass-paned box with live rabbits for five hours (“Perception of Patterns in Timeless Influence,”) to being sandwiched between a stack of 18 mattresses (“Dialogue With My Sleepless Tyrant”).

She has also earned acclaim for her exhaustive pieces including “I’m a Ghost in My Own House” performed in 2012 in the rising arts hub of Bandung, Indonesia. For the piece, an exploration of consciousness related to family, she spent 12 hours in a room crushing charcoal briquettes to the point of collapse. She performed wordlessly, intermittently lying down for relief.

With just one to two new performances per year, she commands a vigorous creative process ahead of new works by focusing on the body as her main material. At the shortest, her period of reading, analysis and research takes about six months. Her longest, a multimedia project on the homeless, took seven years.

Inspired by daily life, Ms. Suryodarmo says her lengthy creative process is necessary to separate her own subjective influences from the performance sphere. Though “Exergie — butter dance” draws on her personal experiences, such as feelings of alienation when she moved to Germany and her first experience eating butter, her distance is what she believes allows the audience to participate emotionally with her performances.

Her favorite performance is I Love You,” a piece originally performed in Barcelona in 2007 that she has since re-performed in Malaysia, Sweden and England. Bathed in the red glow of a theater light, she grasps a 35-by-78 inch piece of glass weighing 70 pounds as a means to convey the burden and joy of love. She repeatedly says “I love you” while traversing the space for four hours, allowing her voice to vacillate with emotion and fatigue.

Her next performance is in September in Istanbul at the ARTER — Space for ArtIola Lenzi will curate the exhibition featuring works by 30 Southeast Asian visual artists and Ms. Suryodarmo will perform her “I Love You” piece.

“I don’t think she has made her best work yet,” said Ms. Abramovic, who recently named Ms. Suryodarmo as one of 10 young artists to watch in an article for Harper’s Bazaar. “There is a very strong progression and clarity in her ideas. I think it’s remarkable how she is slowly putting her own tradition and background more and more into her work.”


A couple days after, June 16, 2014, Huffington Post‘s arts’ reporter Mallika Rao commented on the NY Times’ article

Meet The Marina Abramovic Protégé Who Went Viral For Dancing In Butter

The New York Times published a long-time-coming profile last week of the Indonesian performance artist Melati Suryodarmo. A trained dancer, Suryodarmo has been a known element in the performance art world since the high priestess of it, Marina Abramovic, pegged her as one of “10 young provocateurs to watch,” in Harper’s Bazaar last fall.

Abramovic doubled down to the Times. “Her work is very strong, very charismatic, extremely mesmerizing when she performs,” she said of her former student (Suryodarmo apprenticed under Abramovic for a spell in Germany, a link that shows in her penchant for “endurance” art). “You can’t take your eyes off her.”

And later, by email: “The most important thing a performance artist can do is to create a charismatic space around them and connect with the public. This is not easy, but Melati has the qualities and abilities to achieve this.”

Despite the addendum, Abramovic still failed to mention the real X factor (as seen in the video).

Yes, Suryodarmo is none other than the star of the infamous and very viral “Adele Butter Dance” video. That’s not to reduce her or her work, both of which are, as Abramovic holds, magnetic and clever. But plenty of would-be performance art stars could be described that way. What has stretched Suryodarmo’s reach beyond local galleries and niche journals into the great mainstream is an unlikely guardian angel: YouTube user, Nathan Hatton.

It’s a truly modern tale. Sometime between 2010 and 2012, YouTube user Nathan Hall (YTUNH) stumbled on a video. In it, a relatively unknown performance artist — Suryodarmo — dances in a tight dress and red heels on 20 blocks of butter. Arranged into a square the size of a chess board, the butter makes for a difficult stage. Suryodarmo’s sensuous moves, inspired by Indonesian dance forms, are stymied. She flails comically, her eyes going cartoon-sized before each fall. Meanwhile, the audience is pin-drop silent, as befits a serious performance art piece. Its title: “Exergie — butter dance.”

The subtext of the performance, as the Times has now explained, is layered — wrapped up in the loneliness of an immigrant in Germany, and Suryodarmo’s first taste of butter. But the person known as YTUNH is not one for gravitas. This is evidenced by said person’s next step. Our meddler swapped out the existing soundtrack of “shamanistic Indonesian drums,” according to the video’s description, and subbed in some Adele.

