The Onassis Foundation has kicked off its Onassis Festival: Narcissus Now, a new tradition to celebrate arts and ideas through a variety of events including discussions, visual art, and live music all centering around the theme of narcissism. Contemporary Greek artist Konstantin Kakanias joined fashion designer Mary Katrantzou and writer Sarah Lewis to discuss self-obsession and self-worth in a moderated panel.
SETH VAUGHAN: As an illustrator, are you able to delve into narc via your characters you create, in a way that either minimizes narcissism in your own life? Does it function as an outlet to have these characters, specifically Mrs. Tependris?
KONSTANTIN KAKANIAS: There is this woman that I have been occupied with, Mrs. Tependris, who is a very narcissistic creation as I said in the thing—she is so out there that it becomes an anecdote, a caricature of narcissism, because of that she is liberated from the poison of the true narcissism. The negative narcissism we have. The dangerous sort. Yes, when I draw, especially when I draw about fashion, not that I draw a lot about fashion, but lately I have because I worked with the New York Times. Sometimes I add a narcissistic character.
SV: Is it a way for you to investigate and critique narcissism? Or a way for you to perform narcissism?
KK: I have to admit, I have been attracted by narcissism, myself, even find myself with my feet in the lake. But I saved myself. I didn’t go there.
SV: What prevented you?
KK: Self-instinct … stupidity, love, I don’t know, my work, compassion about other, about myself, maybe I am not fully a narcissist. I had a period in my life where I was maybe more narcissistic, than others, for sure. And I have had narcissistic behavior that I have. Before I did this panel I had four shrink [psychologist] sessions that were dedicated, completely, about how much I am … and after 15 years I am still with the same shrink. And I am not a narcissistic, and I made my husband swear it! It’s not a liberation … but, Mrs. Tependris was a self … it was a distance, I would see this side of someone, including myself, and I would take it to its peak, and I had fun with it. Let me tell you, when I was drawing, in these images, I did many books with her, it was a moment of liberation …
SV: And for you, Mary, you make this distinction, that designers can be thought of in two ways: one, that designers are projecting an imagined version of themselves in the clothes they are creating, or two, as an extension of self-expression. Both seem to require a certain degree of self-involvement. Do you think it is bad to be narcissistic within the creative space and process?
Mary Katrantzou: I don’t think it is bad or good—it is the starting point of where you build on an idea, or a brand. Dressing your ideal self has a lot of conviction in it, because you know yourself better than anyone else. At the same time, when you detach yourself it is pretty arrogant, too, because you’re saying I don’t need to look at anything else, my self expression is enough. I think there are narcissistic undercurrents on both sides, it is just what helps you take your work and express what you have inside. For me, it is always taking a theme that I don’t know that much because that fuels me to learn more about that and see how that filters in fashion. But, of course, that comes from my own interest in a subject matter. A part of your creation, or else you wouldn’t be the designer of it.
SV: In terms of the digitally produced prints you did early on, for me it feels like a very poignant expression of how people our age understand the self. In that it is so sort of fragmented, in that portions of who we are live in the digital world, and another in the real concrete world. Were you aware of that connection, or did it feel specifically timely?
MK: It was taking advantage of advances in technology that were allowing you to do things that you could never do if it were real. So there was a hyperreal quality to it. So it wasn’t so much looking at the fragmentation of the self, as much as it was being able to wear something that was so unique and unattainable that it instantly becomes desirable. But equally digital print is such a sterile tool that it has no charm. It is a starting point for a designer to dream up any image and make that wearable… How do you bring in craftsmanship? How do you bring in form? I think that is a natural evolution for any designer, but my work is always image-led, so it is very important for my images to be in an image context.
SV: Did you find in research for the book some sort of defining moment—I guess to consider failure really is a narcissistic act, because you are really delving into what caused to not achieve the desired outcome. As some point, it feels as though taking the time to slow down and think about that got a bad wrap. Did you locate one specific cultural moment when it was no longer OK to think about your failures in a public way that didn’t feel self-involved?
Sarah Lewis: I wish I could say that I could pinpoint a specific moment, but I do know that the recession in 2008 promoted this moment when people were more public about being willing to reveal how their failures could help them and did help them in the past. Actually FailCon, which I did speak about, in Silicon Valley, was created in the year after that and has now spread to 11 countries around the globe. Some countries have a harder time than others appreciating a conference where they only speak about failure, but in 2008 the Harvard Business Review had an issue dedicated to failure and they made this distinction that maybe allows for people to speak about failure now, which is about blameworthy failure and praiseworthy failures. This is not my terminology, it is Amy Edmondson, from Harvard Business School speaks about this and she speaks about how praiseworthy failure happen on the path to innovation. In contexts where there is great uncertainty, which there was in 2008… For industries that know they need to disrupt themselves, disruptive things can happen, but often times they are praiseworthy because they do lead to massive innovation. So, I think that might be the moment where people are more comfortable talking about it, but I don’t have a more philosophical answer than that.
Actually, the 19th-century moment, between bankruptcy and failure and then being applied to the self.
SV: It seems notable that both happened at economic junctures… Both fashion and social critique like KK does in his work, it is all an economic endeavor and seems focused on those who have access to money, who are well-to-do, so to speak.
KK: Sometimes, but not always … not well-to-do.
SV: They seem related somehow: money, status and narcissism
SL: I think everyone has a sometime overgrown sense of self, regardless.
KK: I think money is a tool to accentuate it (narcissism) more.
MK: Yes, power …
KK: I am not sure that a person with no means cannot be a horrid narcissist. Don’t you think?
SL: I agree, I was actually watching the film “Coco Avant Chanel” on the plane on the way back from Madrid and thinking about the way that Audrey Tautou portrays the pre-Chanel self. She is just as narcissistic as she was as the person that you know because of the money and the image that allowed us to see her character, but that strong sense of self I think is required for the determination that is requisite for being an artist. That is devoid of means. It can happen in poverty, it can happen in wealth.
KK: It puts the volume higher, in our eyes, but not actually in the disease. You know I think it is very important, at least for me, to make the difference between self-knowing and narcissism. That is a very healthy feeling. There is nothing stronger than I know myself and I am good and something. I am good at drawing, but I am bad at running.
MK: The same with someone being arrogant, it doesn’t meant that he has no compassion. It is [on] different levels.
KK: Arrogant, there is a negativity about it. Self-knowing, or say, there isn’t a negativity about it all.
SL: Yea, that’s what … I don’t think I fully answered your question because I think I understood it. Maybe what is list here is that there is an importance in having a strong sense of self that has nothing to do with narcissism. You want to know now to get out of the room. You want to know where the doors are. And it is the same thing with yourself. You have to know the internal apparatus to function, just to live. To be able to be work well with others. To be a contributory member of society. Be all of that. Maybe there is no word than that.
KK: Yes, know your mistakes and accept them—that is very hard.
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