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March 30, 2006

Art and Narcissism

Friedrich von Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards:

During the last week, I’ve been reading The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays by Charles Baudelaire. The title essay is of course a major landmark of Modernist art theory, being the very work in which Baudelaire introduced the term “modernity” to the world. It is also far more charming than most works of criticism and virtually all works of art theory. It may say something about modernism, of course, that Baudelaire’s description the ideal artist is essentially (and fairly transparently) a description of himself, although the essay is ostensibly devoted to the French draftsman Constantin Guys. I preferred another essay in the book, Baudelaire’s eulogy of the great French Romantic painter Delacroix, because it seems rather more objective about its hero.

However, by some odd chance, on the same evening I read this essay I happened across a website devoted to narcissistic personality disorder. (Michael Blowhard wrote about narcissistic personalities and mentioned the author of this webpage, Sam Vaknin, here.) The website, which you can read here, lists nine characteristics that may be present in this disorder. (The true narcissist apparently possesses at least five of these.)

Looking over the characteristic traits of the narcissist, it suddenly dawned on me that Baudelaire had described Delacroix as possessing several of them. To amuse myself, I went back through Baudelaire’s laudatory essay and pasted quotes from it underneath the list of traits listed by Mr. Vaknin, supplementing them in several cases with my own knowledge of Delacroix’s art or career. The following is my result:

Narcissistic Trait #1: “Feels grandiose and self-important (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents to the point of lying, demands to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)”

Baudelaire considered Delacroix his touchstone of artistic greatness, and would have been horrified at any suggestion that Delacroix’s feelings of artistic self-importance weren’t backed up by his actual performance with paint and canvas. Furthermore, Baudelaire never suggests in any way that Delacroix was a pathological exaggerator; in fact, he repeatedly emphasizes the artist’s aristocratic reserve in company. All this being said, however, the essay is quite explicit about Delacroix’s feelings of grandiosity and self-importance:

One of our painter’s [i.e., Delacroix’s] greatest concerns during his last years was the judgement of posterity and the uncertain durability of his works. One moment his ever-sensitive imagination would take fire at the idea of an immortal glory, and then he would speak with bitterness at the fragility of canvases and colours. At other times he would enviously cite the old masters who almost all of them had the good fortune to be translated by skilful engravers whose needle or burin had learnt to adapt itself to the nature of their talent, and he keenly regretted that he had not found his own translator.

Narcissistic Trait #2: “ Is obsessed with fantasies of unlimited success, fame, fearsome power or omnipotence, unequalled brilliance (the cerebral narcissist), bodily beauty or sexual performance (the somatic narcissist), or ideal, everlasting, all-conquering love or passion

Delacroix clearly was obsessed with fantasies of a “fearsome power or omnipotence.” Baudelaire offers the following description Delacroix’s somewhat unusual subject matter:

“His works contain nothing but devastation, massacres, conflagrations; everything bears witness against the eternal and incorrigible barbarity of man. Burnt and smoking cities, slaughtered victims, ravished women, the very children cast beneath the hooves of horses or menaced by the dagger of a distracted mother—the whole body of this painter’s works, I say, is like a terrible hymn composed in honour of destiny and irremediable anguish.”

In fact, what Baudelaire gently steps around is that a number of Delacroix’s most famous canvases (including Sardanapalus, The Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople, and the Massacre of Chios) are explicit fantasies of sadism. Each shows a group of victims juxtaposed with an all-powerful male authority figure that looks on their sufferings with an arrogant contempt, calm indifference, or savage hostility.



Eugene Delacroix, The Death of Sardanapalus, 1827; details


As for an obsession with an “ideal, everlasting, all-conquering love or passion”, Baudelaire asserts that

“Delacroix was passionately in love with passion, and coldly determined to seek the means of expressing it in the most visible way.”