“Someone Like You,” to be specific. It’s an understatement to call the track an inspired choice. The video’s views skyrocketed, propelled by the frankly hilarious combination of a woman falling on butter to the heartbreaking sound of Adele bidding a selfish lover goodbye. The reverent, photo-taking audience only makes the whole thing better.

“There is clearly nothing in the world that cannot be set to the soundtrack of ‘Someone Like You’ by Adele and come out looking a little more dignified (at first),” opined a writer at BBC America, in a lengthy analysis of why the video is so funny.

As for the key players in the unfolding drama, their fates are only right. Hatton tried and failed to establish a cottage industry, with a poorly performing “sequel,” Skyfall Butter Dance. Meanwhile, Suryodarmo’s original video — the one with the shamanistic drums — has actually outperformed the Adele version.

And this is a great thing. People came for the viral video, but they stayed for the source. Some curious minds on the internet developed genuinely interesting theories about Suryodarmo’s intent, engaging with an identity that rarely gets play in the performance art world: a woman of color, from a country lacking in galleries and fast-talking agents.

Indeed, Suryadarmo was the only Asian to make Abramovic’s list in Harper’s Bazaar. Writing there, Abramovic singled out only one of her protégé’s works: the butter dance. Because we all saw it.


Even two years after, April 5, 2016, a book review website Slate.Com‘s Mark O’Connell still cited that particular work 

Permission for the Imagination
A passionate defense of pretentiousness

On several occasions while reading Dan Fox’s book Pretentiousness: Why It Matters, my mind drifted to the memory of a woman in a black cocktail dress and six-inch ruby-red heels performing an Indonesian ceremonial dance on a platform made from blocks of butter. This was a thing I witnessed once, as a college student, when I worked for a weekend at a festival of performance art curated by Marina Abramovic. I knew nothing about performance art, and had then never heard of Marina Abramovic. I was there at the behest of my older sister who worked at the museum, as a volunteer doing low-level grunt work. I helped, for instance, to clean up the butter.

What I did not expect was to be as moved and unsettled as I was in watching this woman—Abramovic’s former student Melati Suryodarmo—falling heavily and painfully in the spreading oleaginous mess beneath her, picking herself up and continuing her slow dance, her dignity compromised but somehow intact, only to fall again, to pick herself up again, to fall again. My cultural interests, at that point, had been largely shaped by my teenage devotion to punk rock, that most pathologically unpretentious of cultural phenomena: I liked things, or felt I should like things, that were direct and visceral and devoid of apparent affectation. But as I helped wipe the stage of the remaining butter that night, I did so wondering for the first time if pretentiousness mightn’t be such a bad thing. Was it possible that the term itself might in fact function as a justification for a certain kind of cultural bad faith or timidity?

Years after I saw Suryodarmo perform her emotionally terrifying dance piece, a video of it went viral on YouTube and became the focus of a fair amount of LOLWUT-level derision about absurd art-school posturing. I kept thinking of this while reading Fox’s book; I kept thinking of the strange distance between this derision and my own experience of the performance. Fox, an art critic and co-editor of Frieze magazine, presents a stirring defense of the world’s butter dancers, and butter-dance appreciators, against the sort of people who might question whether they count as art, or demand to cut public funding for such pursuits, or post links to Reddit while commenting that they’re “just going to leave this here.” The book is an examination of what it might mean to dismiss something like Suryodarmo’s performance as pretentious, and what it might say about the person doing the dismissing.

For a short book, Pretentiousness is impressively broad in its exploration of its subject, which it views from such vantage points as Greek philosophy, the Stanislavski acting method, the psychoanalytic theories of D.W. Winnicott, lifestyle consumerism, code switching in speech, and the use of fabricated identities and cultural appropriation in pop music. Fox begins by arguing that in our interactions with others, we are always in some way presenting a mask to the world. (As a matter of strict definition, to be a person is to wear a mask: We get the English word person from the Latin term for the mask worn by an actor in a play, persona.) There is nothing more authentically human, he argues, than inauthenticity. Children navigate the world by pretending; a child “might be precocious,” as he puts it, “but it’s rare that a child is called pretentious.” And so one of the major questions the book raises is this: How is it that pretense, seen as so authentic in childhood—a condition so idealized for its authenticity, its innocence—becomes so suspect in adulthood?

