The Necessity of Narcissism

They say when an individual is afflicted with Narcissism its everyone else who suffers…

As true as that may be, if we were to magically eradicate that ugly disease from existence, where would that leave the world of art?


I propose that after

1) Possessing actual talent

and

2) Being “connected” in your given industry

that

3) Narcissism…

is the next most important trait for having a successful artistic career.
To illustrate, lets play a little game. Its called “Narcissist or Artistic Genius”… Ready…? Here we go…

  • Salvador Dali
  • Michael Jackson
  • Tom Cruise
  • Pablo Picasso
  • Madonna
  • Stanley Kubrick
  • Leonardo DaVinci
  • Peter Sellers
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

The answer of course to all of these highly successful people is that they’re both. And I know what you’re thinking…

YOU: “C’mon, Jess- are you trying to say that only narcissistic people are successful?”
JESS; “Yes”
YOU: “But what about Meryl Streep? She’s a lovely person.”
JESS: “She is a lovely person… and a narcissist.”
YOU: “What about Oprah? Don’t you dare say anything bad about Oprah?”
JESS: “I wouldn’t specifically classify her in the artist category but I would say she is highly successful at whatever she does- and yes, she’s a narcissist.
YOU: “I hate you.”

I will try to win back our friendship by clarifying that being a narcissist doesn’t have to mean you have borderline personality disorder. Lets see how the dictionary defines it.

nar-cis-sism
– noun
1. excessive admiration for oneself.

Bingo! I know this is a huge button for people. They don’t want to see Meryl Streep or (god forbid) Oprah as a narcissist; they’d prefer to replace that ugly word with “confidence.”  However, I argue that being confident is not enough.

con-fi-dent
– adjective
1. having strong belief or full assurance; sure.

I believe this is the general impression you want to leave on the masses.  But here’s the important difference between “Confidence” and, I’ll alter it, “Artistic Narcissism.”

Confidence- “I believe I can do this.”
Artistic Narcissism- “No one can do this better than me!”

Before answering, imagine you’re Jon Landau and you’re producing the next $800 million movie called Titavatar (yes, Titanic meets Avatar)…

and lets assume James Cameron retired from directing to do philanthropy…

Now, Mr Landau, which director do you want to give the job to…?

But wait- before you answer still- let’s explore the opposite side of the spectrum; I present to you the most misunderstood word in the history of Webster’s definitions- a disease that most people mistake as a “noble trait”.

hum-ble
– adjective
1. not proud.
2. low in rank, condition, etc
– verb
3. to lower in status or condition.

Would you trust your precious $800 million Titavatar in someone who was “not proud” or was “low in condition”? (whatever that means! it sounds really bad though).

Before we debate semantics or assume I’m a Scientologist lets just agree that no matter how humble you think your favorite highly successful artists are I will bet that secretly they believe that no one can do what they do better than him or herself?

Why…? Out of necessity!

…because if I go around talking about how much greater everyone else is than I am as a director, the proverbial producers will go ask THEM to do it. Sure, I can praise Nolan, Fincher, Tarantino, etc; they’re too busy to steal jobs from a lowly, bright-eyed director like myself.  But there’s a way that I can be supportive of my fellow artists while projecting to said producers that they have found the guy for their project.

“Oh man- [This psychological thriller movie I wrote]- I know it so well! I dream about how I would direct this every night. No one on the planet has the insight into this character like I do.”  Or…

“Thank God [this movie about an olympic athlete trying to win gold] came up because its perfect for me! With my professional running background, only I could possibly understand the intricacies of an athlete’s mind frame”. Or…

“Holy shit! [random made up movie about someone who stubs their toe] You’ll never believe this- it just so happens that I stubbed my toe so bad when I was in junior high that it left this indelible impression on my brain and I have always been wanting to tell this story- must be fate!”
You get the point. I am certainly not suggesting you go around being a dick, talking shit about other people, insisting on getting chicks’ phone numbers because you sat in the same restaurant as Mel Gibson. But I am saying “Fuck humble.” You must believe that no one can do it better than you.

Lets be honest, Picasso didn’t start movements by being humble.

I have no idea how he was as an individual but I am sure he felt that whatever he painted was gold and I’m certain his shit didn’t stink.

This is probably the same reason Salvador Dali walked around town ringing a bell so everyone knew he was coming. I assume most of the peers within these two artistic geniuses’ circles dismissed them at the time as narcissists; however, despite social pressures to act as common-folk, these highly evolved artists maintained their disposition… not only to convince others of their ability but also to continually convince themselves.

When pitching the original concept for The Bannen Way around town with my partner before anyone really knew (including us) what a web series was, we had an idea to structure these five minute episodes as a feature; yet neither of us had any real credits to prove ourselves worthy of investors. My IMDb page had an episode of CSI and a day-player role from Brothers Solomon. No one understands or cares that I got a late start because I was a professional runner.

What, now “Jock-boy” thinks he can direct a feature film?

I literally had someone say to me “This is a good idea, but you’re no Soderbergh, Jess, so why do you expect anyone will give you money to do this?”

