Tom Sutcliffe: There's merit in pretension

The week in culture

An interesting moment occurred during my tour of Artangel's latest project, a few days ago. The event is called The Concise Dictionary of Dress and it consists of a kind of scattered installation set up inside the vast spaces of Blythe House, a large Victorian building which used to house the administration for the Post Office Savings Bank, but is now the repository for the stored collections of various London museums, including the Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert. It is, in short, a very well organised and very well guarded national attic, packed with valuable artefacts and objects, stored in room after room of specially designed cupboards and drawers.

For The Concise Dictionary of Dress small parties of visitors are guided through the building by an Artangel chaperone, who is there to ensure that you don't get lost and, more to the point I suspect, that none of the holdings go walkabout either. At one point the regally formal young woman who guided our party round turned to us – after cranking open a set of rolling storage cupboards – and gravely announced: "This is pretentious."

"You can say that again," I thought – and a stifled titter from one of my companions suggested that I wasn't alone. The guide wasn't departing from protocol in this apparent assault on the piece that she was supposed to be dispassionately introducing. She was simply telling us what it was called, as she'd done with every previous piece. All of the installations that make up the show have single-word titles.

We'd started, on the roof of the building, with Armoured, a transparent resin cast of a woman in Victorian dress which stared out towards Shepherd's Bush from one of the decorative cupolas on the façade. Then we travelled by way of Conformist and Comfortable to get to Pretentious, which consisted of six garments from the V&A's collection face to face with their own wax imprints. And at each stop along the way we were solemnly issued with printed cards, on which the psychoanalyst and writer Adam Phillips had assembled a number of gnomic definitions of the word in question. Here the definitions included "something pretending to be something that it is" and "the courting and claiming of ridicule; making embarrassment the solution and not the problem".

Embarrassment is woven into the fabric of The Concise Dictionary of Dress. It's there in the uncertainty of the visitors about exactly how they're supposed to behave at this event – an uncertainty deliberately cranked up at the start of the tour when you're told, quite firmly, that any questions have to be retained until the end of the tour. It's there in the awkward expectation that something is expected of you at each stop, a kind of dutiful pantomime of pensiveness and aesthetic consideration. It's even there in the very British shuffle that occurs whenever your little group has to pass through a narrow doorway, triggering one of those characteristic etiquette logjams.

Not all of this is constructive. I think even Artangel's biggest fans would be hard pressed to say that this event matches some of the other things they've done. But I did think that it made quite a good case for pretentiousness – a gravely underrated quality in art. Lack of pretension, after all, can be just another way of saying absence of risk. Aim low, well within the comfort zone of your audience, and you're never going to be accused of pretension. And, yes, it's true that some of Phillips's formulations would be very much at home in Pseud's Corner – their paradoxical inversions almost a parody of the psychoanalytical method.

But there are others which are teasingly provocative and work only because they expose themselves to the possibility of parody. I liked definition three for Armoured: "inviting attack by being prepared for it, provocative", which seemed to address a real truth about some kinds of costume (and some kinds of pre-emptive prickliness). "Pretentious" is also, it's worth remembering, just another way of saying "I don't get it", and it seems hazardous, to say the least, to establish one's own understanding as the benchmark of artistic merit. Perhaps I don't get it because I'm to stupid to see the obvious, or too lazy to think my way towards something more obscure. And perhaps the whole thing has been put on a high shelf deliberately, to make me stretch. It would be very easy to dismiss The Concise Dictionary of Dress as the emperor's new clothes, an enterprise that depends on our biddability and politeness. But it would be worth considering, before you did that, that the emperor might have been in on the thing from the start, and was hoping to provoke thought rather than just unquestioning admiration.

Nature's timing is everything

For years now my benchmark serendipity in film has been a wonderful moment in Howard Hawks's Red River when, during a funeral scene, a cloud passes its shadow over a towering butte in the background and it's as if the landscape has joined in the mourning. Did Hawks see the cloud coming or did he just recognise what luck had gifted him? Either way it's a lovely intrusion of the uncontrollable into the entirely controlled spectacle of a Hollywood movie. I saw one that nearly matched it the other day though, in Götz Spielmann's film Revanche. The setting is a lake in woodland and, at a critical moment in psychological terms, a breath of wind ruffles the entire surface of the water behind two of the characters. Nature's timing is excellent. To the beat it arrives as a physical expression of a kind of turning point in the drama, and there's no cut between the actors' performance and the breeze's. I wonder, did Spielmann know what he'd got as he yelled "cut" – or did he get a treat later when he saw the rushes?

Doctor given a dose of reality

The periodic table of fictional elements, last expanded by Avatar's MacGuffin mineral Unobtanium, got another new entry the other day, after Terry Pratchett criticised the quantities of Makeitupasyougalongeum involved in the average Doctor Who script. No doubt this will provoke a roar of outrage from the cultists and the fan-sites. Just remember how furious they were when a trailer for Over the Rainbow was laid over the dramatic denouement of a recent episode. But any serious fan should welcome Pratchett's courage in having a crack at the BBC's most indulged sacred cow. It's not that you have to agree with him that the plotting is silly or the characterisation of the Doctor quasi-religious in its devotion. It's just that it isn't good for any long-running series to get nothing but praise. That's how they get sloppy and complacent. The headlines that greeted Pratchett's fairly innocuous remarks are a sign that criticism of it has almost become a taboo. And I bet the next few scripts that get written are better because he dared to break it.