Fox is, obviously, far from the first writer to address this paradox of authenticity—that “whatever is profound,” as Nietzsche put it, “loves masks”—but he throws enough light on the question to illuminate his overall argument for pretentiousness as the most human and honest approach to the world. What the book is interested in, and what it largely succeeds in doing, is inverting the charge of pretentiousness so that it becomes a marker not of dissimulation or self-delusion, but of intellectual ambition and personal autonomy—a refusal to be defined by a reductive understanding of oneself. The book sets out its stall, in this sense, with a quote from Brian Eno (that most productively pretentious of artists) about how “pretending is the most important thing we do,” because it’s how we “find out what it would be like to be otherwise.”

And being otherwise, in this view, is what art should be about. So a discomfort with the radical, or the confusing, or the challenging—with artworks, and lives, that insist on being otherwise—is very often what lies beneath the charge of pretentiousness. As much as it’s a way of deflating some apparently empty cultural gesture, calling something (or someone) pretentious is also a way of defending yourself against the uncomfortable feeling of not getting something, or—worse still—the uncomfortable suspicion that you’re being had. Because it’s easier to laugh at a woman in a cocktail dress slipping injuriously in butter than it is to think about why she might be doing it, or why your discomfort and confusion, and even your laughter, might be part of her design.

As an Englishman who has lived in the U.S. for the better part of a decade, Fox is especially attuned to the class dimension of his subject. “Calling a person pretentious,” he writes, can be “an informal tool of class surveillance, a stick with which to beat someone for putting on airs and graces.” To call someone pretentious within the rigid codes and gradations of British society has about it the whiff of class betrayal; to do so is “to say they’re behaving in ways they’re not qualified for through experience or economic status. It is a term of abuse, a treacherous snobbery.”

Fox is speaking from experience here. For all its positive polemical force, his writing is richly personal, if not always directly so. “Pretentiousness is always someone else’s crime,” he writes. “It is never a felony in the first person.” But as he reframes pretentiousness as an act of liberation, his book becomes a kind of externalized memoir, a vindication of his own history of cultural curiosity. The book’s final chapter, and its longest, is also its most directly autobiographical. Fox writes affectingly here about his middle-class childhood in Oxford, and the sense of a wider cultural world gleaned through his older brother’s record collection—through Bowie, Roxy Music, Kraftwerk, the Cramps—and later through day trips to London, where “a potential life in art or music seemed embedded in every one of the city’s grimy, yellow stock bricks.” In arguing for pretentiousness, Fox is also arguing for a democratic conception of what it means to be cultured, within the context of a society where culture has increasingly become the preserve of the economically privileged. It isn’t something he dwells on at any length here, but it’s possible to read the book as an intervention into a debate about public funding of the arts in Britain, where the specter of pretentiousness, of artists taking the piss out of the ordinary decent taxpayer, serves the purposes of scorched-earth neoliberal economic policies.

By the end of the book, pretentiousness comes to mean something much closer to ambition, to a noble cultural yearning. And there is something deeply humane, and even touching, in Fox’s unwillingness to see any form or pretentiousness as bad. See, for example, his lovely reference to prog-rock’s “charmingly overblown narrative follies,” which he categorizes as no more or less pretentious than the “demonstrative nihilism” of the punk rock that was so viscerally opposed to it. (He’s right, of course, even if I’d still take the punk version of pretentiousness.)

Fox supports his case with a lavish array of cultural evidence—sometimes to the point where the book feels in danger of devolving into a list of stuff he’s enthusiastic about, an enumeration of Kenneth Angers and Throbbing Gristles and Steve Reichs and Mark Leckeys. And there is, too, an odd paradox at work in his infectious enthusiasm for formally innovative art: Fox’s writing is itself strikingly straightforward. It’s a resolutely unpretentious book, that is, in defense of pretentiousness; and because of its very persuasiveness, it’s hard at times not to see its unpretentiousness as a dereliction of duty.

But this isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker, because Fox’s position here, or that of his authorial persona, is that of advocate, rather than avatar, of the kind of art he’s discussing. And what he convincingly establishes is that pretentiousness is the very soul of culture. He frees it from its associations with elitism and fakery, revealing it as itself a powerful force for liberation, as what he calls “permission for the imagination.” In the end, Fox has written a hopeful and stirring defense not just of pretentiousness in all its forms, but of the value of art itself.

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