A comment on a post by Ann Midgette of the Washington Post got me thinking about the frequent use of certain words in cultural criticism (both professional and amateur), what they mean, what they are meant to mean, and what it means when they are used.
Commenter franklinmjohnson allows as how
. . . most of [contemporary music], with a few notable exceptions, is self-indulgent, pretentious, and atonal to an unlistenable degree.
Again, I’m not here to comment on franklinmjohnson’s comment, but rather to note some of the terminology he uses, because it shows up a lot in writing about culture.
self-indulgence: excessive or unrestrained gratification of one's own appetites, desires, or whims
What does it mean when we think of an artist as “self-indulgent”? I’m honestly confused here. Are we supposed to be offended/annoyed by the fact that the artist created the art they wanted to create? “Who is this [name of composer] thinking that we are interested in what [s]he thinks music is?” I genuinely don’t get it.
I remember a number of critics and moviegoers using “self-indulgent” as a club with which to pummel Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (2002). Particular attention was paid to the vibrant color-fields that appeared off-and-on throughout the film. These are an instance of Anderson’s self-indulgence, in large part because they don’t advance the story.
What these critics and moviegoers seems to want is for the artists to keep anything out of the artwork that the audience member doesn’t think belongs there. That the art work should conform to exactly what the audience member think should be there; that the work of art conform to the audience member’s appetites, desires, and whims.
pretentious: 1 making usually unjustified or excessive claims (as of value or standing); expressive of affected, unwarranted, or exaggerated importance, worth, or stature
I think the charge of pretentious in arts criticism is closely related to that of self-indulgence, but they aren’t quite the same. I’m not sure what franklinmjohnson means here, but I suspect it has to do with the idea that composers of “atonal” music are making “unjustified or excessive claims” about the value of their music. I don’t know for sure, but at the same time how do you know what claims the composer is making for the music? Offending the sensibility by being played on the same concert as Beethoven?
Most frequently now, and especially in writing about film, “pretentious” seems be used interchangeably with “difficult”, “ambitious”, or even “serious”. It’s not always used as a negative—I read a positive review of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life that said the film was, at times “overly-pretentious”. This made absolutely no sense to me until I was looking up the definitions for this post:
2: making demands on one's skill, ability, or means
OK; Malick certainly does make these demands, as do many artists in all media, and from all periods. But I wonder if the writer (and others who use the word) knows about that second definition. If he did, hats off to him. But the word still has negative connotations, even with that meaning. In any case, I like it when artists make demands on my skill, ability, and means.
[Special Pre-Publication Update: BREAKING! In an article published today in Slate, David Haglund notes some interesting and substantial similarities between Mr. Malick and novelist Marilynne Robinson (Housekeeping , one of the most hauntingly beautiful novels I have ever read). Mr. Haglund quotes Ms Robinson’s observation (from a recent essay) that the “locus of the human mystery is perception of this world”, and notes that it “would have made an apt, if somewhat pretentious, tagline”.
Sigh. Why is a phrase that is a finely-stated observation about what it means to be human apposite in an essay and pretentious when part of the supporting apparatus of a serious film? Is it a genre or medium thing? Beats me.]
 I don’t have the answers to these questions, by the way. I’m just putting them out there, for now.
 If franklinmjohnson would prefer this quote not be used, I will be happy to remove it.
 Sorry if this assumption is wrong.
 I want to deal with the assertion that “most of [contemporary music] . . . is . . . atonal to an unlistenable degree”. The cold, hard, unchallengeable fact is that the vast majority of concert music written in the United States in the 20th and 21st centuries was, is, and will always be, tonal in one sense or another. In the academy or outside of it. I would be very interested to know, however, what amount of atonality it takes to make music unlistenable.
 Note to self: Write about “gratuitous” some time.