Is art anything more than a narcissistic act?
The editorial team of ACT II answers this seemingly easy question. Our conversation began with the holy communion, with matters of faith; we were drinking alcohol while looking at each other through our screens. Whilst transcribing, I was thinking that a wounded selfishness produces better art pieces than a self-confident narcissism. I cannot explain why.
Grigoris Liakopoulos: In general, well, I studied maths, you see, things in this field are very specific…
Giorgos Valais: Apart from the set theory that drove some people crazy.
Grigoris: Well, anything can drive you crazy… Υou do need imagination… In order to imagine a space with twenty-two dimensions.
Giorgos: Yes, it’s extremely difficult to imagine a space with twenty-two dimensions, since you live in four, experience always stands in the way in these matters…
Grigoris: For sure.
Giorgos: …And experience is the deepest point of each of us, the deepest way in which we perceive the world… So, is art anything more than a narcissistic act?
Ioanna Valsamidou: Wait, Manolis is signing in.
Manolis Manousakis: Art has nothing to do with narcissism1The term narcissism can be used either by psychologists to describe a type of personality disorder (the narcissistic personality disorder) or by common people, with no psychological knowledge, to describe a person of their inner or outer circle, who behaves extremely egocentrically. It is wrong, though, to confuse these two different uses of the term, because an extremely egocentric person is not necessarily a person with a narcissistic personality disorder. Source: Wikipedia. , I don’t understand how you thought about this question, Ioanna.
Ioanna: Manolis, we were waiting for you.
Manolis: I am here, listening to music and drinking vodka, in order to hear the questions… We all have a narcissist inside us, we all have a human who is suffering inside us, a human who is devastated, who is excited, who makes art, who doesn’t make art, isn’t narcissism a part of our lives?
We live a death every day. That’s why we make art, to overcome this small death, whether this death is our selfishness or the friend we lost during the day or our frustration.
Manolis: Is admiring beauty narcissistic? Is loving perfection narcissistic?
(Unintelligible speech sounds.)
Io Voulgaraki: I totally agree that narcissism2Every person has narcissistic characteristics, since it is essential for our ontogenetic evolution. With self-esteem and emotion, people reproduce the idea that they deserve an ideal image of themselves. This helps them represent their interests fairly and effectively and be happy since they are accepted by their fellow creatures. Source: Wikipedia. is part of us in many different ways, which, to me, are related to the fact that we are going to die… Under the scope that we are not eternal, that we are ‘stillborn,’ different needs of communicating, of connecting, of existing, of coexisting, are created, which are narcissistic in a way. According to this idea, the decision to become a parent can also be narcissistic…In a way, narcissism is one’s attempt to cover one’s distance between themselves and the other person, whoever that person may be. I know that if I were immortal I wouldn’t do anything of what I do, I wouldn’t have any such need, neither to leave any imprint nor to communicate today, because tomorrow we may not exist.
Giorgos: What you’re saying, Io, is rather the need to take advantage of this finite time that people understand they have.
Manolis: Aren’t these small deaths always leading us to be momentarily narcissistic? I mean, momentarily we want to have children because we will die, momentarily we want to make art because tomorrow we will not exist. We do not live in a superworld where we will live forever, but we live a death every day. That’s why we make art, to overcome this small death, whether this death is our selfishness or the friend we lost during the day or our frustration or whatever. These small losses3Loss: a word attested from antiquity to the present day. 1. For somebody who is gonne, desolation, annihilation. 2. For somebody who no longer has something, something is missing. Source: D. Dimitrakos, New Dictionary create our Superego so that we may exist.
Giorgos: According to that, Manolis, art is not a narcissistic act, but it’s an ontological act. What issues are ontological? The ones that are not resolved over time, but remain unchanged.
Manolis: You are absolutely right.
Grigoris: I don’t know… I believe that artists, I mean professional artists, are deeply narcissistic, and that is something different from someone who produces folk art.