Narcissistic Trait #3: “Firmly convinced that he or she is unique and, being special, can only be understood by, should only be treated by, or associate with, other special or unique, or high-status people (or institutions)”

Baudelaire discusses Delacroix’s feelings of contempt for the ‘common folk’:

“A hater of the masses, he really only thought of them as iconoclasts, and the acts of violence perpetrated upon several of his works in 1848 were ill-suited to convert him to the political sentimentalism of our times.”

Narcissistic Trait #4: Requires excessive admiration, adulation, attention and affirmation -or, failing that, wishes to be feared and to be notorious (narcissistic supply).

Baudelaire is open about Delacroix’s susceptibility to, ahem, ass-kissing:

“This is how it came about that, thanks to the sincerity of our admiration, we were able, though still very young, to penetrate the fortifications of [Delacroix’s] studio…”

Delacroix’s vanity is also highlighted:

“For finally it must be said—since to me this seems but one more reason for praise—that Eugene Delacroix, for all that he was a man of genius, or because he was a man of complete genius, had much of the dandy about him. He himself used to admit that in his youth he had thrown himself with delight into the most material vanities of dandyism, and he used to tell with a smile, but not without a touch of conceit, how, with the collaboration of his friend Bonington, he had laboured energetically to introduce a taste for English cut in clothes and shoes among the youth of fashion. I take it that this will not seem to you an idle detail…” [emphasis original]

Narcissistic Trait # 5: “Feels entitled. Expects unreasonable or special and favourable priority treatment. Demands automatic and full compliance with his or her expectations”

Baudelaire is forthright on the topic of Delacroix’s demanding personality:

“His spirit of dominance…was quite legitimate and even a part of his destiny…”

He even provides an anecdote on the subject:

“[Delacroix] once sent for me to come and see him on purpose to rap me sharply over the knuckles about a disrespectful article that I had perpetrated on the subject of that spoiled child of chauvinism [the artist Charlet, who Delacroix enjoyed.] I vain did I try to explain to him that it was not the Charlet of the early days that I was censuring, but the Charlet of the decadence…But I never managed to win my pardon.”

Narcissistic Trait #6: “Is ‘interpersonally exploitative’, i.e., uses others to achieve his or her own ends”

This one is a miss; the essay offers no suggestion that Delacroix was interpersonally exploitative.

Narcissistic Trait #7: “Devoid of empathy. Is unable or unwilling to identify with or acknowledge the feelings and needs of others”

While insisting on Delacroix’s “true” feelings of inner personal warmth, Baudelaire manages to offer up several rather crustier examples of Delacroix’s lack of empathy:

“I remember that once we were in a public place, when I pointed out to him the face of a woman marked with an original beauty and a melancholy character; he was very anxious to be appreciative, but instead, to be self-consistent, he asked with his little laugh, ‘How on earth could a woman be melancholy?’ …”

“…I should say that neither did he show any affectionate partiality for childhood… ‘I remember very well (he used to say sometimes) that when I was a child, I was a monster. The understanding of duty is only acquired very slowly, and it is by nothing less than by pain, chastisement and the progressive exercise of reason that man can gradually diminish his natural wickedness.’”

I don’t think one needs to be a Freudian to wonder exactly what kind of childhood would produce opinions like these.

Narcissistic Trait #8: “Constantly envious of others or believes that they feel the same about him or her”

Several examples of Delacroix’s jealous or rivalrous feelings are listed by Baudelaire:

[Delacroix’s] admiration for Meissonier went a little too far. He had appropriated, almost by violence, the drawings which had been used in the preparation of La Barricade, the best picture [by that artist]…Of Meissonier, he often used to say, as though anxiously dreaming of the future, ‘After all, he is the most certain of us all to live!’ Is it not strange to see the author of such great works showing something very like jealousy of the man who only excels at small ones?”

Delacroix, in fact, had reason to be jealous. Although Baudelaire accurately notes that Meissonier was known for producing fairly small-scale pictures, he omits the information that Meissonier was quite simply the most financially successful artist in France during the second half of the nineteenth century. But while Delacroix’s envious feelings about Meissonier were mixed with admiration for his talent, there was another artist that Delacroix could not bring himself to say a good word about: Paul Delaroche.

