Artists Behaving Badly

How to tell if you're really a narcissist

A recent report in the Huffington Post alleges that “narcissistic artists were determined to have higher market prices, higher estimates from auction houses, more museum shows, and more recognition from the art world.” Yi Zhou, an assistant professor at Florida State University, came to this conclusion after studying one particular determinant of an artist’s ego: his or her signature, sampled from Oxford Art Online. Zhou’s team, says the HuffPo, “compared [signatures] to the market success of the artists as determined by auction data from Artinfo,, and websites of various auction houses.”

A couple of years earlier, reported on another study, this one by University College London psychologist Adrian Furnham and two of his colleagues, who studied 207 subjects and determined a link between creativity and narcissism. “In the end, people with narcissistic tendencies were not only more likely to say they were creative; they also were more likely to do creative things,” writes Hyperallergic’s Jill Steinhauer. “The personality traits of extraversion and openness also corresponded to increased creative activity, which is telling about what this study really shows: that self-confidence goes a long way.”

“Narcissism” is a term that gets thrown around freely these days—especially as it might relate to ex-spouses or unbearable friends and acquaintances. But what neither of these reports notes is that it is a very real personality disorder. According to the Mayo Clinic, narcissists have “an exaggerated sense of self-importance” and “a sense of entitlement” that exceeds the norm. They “take advantage of others” and behave “in an arrogant or haughty manner.” Behind the disagreeable conduct, however, often lurks depression and sadness.

In the course of two decades of reporting on the art world, I’ve come to know a lot of artists, but I couldn’t think of that many examples of truly narcissistic behavior, other than a general failure to ask “How are you doing?” So I polled a few critics to see if they could help. Peter Plagens, who writes for The Wall Street Journal, noted, “In Washington, DC, there’s a phenomenon at cocktail parties known as “the bird on your shoulder.” When you sense somebody is talking to the bird on your shoulder, it’s because he or she is looking over your shoulder for somebody more important to talk to. Lots of birds on lots of shoulders at art openings.”

He added, “Artists’ narcissism has been institutionalized with the phrase, ‘In my practice…,’ as if the artist were a lawyer with clients. Another word strongly indicating self-importance is ‘spiritual.’”

Another critic, who asked to remain nameless, sent a response in the form of a quiz:

Do you talk non-stop endlessly in excruciating detail about your latest art project?

Do you send self-congratulatory announcements of every group show you are in?

Do you send an image of your latest artwork every week or two to “reply all”?

Do you invite complete strangers, (i.e., art critics, gallerists, curators) to make studio visits even though you don’t know what kind of work they have done or what kind of art they are interested in?

Do you phone an art critic after midnight to vehemently protest her use of a single word (example: “decorative”) in a review? When you are a member of a group of artists identified as the “Pattern and Decoration” artists.

Do you present a project costing $150,000 when your curator has told you the budget for each artist is $5,000 and you are the youngest and least-known artist to be included?

Do you go up to a stranger at an opening, introduce yourself, and tell her that you are about to be a famous artist and that you’ll be around for a long time?

She challenged me to match a name to the individual offenses, but I’m completely stumped, and yet I’m also left wondering when normal self-confidence tips over into genuine dysfunction. If you’re worried you may have narcissistic tendencies, however, there’s a handy quiz you can take that will provide an answer in less than three minutes. I scored a measly ten, which probably means I need to register for some self-esteem workshops.

Ann Landi

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