Manolis: What do you mean? Aren’t they all artists? Where does this differentiation lie? Is playing the clarinet at fairs an art or not?
Grigoris: That’s not folk art, I mean art that comes from the people.
Manolis: I am also the people.
Grigoris: You are a professional artist.
Manolis: From the people.
Grigoris: Everyone is the people.
Io: Well, there is a difference in the way it is produced.
Grigoris: There is a difference in drawing a painting for myself…
Manolis: You mean that the shepherd4A shepherd playing for his animals is an image that I never saw. I grew up in the countryside. I have seen shepherds with radios, with cell phones, never with a musical instrument. I believe this is more a collective imaginative illustration than a reality. Source: Personal experience. who plays for his animals is not an artist whereas I am because…
Grigoris: Is he a professional artist?
Manolis: Why not?
Grigoris: He doesn’t make money out of it.
Manolis: Who does?
Grigoris: You do.
Manolis: I believe that professional artists are those who believe in their art. I know a lot of artists who do not make a living from their art or probably they do not make a living at all, I don’t even understand how they live. Well, they’re more professional than I am, sorry but I had to say that.
Grigoris: I’m talking about communicating with other people. I could write music and listen to it myself, as I do. When it comes to music, I’m not a professional, I’m an amateur. Dance, theatre5Theatron (=ancient Greek for theatre): the ending -tron, in ancient Greek, denotes the means, the tool: arotron (=plough). The post-Homeric endings also declare consideration for something: lytron (=ransom), didaktron (=tuition)., which are performing arts, are a bit special. Wanting to communicate my art to people has a narcissistic element. I’m referring specifically to theatre. I don’t know anything about painting or sculpture, someone else may talk about these.
That’s what artists do, they create a prism. I make the glasses through which I want the other person to see something. I find this to be terribly intertwined with human existence.
Giorgos: If we consider it as a need, even for a shepherd to play the flute, as Manolis put it, I understand then that this need has to be communicated and then it can be put in market terms, it can become a product, etc. But for you, it began because you just wanted to play the flute.
Manolis: This is how you begin, no one sets off with the intention to become famous.
Giorgos: However, Manolis, nowadays, we live in an era where you don’t need to be involved in art to become famous. You can be a famous influencer, an instagrammer.
Ιo: In my opinion, these are totally different matters, I mean that the question of whether art is a narcissistic act actually has to do with what Giorgos said before, it’s a question of how you perceive the world, a question of how we see the world.
Manolis: I just keep asking myself questions. In the end, I can actually come to the conclusion that art is completely narcissistic, no one should make art, so let’s go have a drink… Because, sorry, I make a living as a sound designer and sound engineer, not as an artist, you see. The first money I made this year from art was for a piece I wrote for Ioanna, to be honest with you.
Grigoris: Yes, I understand and this is a reality6‘The world is everything that is happening.’ Source: Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. not only for you, believe me, it is also for me. What I wanted to say is that art is not narcissistic, artists are narcissists. And the more they make a living from it, the more narcissistic7Narcissists are mainly interested in professions that will give them the opportunity to be in the centre of attention, to be famous and to be put in the highest social class so that they will surpass ‘common people.’ Singers, models, actors, managers, politicians, businessmen, presenters etc. are such professions. It is proven that celebrities are 13% more narcissistic than other people. Source: Wikipedia. they are or become; that, I suppose, is another matter, whether they are or they become narcissists because of the market.
Io: Each one of us sees the world and experiences it merely through his/her entity, what Giorgos said before, about the depiction of the world. That’s what artists do, they create a prism. I make the glasses through which I want the other person to see something. I find this to be terribly intertwined with human existence. I mean, we are anthropocentric, humans aren’t the only species, and as we are anthropocentric we are egocentric as well and this is indeed a kind of narcissism.