“The only man whose name had the power to wring an abusive word or two from those aristocratic lips was Paul Delaroche. In that man’s works there was obviously not a single extenuating circumstance to be found…”

In truth Paul Delaroche’s fatal sin in Delacroix’s eyes was not a lack of talent, but rather that Delaroche had been the wunderkind of French painting when Delacroix, his exact contemporary, was still struggling to establish his career. Delaroche had, in fact, far outdistanced the youthful Delacroix in official honors, which were capped off by Delaroche’s election to the Institut National des Sciences et des Arts (the big time itself) in 1832. Delaroche was in fact the youngest artist of the nineteenth century to be so honored. Perhaps even worse for Delacroix’s ego, Baron Gros, Delacroix’s adopted ‘father figure’ among French painters, had publicly extolled Delaroche (his pupil, unlike Delacroix) as “the glory of my school.” No wonder Delacroix couldn’t stand the man—he was far too formidable a rival.


Paul Delaroche, Napoleon Crossing the Alps, 1848-50

Narcissistic Trait #9: “Arrogant, haughty behaviours or attitudes coupled with rage when frustrated, contradicted, or confronted"

While Baudelaire does suggest that Delacroix was capable of a certain arrogance in society, comparing him to Prosper Merimee in possessing “the same apparent, slightly affected, coldness, the same icy mantle…”, he never suggests that Delacroix bullied when faced by contradiction. This would appear to be another miss.

So it appears that Delacroix, while still functioning as a well-socialized citizen, scored seven out of nine on the narcissistic personality test. What does this mean?

Let me make clear here that I’m not trying to criticize Eugene Delacroix personally here. Not only did I not know the man, but even at a distance of 150 years I don’t see any evidence that he was a monster or any kind of social predator. What I’m getting at is a more general subject—to wit, that I suspect there’s an affinity of sorts between art and narcissism.

Obviously, the payoffs of being a successful artist are, in the vast majority of cases, more psychic than financial. They certainly were for Delacroix, who according to Baudelaire had to watch what he spent fairly carefully. But the psychic payoffs of art exactly match those the narcissist is seeking: public recognition, status, feelings of omnipotence (at least within the zone of his or her creative work), the envy of others, etc. It would be surprising if art didn’t attract disproportionately those who value precisely the rewards art has to offer.

Most theories of narcissism and artistic creativity, for what they are worth, also suggest a sort of ‘structural’ relationship between the mechanics of narcissism and those of art itself. These theories (1) note that all children are born as full-fledged narcissists, (2) suggest that obstacles and frustrations throw all children at least temporarily back into their infantile narcissistic state and (3) hypothesize that a minority of children suffer ‘arrested development’ and thus remain narcissistic even as adults, essentially turning narcissism into a permanent, if not very pleasant, coping strategy.

Turning to art, we see that (1) most theories of the artistic process note that creativity requires the artist to re-enter a childlike state of imagination and play-acting, (2) everyday experience suggests that fantasy and wish-fulfillment are universal reactions to obstacles or frustrations, and (3) together, these suggest that narcissist, i.e, he who suffers ‘arrested development’ and who fixates on fantasy and wish fulfillment as his coping mechanism, might be exactly the person to succeed at an artistic career.

The Great Artist may in fact be the socially useful narcissist—a pain in the rear end, but one whose coping mechanism offers sufficient rewards to others that they are willing to put up with him, or her.

Any thoughts on this (no doubt cock-eyed) theory?

