John William Waterhouse, “Echo and Narcissus” (1903)
One of my 2015 resolutions is that I’m going to try my best to avoid unprofessional jerks who behave with unchecked entitlement because they’re both mean and intelligent. (Good luck, me!) We all know these people, whether they’re a narcissistic artist friend or cantankerous colleague. They require an inordinate amount of attention and patience, are easily provoked, willing to offend, and almost always young and male.
Maybe one reason why people are willing to tolerate these characters is because their behavior feels like a hangover from the old modernist myth that artists and writers are tortured societal outliers whose bad manners are a symptom of their genius. And people do tolerate them on all levels. For example, I had a recent conversation with an editor colleague that went like this:
Me: I like X’s writing sometimes, but I would never want to work with him because he’s so unpredictable and mean.
Editor: Yeah I know, but he’s a GENIUS, so it’s different.
Me: Really? I mean, he’s a pretty good writer, but how does is it “different”?
Editor: Of course he’s that good. He’s like the Rain Man of art criticism. We’re lucky to get to publish him.
Me: Okay, bye!
Okay, maybe I’m slightly exaggerating with the Rain Man comment. And the ending. But you know what I’m getting at. Why do we give this behavior a pass? These aren’t fully formed thoughts, but I would argue that it has something to do with both the cultural fetishizing of mental illnesses like Asperger’s (“don’t mind him, he’s weird but genius!”), and narcissistic personality disorder (after all, the art world is built out of hyperconfident personalities).
Further, as someone who is both a curator and a writer, I’m treated differently depending on which capacity I’m working in. When I work as a curator, I’m treated as the “responsible party” while artists are allowed (and even expected) to throw demanding tantrums. When I work as a writer, I’m treated as the creative one, and can get away with infinitely more assholery (no, I generally do not take advantage of this!) since my editor is expected to be the administrative “responsible” middleman. But since I’m the same person no matter what I’m doing, I try to treat all tasks with a common amount of professionalism and respect. So why do expectations placed on me vary so much when I’m in productive, rather than administrative roles?
What are your thoughts?