Narcissism is everywhere. News anchors say it prevents politicians from keeping their pants on. Teachers and coaches reinforce it by avoiding grades and giving out trophies that read “Participant.” Adults and kids push it on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, while achievement-free celebrities turn it into worldwide exposure and profitable endorsements. Of course, it was only a matter of time until this blustery but debilitating epidemic struck an already self-absorbed art world.
And strike deep it has! Because artists in our time are defined simply as people who make art, they and those who covet their wares are especially susceptible to the narcissism bug. Take, for a start, American sociologist Howard Becker’s modern-day definition of an artist: “If you do it [art], you must be an artist; conversely, if you are an artist, what you do must be art.” That précis, of course, contains it’s own vain syllogism; some would say it’s downright self-aggrandizing. Consequently, just like Donald Trump—the one presidential candidate psychiatrists are willing to go out on limb to label clinically conceited—many artists today resemble textbook cases of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).
According to the American Medical Association, narcissistic personality disorder is defined as “a condition in which a person is excessively preoccupied with personal adequacy, power, prestige and vanity, and mentally unable to see the destructive damage they are causing to themselves and others.” Consider, in this light, the late Chris Burden’s self mutilations, which included shooting himself in the arm and crucifying himself onto the hood of a car; Marina Abramovic‘s recent entreaties to innocent bystanders in New York and London to queue for hours to share her “charismatic space”; and Shia LeBeouf’s latest grasp for undivided attention, #AllMyMovies, which consisted of a movie marathon complete with bizarro fans, rubbernecking press, and a half-asleep star munching on popcorn in one of the front rows. These and other fresh demonstrations of over-the-top egotism constitute a pandemic of art world narcissism that could, if left unchecked, turn into a serious mental health emergency.