Staring Into the Looking Glass: Creative People and Narcissism

Creative people are often accused of narcissism. Can we alter the negative stereotypes and bad behavior associated with artists?

Narcissus by Caravaggio
Narcissus by Caravaggio

Greek mythology tells the story of Narcissus, a young hunter who believed he was hot stuff because he was born from the union of a minor river god with a nymph. This boy was, of course, gorgeous and broke heart after heart, including that of the young nymph Echo, who lost her body in the mountains and was reduced to a mystical tape recorder, a disembodied voice that repeats what is spoken. One day, Narcissus stared into a pond and was so captivated by his own reflection that he either drowned or pined away and died. Not too bright, that Narcissus. Yet he gave his name to narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Are we artists and creative types like him? Really?

It is worth noting that the name Narcissus may be derived from the Greek word for sleep or numbness. The defining issue for him is that he is insensitive to others and unaware of the world outside of himself. It isn’t simply that he loves himself above everything; it is that he only sees himself. Everything and everyone around him seems designed to bring him his desires and nourishment, and yet he can never quite possess himself or realize his dreams. His lack of empathy has left him unable to understand his place in the world.

Deliberation © Aegis Strife with CCLiense
Deliberation © Aegis Strife with CCLicense

Our society, fond of sweeping generalizations, often takes the view that creativity is synonymous with social dysfunction. It is as if creativity immediately soaks up all the space in a person’s life, rendering the artist incapable of empathy or social graces. Where does this come from and why do we perpetuate it by putting up with rotten behavior from people with talent? Just as we encourage young athletes to focus exclusively on their practice or young engineers or scientists to immerse themselves in their studies, we tell young artists that they must focus on their art to the exclusion of other interests, people and experiences. This results in people in all walks of life doing their own thing in a vacuum. No one is listening because no one has been invited to listen. It’s a lonely world.

Self Portrait, Francis Bacon, 1971 Image © Bob and Wendy with CCLicense
Self Portrait, Francis Bacon, 1971
Image © Bob and Wendy with CCLicense

So, in order to save art we have relied on marketing. Unfortunately, the idolization and demonization of creative people which we favor does not encourage creativity. Creativity exists in spite of it. The romantic ideal of the artist as something of a monster might be good marketing– we seem to love it in our celebrities– but it is a barrier to communication, which is a major purpose of art. Richard Wagner‘s music is not great because he was anti-Semitic, nor is Francis Bacon‘s artwork outstanding because he was abusive and sadistic, although these qualities are present in their work. The Renaissance painter Caravaggio, famous for his beautiful chiaroscuro technique, was a murderer and a bully who attacked people in the street. Had these men been less unpleasant, their works would be more numerous and palatable to people today than they already are. Greatness lies in the ability of the art itself to communicate something about humanity, despite the shortcomings of its creator. Art is never quite what the artist intended, nor is it ever completely what the audience expects. It has a voice of its own. This is why some people are uncomfortable with art and some artists are uncomfortable with people.

René Descartes, Meditations métaphysiques
René Descartes, Meditations métaphysiques

As human beings we see the world through the mirror of our own consciousness. Each consciousness has its own beauty, its own patterns which are unique, exciting and worthy of exploration. At the same time, there is a danger that, in exploring our own views and ourselves, we might drown in our own reflection without ever communicating it to anyone else or sharing anyone else’s vision. This danger threatens all of us, from businessmen to stay at home moms. Art is one of the few vehicles we have for expressing ourselves and understanding one another. It is vital to our existence, whether we consider ourselves artists or not. Without creativity and empathy we are ants.

Some artists seem to relish the role of the self-absorbed Narcissus, while others are more like Echo, losing their own selves in order to mirror the nonsense of a culture that has lost touch with the world around it. What would happen if we recognized the artist in each of us and defined creativity as an attribute of all human beings instead?

This is part of our strategy at Synkroniciti. We aim to help artists get out of themselves and people to find the artist within. Check out our first workshop, Getting Unstuck, coming up in 2014.

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