Ioanna: But what you say, Io, is not negative, I mean the narcissistic elements of a personality, normally have also a positive effect on the individual. Because the healthy parts of narcissism are the ones that define you, that define your place in the world, that make you grab the brush and reflect your feelings and want to show them to the public. This impulse, the narcissistic impulse8‘An impulse is needed, without which nothing can happen.’ Jannis Kounellis, Limnaia Odysseia., is not necessarily negative. For me, the question ‘is art a narcissistic act?’ probably has a negative tone, Giorgos, which you give to the question, that has to do with grandiosity or egocentricity. And I will agree with Grigoris that, when you have to deal with the market, when you have to deal with the curator9Curator: a keeper or custodian of a museum or other collection. A person who selects acts to perform at a music festival., with the artistic director10The responsibilities of an artistic director are more or less these: to plan the artistic programme and the budget of each period. To be responsible for the organization and supervision. To invite artists, to sign the agreements and appoint the working terms and the wages., with the critic11‘The critic is a viewer with benefits and this position is very attractive. Apart from this, we have to look at what he does, what he writes, what he tries to discover through the artistic progress, what are the facts that interest him. Everything is related to the huge capability of language to offer new levels of understanding.’ Jannis Kounellis, Limnaia Odysseia., who decide that Tsinikoris’s signature is worth ten thousand, while Liakopoulos’s signature is worth three thousand, then I think that people, because of their nature, inevitably give in to their bigoted characteristics.
Giorgos: These are characteristics of the market, a classification of the market. There are people who have evaded classification and, although their work is intertwined with their personality, they did not follow this classification…
Theatre and dance are the most disciplined structures and bring out teamwork. Everyone is part of a chain, if one undermines the other, the whole performance, the whole creation is destroyed.
Grigoris: Giorgos, may I ask you something?
Grigoris: Why are you so interested in this question?
Giorgos: The question is whether art is more than just a narcissistic act… In this question, there is the assertion that art is a narcissistic act.
Grigoris: Exactly, that’s why I’m asking, I think the way you put it is very interesting.
Giorgos: I found it very provocative to begin the conversation. I found it interesting. I think that with the performing arts and especially with actors, whose tool is their own self, you can inevitably fall into this trap. However, I believe that it is definitely more than a narcissistic act. Also in earlier times art had another, more religious character. The truth is that art is the only acceptable ceremony in the determinist world in which we live, you understand that these people do something, which in its essence is also a ceremony.
Ioanna: I don’t accept that it is the performing arts that reinforce the narcissism of the individual. Theatre and dance, if nothing else, are the most disciplined structures, the most disciplined systems that exist and bring out teamwork. Everyone is part of a chain, if one undermines the other, the whole performance, the whole creation is destroyed.
Giorgos: What you describe, Ioanna, is a rare condition. An ensemble where everybody works together and there is a mental landscape, through discipline, through a lot of effort and everyone is open-minded and focused on the work, this is very rare today, I think.
Grigoris: There is also a tradition in the performing arts, there is no distinction between the person and his/her work. With actors it becomes very easily personal. If I’m too fat, too short, too tall, too hairy, too clumsy, too stupid, too smart, anything, it always comes down to me personally. This is very different from other arts, I think.
Art as an expression of the individual is a relatively new thing, it is a characteristic of the 20th and the 21st century.
Io: What Ioanna said is not about a utopia, it is just about interdependence. I mean, a sculptor may work alone and be just fine. A members of a group, even if they are so narcissistic12Narcissism becomes pathogenic, a narcissistic personality disorder, when self-centred people cannot live if they don’t satisfy their need to be admired and have the tendency to believe that they outclass others (progressive narcissism). They, in fact, do anything to succeed, disregarding the dangers for themselves and often putting groups of people (family, business company, state) in danger. Typical symptoms are: the emotional instability and bipolarity, affective disorders, being extremely sensitive to criticism, loneliness, anxiety and uncontrolled anger. Source: Wikipedia. as to give rise to arguments or prevent the group from flourishing, they still know – and it remains to be seen – that they depend on others. Sure we are our own instrument, but on the other hand there is this constant interdependence.
