Reaching Within: What traditional art offers the heart
I am guilty of being narcissistic. I’m an artist, and I want people to see my work. I not only want people to see my work, I want them to like it. I post pictures of my work on social media and hope people will give me the coveted “like.” If I’m being honest, the more likes I get on a post, the more satisfied I am with myself. But what do these likes and my desire for them really mean?
Narcissus Discovered Himself
The tale of Narcissus might prove insightful in unpacking my desire to be liked. According to Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” Narcissus was born of a river god and a nymph. His beauty inspired love in everyone who met him. Upon Narcissus’s birth, an oracle was asked if he would live a long life, and the seer replied, “If he does not discover himself.”
Indeed, everyone fell in love with Narcissus and admired him, and Narcissus, with distant pride, refused their admiration and even scorned them all. One of his admirers didn’t appreciate this treatment and prayed to the gods: “So may he himself love, and so may he fail to command what he loves.” Nemesis, the goddess of divine retribution, heard this prayer.
One day, Narcissus came upon a secluded fountain of water where he decided to rest. The water was still and clear. He lay down next to the water to rest and quench his thirst. And there, seeing his reflection in the water, he fell in love with himself.
So enamored with himself was Narcissus that he refused to eat or drink. He only wanted to grasp hold of his own reflection and was frustrated by his inability to do so. He gazed at himself until he wasted away, with the last words, “Alas, in vain, beloved boy! … Goodbye!”
According to Caravaggio.org, Caravaggio interpreted Ovid’s version of Narcissus’s story for his painting titled “Narcissus.” The Italian Baroque painter depicted Narcissus tenebristically, that is, with extreme lights and darks. The lightness of the figure stands out against the darkness of the background.
The edge of the body of water divides the composition in half. Narcissus sits at the edge of the water and looks longingly at his reflection. He supports his weight with his right arm on the ground, but his left arm reaches into the water as if he wants to hold his reflection’s hand. The hands of Narcissus and the hands of his reflection meet and help create an oval within the composition.
Does the darkness of the background represent Narcissus’s attitude toward the rest of the world? Has he forgotten the world because of his intense desire for himself? Or is the darkness of the background indicative of the darkness that closes in on him because of his desires?
To me, the darkness of the background represents both. Narcissus forgets the world around him because of his desire for his own image. He forgets the people who once loved him, his family, and the animals and plants around him. His desire for himself causes him to forget that other beings exist, that they suffer, endure, live, love, and laugh. His desire for himself is incompatible with compassion.
What’s darker than the absence of compassion? This darkness closes in on him because darkness is compatible with the nature of his desire, a desire for himself alone. His lack of compassion and his desire for himself eventually lead to a darkness that consumes his life—death.
His last words suggest that his efforts to love his own image were “in vain” because they were unsuccessful. There is a pun here too: His efforts to love his own image were in vain not only because he was ultimately unsuccessful, but also because desiring his own reflection represents his vanity.
But why does Caravaggio use an oval as a compositional element? Narcissus’s arms join with the arms in his reflection to create a compositional oval that leads our eyes around the composition again and again.
To me, this oval represents the divine retribution inflicted by the goddess Nemesis. Narcissus becomes for himself what he was for everyone else: He was admired and loved but was distant, cold, and even scornful and prideful toward those who admired him. Nemesis’s punishment of Narcissus made him suffer from his own inconsolable admiration of himself. Divine retribution: What goes around comes around.
My Own Worst Enemy
What does the story of Narcissus and Caravaggio’s painting mean for me, today? Is my desire for “likes” narcissistic? I often tell myself, “I’m just sharing my art on social media to market myself, sell paintings, and provide for my family.” This is certainly true, but it also is not the whole truth.
For the traditional artist, the work of art reflects both the artist’s values and the visual world depicted: It reveals what the artist admires, desires, and values by way of communicable symbols and signs. The artist has the potential to discover aspects of himself in each of his creations. When people like a work of art, they are also liking the artist and what the artist values.
I, as an artist, must always confront the danger of falling in love with my reflection in my work. Where is there compassion in sharing artwork for the purpose of generating likes? To merely be admired as an artist? Does this narcissistic approach to sharing art neglect that those for whom the artwork is shared are human beings? Does it merely use other human beings as a means to the end of self-satisfaction? What might the divine retribution be for this narcissism? How will I be made to suffer?
Artists either show their creations to be admired, or they show their creations to provoke a potential internal conversation about what they value. Caravaggio’s painting made me reflect on my own values as an artist and as a human being. So, today I ask: “Am I sharing artwork for others or for myself?”
Art has an incredible ability to point to what can’t be seen so that we may ask “What does this mean for me and for everyone who sees it?” “How has it influenced the past and how might it influence the future?” “What does it suggest about the human experience?” These are some of the questions we explore in our series Reaching Within: What Traditional Art Offers the Heart.
Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist. He is currently a doctoral student at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).
Contributed by Eric Bess