We realized eventually that we’d have to shoot two episodes to prove we could. And if I had listened to the tapes that I gathered over the years from nay-sayers, “friends”, etc I may never have decided that this is my project to direct- that no one else can do this except… well… okay, lets be honest- Nolan, Fincher, Carnahan, would have blown it out of the water- but dammit, I stake my claim on this land. This is my ticket into the party. I can not only “do this”- I dare say “No one can do this better than me!”

And you better believe that was the attitude I continued to project to Sony when we got our offices on the lot. Fear permeated throughout the halls as the corporate suits’ jobs were riding on some kid who had two episodes under his belt and a belief that “this is going to be the biggest thing to hit the internet.”

I guess the humbler alternative was “Geez whiz, mister Sony, sir. Sure, there are more capable directors than myself but, golly, I sure wish you’d give me a chance because, who knows, it could turn out neat.

And even the compromise- the sweet-spot- “confident” version may not be enough. “I believe this could be a successful venture. Despite my lack of experience I think the end result will compete with other projects.”

Um… okay…?

That may seem like a safer version of the Artistic Narcissist- but its not the kind of mind-frame that gets you Titavatar.

~ JW

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7 Comments

  1. I got a few comments from people surprised that I didn’t think Oprah was an artist after winning an Oscar, numerous nominations, etc. I was hoping more people were going to be touchy about the concept of embracing narcissism over arguing semantics about Oprah.
    Alas, to clarify, I recognize that Oprah is an artist- a wonderful one, in fact! When I say I wouldn’t classify her as an “Artist” I mean that that label is not what jumps into my mind about her. I tend to think of Oprah as an “Entrepreneur” who happens to be talented at pretty much anything she does.
    Just like if I was having a discussion specifically about “Cooking” and someone brought up Meryl Streep and I said that I wouldn’t classify her as a cook; I wouldn’t be suggesting she doesn’t know how to cook but I would sooner put her in the “Acting” category before the “Cooking” category when making a point about the latter- yes, even considering she was nominated for Julie and Julia.
    Just to further diminish my original “throw-away comment” and, thus, the reason to debate this minute detail, I think Oprah’s experience and viewpoints are valid in my discussion above- even though I don’t immediately think of her as an artist.
    Lets just agree on one thing… everyone loves Oprah.

    ~ JW

  2. Highly inciteful… sorry… insightful and very relevant to myself recently.

    Among my circle of friends, we decided to take a night to ask ridiculous questions and get some real answers. One of which was “describe everyone in the group with one word.” Imagine my surprise when everyone nodded upon the label “narcissist” for myself.

    After some thought, however, I realized they were right. Moreover, I also realized I didn’t have a problem with it, either. As someone who artistically creates massive amounts of content and presents to anyone who’ll pay attention, I crave the feedback (positive or negative) just to revel in the fact of my relevance.

  3. […] Inspired by my own response to another blog, some argue that it’s a necessary step to artistic success. If you don’t already think you’re “the man,” why should anyone else think so? Put another way, who would you hire: the person who says “I’ll try my best to do what you want” or the one who claims “No problem… consider it done?” […]

  4. I think your blog is an impressive and experienced attempt at making sense of the chaos. I think maybe you should rework this premise though, and I write this knowing that my opinions (along with everyone else’s) are purely narcissistic.

    As an artist, I don’t believe ‘being an artist’ identifies to narcissism, and vice versa. Art and mental health are completely separate things. A narcissist can be an artist and an artist can be a narcissist, but any success or failure of such art is dependent on the substance and the environment– Not the artist’s mental state or his narcissistic opinion (or so-called “freedom of expression”).

    And let me be the first to stand up for Stanley here. He was misunderstood. He may have been neurotic and demanding, but that’s just a methodology. Let’s take Shelley Duvall in The Shining for example. We all know that they did not get along, and Shelley was quick to attack him as a narcissist, rather than an intolerant perfectionist. Later when asked about Shelley, Stanley blamed himself– Not because of his so-called “narcissism”. He blamed that bad blood on himself, saying a director who takes an actor down a track when they are not willing or able to go in such a direction is the person at fault. He did not disparage her or take away from her work. And his respectable response to Scatman’s claim of “5500+ takes” was that Scatman could not remember his lines. So that could be called “patience” in my dictionary. And in my opinion, narcissists don’t feed their cats using Spode china. So I cross him off your list.

    • thanks for the comment, Todd.
      As someone who is a tremendous admirer of Stanley Kubrick, I respectfully place him back on that list of narcissists. My intention with this blog is less about commenting on a detrimental social condition and more about insisting upon a mentality based on artistic integrity that we must have if we are ever to grasp that elusive prize called “greatness.” And Mr Kubrick is one of the quintessential examples of an artist who never apologized for his genius.

  5. 🙂 nice article .. liked it … the way you defined and explained the stuff, its good
    and did you miss steve jobs?

    🙂

    • good point. Although I think there’s a lot of people missing from the list! Thanks for the kind words. =)

      ~ JW


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