Cheers,

Friedrich

posted by Friedrich at March 30, 2006




Comments

I think your theory holds, but those traits could also describe almost every Scientologist.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on March 30, 2006 02:08 PM



Sam Vaknin once said, "A narcissist will do absolutely anything for narcissistic supply (attention, admiration, etc.)---even benefit mankind." Creating great works of art would do it, too, but not because they appreciate art-for-art's-sake, but more because they appreciate the attendant benefits to them. A narcissist will use whatever they've got--drawing skills, sex appeal, intelligence, simple old abuse of power--to get the feedback they are after. So it would make sense that

Posted by: annette on March 30, 2006 03:14 PM



umm..a ghost seems to have hit the 'post' button without me, sorry! Anyway---it would make sense that a narcissist with artistic abilities would use them. And it would make sense that the ones who pursue it are of very high artistic ability, because a narcissist wouldn't want to be average at anything---so the ones who pursue art would be successful at it.

Posted by: annette on March 30, 2006 03:16 PM



Isn't "glory" a more common word for psychic rewards you describe?

Posted by: Tatyana on March 30, 2006 03:34 PM



Fun posting. And Vaknin's good, isn't he? I went around for days after reading him thinking about narcissism. The funny thing about your lining up Delacroix and narcissistic characteristics to my mind is how many of those characteristics match "the French character" generally. I wonder if it helps explain why we Americans so often find the French haughty and superior. Maybe France is an entire nation of narcissists.

That's half a joke. But I do find myself wondering if narcissism is more prevalent in some populations than others. Certainly among artists (Orson Welles, anyone?). But maybe among nations, or ethnic groups too?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 30, 2006 03:54 PM



There was a 2blowhards thread a few weeks back, ("Art Links of Note") where one of the links dealt with this from a slightly different direction. Check out the Eric Gibson essay "Can Artists Ever Truly Be Modest?" That essay makes the case that artists are only humble before art itself.

Posted by: Chris White on March 30, 2006 04:40 PM



Not sure why the link to the Gibson essay didn't appear properly; the URL is: http://elcherebel.blogspot.com/2006/03/can-artists-ever-truly-be-modest-by.html

Posted by: Chris White on March 30, 2006 04:42 PM



I believe I commented a few days ago that the publisher of my biography of my ex-husband, Bob Scriver, made me take out my reference to him being a narcissist, on grounds that it belittled his "artistic destiny." I had made a formal case for the clinical diagnosis, or at least one version, which requires a worshipful and overwhelming mother, a nonexistent or distant father, and a context in which there is some kind of being set-apart. Bob's family meets those criteria, being the Beta white family on a reservation. I think that Bob's need to be important was rewarded since he was so good at several things and that he was also driven by the need to justify his family's importance. I also tried to make the case that he was so self-absorbed because it took that to crash through the resistance from so many factors. In short, it was an excess of focus and drive. This seems characteristic of many people in various roles.

Most people think Narcissism is just being stuck-up and self-centered, but in the extreme it means there is no one else in the person's world with them -- intense loneliness. Also, if one stops referencing the Greek myth of Narcissus, then one also cuts out the person called Echo -- the cheap version of which is co-dependence.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on March 30, 2006 06:46 PM



FWIW, I've read a couple of books about narcissism, and found both of them helpful. This one's more complete, this one's faster and easier but still good.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 30, 2006 07:53 PM



I had the same reaction to Vaktin that you did, Michael. Of course, he subscribes to the idea of the narcissist as a kind of silverback gorilla. (I've been watching "The Shield" on DVD, which could be interpreted along these lines.) There is also the narcissist who goes on quietly living with his doting mother, perhaps writing fine poetry or painting wonderful visions -- or maybe just collecting bottlecaps.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on March 30, 2006 08:41 PM



Goody! My Santa Barbara motel has free internet, so I was able to give your fascinating post a scan.

As you mention in passing, Baudelaire ws a piece of work too. I suspect almost every star in a field where achievment is measured highly judgmentally has to gird himself in that sort of armor to bull his way to success. This is top-of-the-head, but might it not be the case that modest or self-esteem-deprived artists are the ones who don't get "discovered" till after they're dead?

And it goes beyond art. Engineering & science are more "objective" on achievement recognition, though.

Of course there's a difference between "normally" narcissistic and the level Delacroix attained.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on March 31, 2006 10:49 AM






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