Interested in the possibility that my narcissism might be a good thing, I participated in Nando Messias‘ workshop entitled Art & the Self: What did Narcissus See?, programmed by the Live Art Development Agency. Surrounded by fellow live artists, we started the weekend with a seminar on the psychoanalytic concept of narcissism led by psychoanalyst Tamar Schonfield. Afterwards we shared our favourite self-portraits by other artists and then embarked on creating our own images, enlisting each other’s help and the expertise of photographer Holly Revell to realise them. The self-portrait I produced was inspired by a photograph by Francesca Woodman (brought by Nando) in which her head is bent down and her long hair flows down covering her face but still shows much of her nude body. Nando pointed out that what he liked about the image was the way in which something is both revealed and hidden. This immediately brought to mind a painting by an unknown painter in which a woman in a frilly dress is sitting bereft, hiding her crying face whilst showing her underwear. In an instant, I had found the image I wanted to make. It meant bringing in my vintage pink dress, which in turn inspired Augusto Cascales’ image. It was wonderful the way that ideas and imagery bounced around the group.
The discussions we had during the seminar forced me to reflect yet again on my own shyness. My self-consciousness or shame-proneness is sometimes perceived as rudeness. Yet, I recognise that being so caught up in one’s self, being preoccupied with what others might think is at once narcissistic and social. If I weren’t a social being, I wouldn’t have anything with which to be preoccupied; if I were wholly narcissistic (or rather schizophrenic as Tamar informed us) I wouldn’t care what other’s think. Yet I get so preoccupied sometimes with what others might think that I neglect to turn outward and check in with them. Other people also want to be recognised and greeted, to receive the face – the one that will mirror them, as hopefully the good enough mother reflected theirs as a child. It doesn’t necessarily matter to the other which greeting or social nicety you choose as long as you make some effort – take some break from the inward glance to acknowledge them. What you say isn’t make or break, but to the narcissistic person, it can seem that way.
Being aware that others think I am a narcissist, or rather fearing that others think that, feels bad, it feels shaming. But I believe in acting against shame because shame inhibits pleasure and curiosity. So maybe I should pursue being narcissistic shamelessly – navel-gaze so much that I prove them right! At the same time, I am a social being and ideally I’d like to ensure that my narcissistic acts have wider, social relevance. Of course, as Freud highlights, narcissism is healthy. It’s important to take care of one’s self; I can’t take care of others without first caring for myself. But what else? Are there other socio-political ramifications for my narcissism, if I continue to pursue it? I’m quite good at self-care. (Another thing I like about myself, blush.) So maybe what’s good about my narcissism is that I can share that expertise and enable others to take better care of themselves? These were some of the thoughts I was thinking during the seminar.
The highlight of the DIY was simply getting to work collaboratively with the other artists. While it was amazing to have a creative outcome – the photograph – to take away, it almost didn’t matter very much to me how it turned out. This is surprisingly un-narcissistic of me not to feel very invested in it. I was much more interested in experiencing myself in relation to others. It was funny that I started to impose my own vision as I ‘helped’ someone else to realise hers, which is something that would undoubtedly irritate me if someone did that to me, unless of course I thought that person’s vision/aesthetic was particularly strong. But of course I wouldn’t perceive someone else’s aesthetic as strong (or helpful) unless it matched my own. In other words, for me a successful artistic collaboration either requires complimentary aesthetic sensibilities or the suppression of opposing views. This is perhaps why it still remains true that my ideal version of collaboration entails me telling other people what to do, although I often lack the assertiveness to pull this off well.
For more images from the workshop, see Holly Revell’s post.