James Beck

Posted on Aug 02, 2023Read on Mirror.xyz

Narcissism is not the same as self-love

“Most artists are narcissists.” This was how a friend, a filmaker, described his recent experience at a salon in NYC. (If you were wondering, salons are very much still a thing in NYC and some have even made a business of it).

Toward the end of the evening, it took very little nudging by the host to encourage a virtuoso pianist with supposed synesthesia to share her talents. The pianist asked the crowd to select two colors, and then swept over the audience with a stunning melody inspired by what she heard when she thought of those colors. After an energetic round of applause, the floodgates opened to an impromptu volunteer variety show. Some people decided showcase their vocal range; others recited poems or told stories. Some performances were great, and others were awful. To my friend, the act of desiring the limelight to share ones talent required a degree of narcissism: a deep down feeling that you are special and possess something no one else has.

But this can’t be true of all artists and creatives, can it?

It turns out, there are plenty of psychology studies that associate perceived creativity with narcissism.

One 2010 Stanford University study paired up 76 students and asked them to pitch a movie concept to their partner. When pitched by the most narcissistic students (as evaluated by a 16-item questionnaire called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory), the concepts impressed the partner evaluating the movie pitch about 50% more than did those from the least narcissistic pitchers. The independent raters didn’t find the narcissists movie concepts to be any better than the non-narcissist. What explained the difference? “The difference, the researchers say, was in the pitch itself: narcissists were more enthusiastic, witty, and charming—all traits, according to past research, that people associate with creativity.” Self-confidence goes a long way.

Another study showed that people who believed they were creative were more likely to engage in creative pursuits. You probably have anecdotal evidence of this among your own acquaintances and friends. The most extraverted like to share their talents. Moreover, if you really think you’re good at something, you’ll likely do it, even when facing the chance of critique or failure.

According Yi Zhou, a researcher at Florida State University, investing in narcissistic artists will be more profitable in the long run. Yi Zhou measured narcissism among painters through a rather peculiar method: the size of their signatures. Zhou measured hundreds of signatures, then compared the results to historical auction price data, numbers of museum shows, and “artistic reputation.” The larger the signatures, the higher an artist’s prices and attention. According to Zhou, “A one standard deviation increase in narcissism increases the market price by 16% and both the highest and lowest auction-house estimates by about 19%.”

Li Zhou’s absurdly complicated equation testing how narcissism affects the value of art in the market.

I can’t comment any more on the scientific rigorousness of these studies any more than I can say that these may be cases of spurious correlation. Thought, it doesn’t seem too far fetched to see how people with an “unreasonably high sense of their own importance” -- people who want others to admire them -- succeed as artists.

There is difference between narcissism and self-love. My generation encourages self-love, which is crucially free of the pernicious quality of narcissism: not caring about others. In The Agony of Eros, Byung-Chul Han argues that we are increasingly living in a narcissistic society -- that capitalism requires people to invest in their ow subjectivity and quest for self-improvement. “Narcissism is not the same as self-love. The subject of self-love draws a negative boundary between him or herself and the Other. The narcissistic subject, on the other hand, never manages to set any clear boundaries…meaning can exist for the narcissistic self only when it somehow catches sight of itself.”

It is fairly well-studied that artists also have higher rates of depression and bipolar disorder. The recent passing of Angus Cloud and Sinéad O'Connor are poignant examples of artists succumbing to mental illness -- extreme counter-examples of the narcissistic artist archetype. I can cope with larger signatures more than I can with loss of life.