Grigoris: I’m not sure, my experience from drama schools is relatively recent and I see a lot of young people traumatized by this fact.
Io: By what fact?
Grigoris: Becoming one with their work. When you are told ‘congratulations, you did something well’, this is perceived in a narcissistic way, do you understand what I mean?
Giorgos: Grigoris, this is an issue, Ego… I think this is a quote by Papagiorgis: ‘No condition is more conformist than Ego.’ Ego needs a kind word to live, we all long for a kind word.
Io: That’s what I wanted to say before. Don’t we all have a part that really wants to be loved and be told ‘well done, you are unique’?
Prodromos Tsinikoris: But this is not a trait of the artist.
Io: What about the start-up for children making art? Isn’t it there?
Prodromos: Everybody has that.
Theatre involves the concept of being exposed in a specific moment. You are both exposed to negative criticism and you are also vulnerable to the embarrassment you may feel for something you did.
Grigoris: Of course, accountants also want to be loved and architects want to be loved. But their job is not to receive applause every day, this is different, isn’t it? We live in an era where everyone has to be somehow an artist and everyone is very important and everyone’s story is very important. Everyone’s image as well. We live in an era which is quite narcissistic, in every aspect of life, not just in the arts. Art as an expression of the individual is a relatively new thing, it is a characteristic of the 20th and the 21st century.
Giorgos: But there was always the king’s entertainer13An entertainer is someone who provides entertainment in many different forms. Types of entertainers: actor, dancer, drag queen, filmmaker, internet celebrity, model, poet, pornographic actor, Tik Toker, writer, Youtuber. Source: Wikipedia., always.
Grigoris: But did he do it to express himself, Giorgos?
Giorgos: Honestly, I don’t know. As Io was talking, I was thinking about my daughter or myself, when I was young, drawing things and showing them to somebody else. It was my depiction, good or bad, it doesn’t matter at all, I wanted to show what I’ve made, which had no purpose. The only purpose was my own pleasure, it wasn’t a mathematical problem that would solve problems of the world, technological problems, social problems or whatever.
Prodromos: You were a child14When the child was a child, it threw a stick like a lance against a tree, and it quivers there still today.’ Ultimate line of Song of Childhood by Peter Handke., don’t be hard on yourself.
Giorgos: Well, I see no difference from going somewhere at eight o’clock , focusing on myself, and at nine o’clock appearing on stage to perform.
Prodromos: No way, Giorgos.
Io: I couldn’t agree more, Giorgos.
Giorgos: I see no difference.
Prodromos: We cannot know, we cannot remember why we were drawing when we were six years old. I hope that none of us is making art in order to be admired or to feed their ego or their individualism or whatever. People make art to communicate their thoughts. Whether that makes you a narcissist or not is a personal matter, it’s what the audience perceives, what the critics perceive, your wages, etc. But we all make art because something concerns us and we want to express it. I’m not a politician to express it this way, I’m not a trade unionist to express it that way, I’m a citizen who can express it through a film, through a performance. I believe that theatre can be the least narcissistic art because it is not something you do alone, it is something that, as Ioanna said, you do in a group, in a collective, you create a community. And most of all, it involves the concept of being exposed in a specific moment. You are both exposed to negative criticism and you are also vulnerable to the embarrassment you may feel for something you did.
Giorgos: This has to do with the risks you take, Prodromos.
Prodromos: There is a risk in every performance.
Giorgos: But since there is a risk in every performance, it has no value. We are talking about things beyond this risk, we are talking about what makes things gestural. What kind of gesture does a person leave, even if this is a ‘stillborn’ performance, a performance that vanishes in thin air.
