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When refined judgment becomes pretentious



If you haven’t watched the film Sideways yet, go watch it! My favorite scene is this one, where Miles, who embodies everything that is wine snobbery, does his hilarious tasting of this wine:

Miles: “Let me show you how this is done. First thing, hold the glass up and examine the wine against the light. You’re looking for color and clarity. Just, get a sense of it. OK? Uhh, thick? Thin? Watery? Syrupy? OK? Alright. Now, tip it. What you’re doing here is checking for color density as it thins out towards the rim. Uhh, that’s gonna tell you how old it is, among other things. It’s usually more important with reds. OK? Now, stick your nose in it. Don’t be shy, really get your nose in there. Mmm . . . a little citrus . . . maybe some strawberry . . . passion fruit . . . and, oh, there’s just like the faintest soupçon of like asparagus and just a flutter of a, like a, nutty Edam cheese . . .”
Jack: “Wow. Strawberries, yeah! Strawberries. Not the cheese . . .”

While I am a wine lover and I appreciate a good wine tasting, this hilariously satirical scene illustrates that there is a line that you can cross, when judgment becomes less rooted in reality and more exaggerated to show off one’s heightened ability to detect subtlety, i.e. pretension.

Judgment in general is always subjective. Art is a good example. Apart from the artist’s intentionality, there is no objective truth in art to assess. People experience art, and they do so differently because people are different.

“We don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are.” -Anaïs Nin

Art, wine, music, and even people often leave similar impressions on people when their personalities are bold. In Sideways, though Jack is the pathetically inexperienced, gum-chewing wingman, he recognizes the taste of strawberries. Risking a hasty generalization from such a small sample size of two people, one could say that the taste of strawberries is a little more objective, in the sense that it more directly and clearly describes the wine.

Crossing the line and entering the realm of pretension means that the object of judgment is doing less of the work. The pretentious individual is compensating for what they feel is something that is empty and needs filling–perhaps it’s their ego.

The question is where exactly is that line?

I think there’s an easy answer. If it’s possible to show another person what is causing you to perceive such things in the object, then narcissism takes a rest for the day. In other words, you have to ask if the description is illuminating or additive.

Case in point: the genius of van Gogh.

Take a look at this exquisite masterpiece. This is probably my favorite self-portait of his. Van Gogh was the father of expressionism. He didn’t attempt to capture the world as it was, but as he experienced it. I am not an art historian; I am still in the process of discovering art. But what I can say is how I experience his art. The amount of emotion that comes out of his work is like nothing I have otherwise seen. Look at the expression on his face… the weariness, as if he just came out of a disturbed mania. The lighting is perfect too. When I look at this I don’t just look at a 2d image. It has a way of popping out of the page and coming alive, through the emotions and its conceptualization. This description I am making (I hope) is not pretentious sounding. The difference is sincerity and my ability to expose the object of my judgment as the acting agent.

The very spirit of van Gogh’s work–expressionism–is tantamount to this idea that art and wine and whatever else should be the things doing the work. That, in short, is how you avoid crossing that perilous line of pretentious narcissism.