Narcissism is a Defining Feature of Modern Activism

Forty-five years ago, Christopher Lasch identified Narcissism. It has become a defining feature of modern activism—“the ever-present, neurotic need to be recognized and affirmed.”

Narcissus looking at his reflection in the water in a painting entitled “Echo and Narcissus” by John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), oil on canvas 1903. Detail from a larger work. Alamy

Julia Friedman in Quillette: On my last visit to the National Gallery in London in October 2022, during Frieze Week, the wall beneath Vincent Van Gogh’s iconic Sunflowers still displayed noticeable palm-sized daubs of unmatched gray paint. The day before, Just Stop Oilprotestors Phoebe Plummer, and Anna Holland had glued themselves to that wall, after dousing the painting with Heinz tomato soup. Their timing (Frieze Week) and venue for this instance of performative activism was not incidental. It pitted the purported excess of attention given to art—here represented by Van Gogh’s masterpiece—against the scarcity of “food” and “justice” for those affected by rampant inflation. In this zero-sum scenario, a choice had to be made between culture and human beings: “Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting, or the protection of our planet and people?” demanded Plummer, as she knelt beneath the soup-stained still life, one palm already affixed to the wall behind her. The efficacy of this attack, news of which quickly spread across both legacy and social media, derived from the cult status of Sunflowers: its cultural cachet, its recognizability and ubiquity. Yet Plummer and Holland saw it only as a prop for acting out their scripted and rehearsed demonstration.

To the casual observer, this stagy use of an artwork as a backdrop for an ideological statement might have little in common with another, much subtler case when a different National Gallery painting served as a prop. This time there was no super glue, tomato soup, or declarative recitations, and no need to involve security. No paintings were harmed in the making of a short film posted in early February to the National Gallery Instagram feed. Narrated by the lovely and mild-mannered University College, Oxford DPhil. candidate Holly James Johnston (currently working on a thesis titled “Why Am I as I Am—and What Am I?”) the video references Claude Gellée’s 1644 painting Landscape with Narcissus and Echo. This presentation was a part of a “Picture of the Month” series, in this case chosen for the occasion of #LGBTplusHM (history month). Johnston, who has previously been described as a “non-binary activist,” now goes under “writer, presenter and performer.” In early 2017, Johnston debuted an act as a drag king “Orlando” on the Royal Vauxhall Tavern stage, undertaken as the performer’s “first and foremost a coming-of-age project.” “Queer coming-of-age stories” are also the subject of Johnston’s doctoral research, making for a neatly uniform, if solipsistic theme.

Visually, the five-and-a-half-minute video is tasteful and restrained. Everything—including the slide backgrounds and the narrator’s outfit featuring a cotton jacquard crewneck vest with narcissus design by Chateau Orlando “made responsibly in the Veneto region of Italy”—is color-coordinated with the room’s blue-gray walls and the ochre of the gilded picture frame. The video opens with Johnston’s generally accurate but prosaic retelling of Ovid’s tale, on which Gellée’s painting is based. It corresponds to The Oxford Guide to Classical Mythology in the Arts 1300–1990s (Oxford UP, 1993), which summarizes the story as follows: 

Narcissus. The beautiful son of the river-god Cephissus and the nymph Liriope, Narcissus fell in love with his own image reflected in water. Drawn to this likeness but unable to touch it, he pined away and was transformed into the flower that bears his name. According to Ovid, this metamorphosis occurred as punishment for his spurning of the nymph Echo, who had been deprived of normal speech by Hera and could only repeat what others said. When Echo tried to seduce Narcissus by imitating his speech, he rejected her. Overcome by grief, she wasted away until nothing was left but her voice.

Accessorized with a mirror, and an actual daffodil (narcissus) flower, Johnston addresses the subject matter (what the painting is about), without wading into the painting’s content (how is this subject matter expressed), or its formal characteristics. Nor is there any mention of Gellée’s sublime approach to classical pastorals, his penchant for the idyllic, or his persistent avoidance of representing tragic, dramatic, or erotic scenes. Despite the live flower brandished throughout the video, there is nothing about the role of nature, which the art historian Claire Pace, in her discussion of the landscape, described as “the idea of integration and interdependence with the natural world, an idea at the heart of the pastoral dream.” In contrast to the pithy yet complex analysis of the subject offered in a 1949 article by another art historian, Dora Panofsky—who argued that in Ovid’s story of Narcissus “self-love and self-negation are locked into one diagram of mutual extinction”—Johnston proffers a facile explanation for Narcissus’s demise, suggesting that he perished because his sexuality was not affirmed:

The Narcissus myth is a story about desire, or more specifically, the “wrong” kind of desire. In the myth, Narcissus thinks he is desiring another man, he initially does not realize that it is his own reflection that he desires. Either way, he has a desire that he cannot fulfill. There is an impossibility to his desire which speaks to queer experience, particularly in the past, when queer identities were not publicly sanctioned. 

More here.