• Andrew Field

Narcissism, Culture, and Evaluation

I wonder sometimes how to think about the relationship between culture and evaluation. How do I mean?

There is a relationship between art and justice, but we do not talk enough about this. There have been aesthetic critics, like Oscar Wilde or Walter Pater, who argued for an "art for art's sake" stance of criticism, and there is truth to this, but there is also something we should develop more fully. Art is a form of Greek tragedy, even if it is a comedy, and catharsis, whether through laughter or tears, is also a form of justice. Plastic people don't cry, and bullies only laugh in a way that bothers people. For that reason, neither plastic people nor bullies make good artists, and sooner or later they fall away because they aren't strong enough. In other words, they can't tolerate actual art.

There is a certain kind of culture-monger in our culture now, that pretend to be an artist, but in reality is a kind of charlatan. Often these kinds of artists hide their messages in thin soup. They might have a social message that they dress up in a poem, though the poem only communicates a one-to-one message, and therefore is not a poem at all. They might have intensely unresolved issues, but rather be honest about them, they create art that is the equivalent of an adolescent trying a circle and looking around with desperation for approval from people who don't know art from a hole in the ground. They might propound ethical messages but live lives that are remote from any ethical ground whatsoever. They might toss out allusions to some great artists while not learning a thing from them at all.

I wonder sometimes if our culture feeds into these forms of narcissism. As everyone knows, narcissism is a disease where a person cannot see another person as distinct and different and separate from them, and because they cannot, they project onto them their own issues. Think of a weird person shining a movie projector into the mind of a person who doesn't play games, and that's pretty much life. The person projecting wants attention, or approval, or external validation. They are mad about things, because they have not taken responsibility for their own life, but instead of doing so, they play games with people who have no interest in them until they are pulled into a psychodrama that has everything to do with the projector and nothing to do with the other person. A narcissist sees people as extensions of themselves, and therefore uses other people to "fulfill" their needs, without thinking for a moment about what this feels like for the person who is being used for the needs of the narcissist. This makes for the most toxic situation imaginable.

Our culture encourages narcissism. We like men who play video games but do not learn how to have conversations. We want to hide, so we encourage others to hide. If an artist writes something mediocre, and we ourselves are mediocre, then we will probably endorse that artist, since the mediocre artist only sees mediocrity everywhere. If the mediocre artist also has a big ego, he or she will then get very vindictive if they start to see artists who produce work that is better than theirs. In other words, they will begin to freak out as soon as the term "evaluation" is introduced into the discourse.

But we need to do that, because if we don't we are simply going to continue enabling the narcissists, in life and art. Choosing not to evaluate - which the poetry world has done for decades - is the exact analog of parents choosing not to parent. It is the product of doe-eyed people pretending as if everything is a-okay, that we are all some homogenous goo, that nothing matters, that there are not actually talented people out there who give everything for their art. When we do not evaluate, we enable, and then our culture suffers, because our lives suffer.

There is a reason why Harold Bloom was critical of Harry Potter, but it is not the reason commonly ascribed to him. He was critical for the same reason Hannah Arendt coined the term "banality of evil." Evil people are mediocre. They do not think. They follow the herd. Evil people are also narcissists, because they are children inside, and play games instead of taking responsibility for their lives. Harold Bloom, who is to this day associated with aestheticism, was critical of Harry Potter because 1. the writing is mediocre, and 2. mediocrity is both an aesthetic and ethical aspect. I'm saying, as plainly as possible, that Harold Bloom was critical of Harry Potter because he loved art and hated Nazis. And this is sensible. So when we think about his enemies, why did they become so vicious, and what does this have to do with narcissism, culture, and evaluation?

To evaluate is to judge, but when one evaluates, the people who judge toxically interpret the evaluation as toxic, and their toxicity pours out of them in frightening ways. I think of the woman in the photograph at the Trump rally, like that. Mob madness. But an evaluation, if it is good, informed, and honest, is not a toxic judgment. It is a judgment based on actual thinking, consideration, discernment, insight. Why do we freak out when hear the word insight in the context of Buddhism, but turn into the Trump woman when we hear it in the context of art?

Because we idealize art. And this is the fundamentally wrongheaded move of the narcissist, and therefore of the mediocre person. Mediocre people are decent in the worst sense. And somewhere inside they recognize this. Perhaps for this very reason, because of their own insecurities, they think of art as something it is not: strange notions of genius, or madness, or inspiration; weird black and white thinking; competitions about coolness; total unhealthy splits between the public and private person; ethical talk but no actual examples from life; and oftentimes no awareness of tradition whatsoever.

Take comic strips, or cartoons. Comics strips and animated cartoons are analogs to photography and film, and photograph and film in turn come primarily out of the theater tradition, meaning Shakespeare and then everyone else. But how many comics artists, or cartoonists, or animators, actually read Shakespeare, or novels, or poems, or plays? If they don't, how do they hope to contribute to tradition? If they don't hope to do this - which is fine - what are their intentions? What motivates them?

I don't really know. Status, maybe? Money? External validation? Maybe I'm being too serious. Some people make art for a living, and it might not be the greatest, but they're fine with that. And that's fine. It would absurd to write an essay comparing another show on Netflix to Madmen or another actually quality TV show.

The problems start when people start to lose their minds when evaluation is introduced into the picture. Why? Because we identify with art, and if someone says Harry Potter is not good or imaginative writing, but full of cliches and worn tropes, then this is taken personally, because the story or the characters are identified with.

A person with a strong character, hearing a critique of Harry Potter, might say, "I wonder if there is literature out there that is stronger, or more imaginative. I wonder if I would like it. Maybe I should read it and see what I think." And they might pick up John Crowley, or Ursula K. Leguin, or Mervyn Peake, and grow up a little. And that would be a mature moment for them. They'd say, "I paused, and thought, and learned something." Great.

Most people do not have strong characters. When they hear someone criticizing Harry Potter, what happens? They get enormously defensive, even paranoid. We are out to get them. We are destroying their carefully constructed edifice of what art should mean or be or seem or feel like or look like. And this is intolerable to them. Rip away the fabric of the narcissist and mediocre artist, and what do we see? We see scared people acting big, who don't have the courage or the intelligence to learn how to individuate from either their biological or their artistic parents. And this is sad, but common.

Every good parent knows that different children are different parents' favorites, and every good artist knows the lineage they come out of. This is why more artists should read more criticism that speaks to them. There is a kind of taboo about artists reading criticism about their work, and why in God's name shouldn't they? A Philip Roth, a Toni Morrison, a Cormac McCarthy have great insight into what they have written, in order to write what they write later on. If you don't have insight, how do you grow? And if insight comes from criticism, in whatever form, why would we resist it?

Criticism is not just analysis, but evaluation. If we want to grow a culture in our country that is not hateful, not xenophobic, not racist, not antisemitic, not homophobic, and made of mature people who grow to be good parents, and therefore good readers and discerning and perceptive people, then we need to introduce healthy evaluation into our criticism. Without it, we will continue encouraging a culture of narcissism. With it, we can grow as artists and people, if there is even a difference.

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