Io: I totally understand what Giorgos said before, I mean whether there is a difference between now, when I’m getting ready to perform, and when I was five years old. I remember myself as a child, wanting to enter a living room full of adults to do something, to do a show, something silly that I would create in my mind to change the atmosphere that, in my opinion, existed at that moment. Honestly.
Io: Yes, I would go just because I wanted to and I would lie down, in the middle of the living room, pretending to be a corpse15Corpse: a word attested from antiquity to the present day. 1. The act of falling, falling. 2 Figuratively: misery, downfall. 3 The falling body. 4 Spc.., The dead body, the relic. 5 Figuratively: the morally or physically fallen. Source: D. Dimitrakos, New Dictionary. and we would laugh about it, and I would change something at that moment. Afterwards I wanted to hear that I’m great, but what I actually wanted was to overturn the adults’ dinner. For me the situation is the same till now.
Grigoris: There is a famous quote, I don’t remember by whom, which goes: until the age of 25 everyone is a poet, but some continue and make it a profession. I also think that it’s interesting that we discuss whether the fact that we do art is narcissistic – and we are all artists. It would be really interesting to ask people who are not artists what they think, because, to some extent, we naturally try to defend our work. We need to declare that we don’t do it only for narcissistic reasons but we also have existential reasons, we have political reasons etc. it would be interesting to see the view of someone from outside.
Prodromos: It depends on the person you are going to ask, if you ask ten people, you will have ten different opinions.
Grigoris: Of course.
We are talking about what makes things gestural. What kind of gesture does a person leave, even if this is a ‘stillborn’ performance, a performance that vanishes in thin air.
Prodromos: What Io described before is an interruption of reality in order to be liked or to belong to a community…
Giorgos: …Or to change the reality declaring that I am also here, narcissistic as well, but also using reality to define who I am, no matter if I use paints, notes, words, words of others, monuments of others, a sequence of movements, whatever. Art speaks in so many different ways, it gives you so many different materials to use. We have also spoken in terms of market. Whether one may live off one’s own art, which is a very important question, but has become almost secondary. Before the lockdown all these thousand, maybe a thousand five hundred performances had no real reason to exist, very few performances had a real reason to exist.
Prodromos: But again, Giorgos, I don’t think you can blame them…
Giorgos: No, no, I don’t blame anyone.
Prodromos: …For narcissism… Maybe the reasons they exist are innocent, I mean, as a child draws because it wants to show the drawing, to be liked, and you think of that as an innocent act because it is a child who does it, so can an artist, a young artist do theatre without insisting or thinking of this intervening characteristic that you described.
Giorgos: But without this intervening characteristic, everything is capitalism16Capitalism: an economic doctrine according to which private capital is considered the most powerful factor in economic life. The transformation of capitalism into a society of spectacle, as pointed out by intellectuals such as Guy Debord, now results in its internalization by human consciousness. It’s the way everyone thinks..
Grigoris: What do you mean Giorgos, by mentioning the reason to exist?
Giorgos: What I wanted to say is that there is a market issue and there is a personal issue, the important thing for me is not to be exhausted by the market nor to move within the terms of the market… Actually, you inevitably move within the terms of the market…
…How you can make this act be as important as interrupting a group of adults in a living room, how crazy is this, how much does it need to be expressed, how narcissistic at the same time, and how gestural it is, because your gesture will survive in time, for me that is the whole point. I described it a bit theoretically, but I couldn’t find another way.
Io: (Talking on the phone.) Yes… I would like that…
Prodromos: I lost you, but never mind.
Grigoris: No, I think I see your point, Giorgos. The moment of interruption, the act of interrupting something, is very interesting and also has to do with what Lehmann17Hans-Thies Lehmann, author of Postdramatic Theatre. A definition of postdramatic theatre as defined by the author is: ‘More presence than representation, more sharing than mediated experience, more process than result and more stimulus than information.’ describes.
Io: The thing is, today, we don’t know what we interrupt.
(They continue, talking about avant-garde.)