There is a type of person you encounter in every branch of the arts who believes that he is too cool or too good or too big or too important to deal with the peons, with “peons” often broadly defined as anyone else. We are not talking about people who are harmlessly lost inside their own heads, who may be initially misperceived as egotistical but who you come to know, once you get talking, as essentially bighearted neurotic oddballs. We are speaking here of the artistic egotist.
You see this with some midlist writers in publishing. You see this with certain flailing actors. You see this with some people on social media who have a large follower count. You see this with bestselling authors and big time performers who are never satisfied with their success and who don’t seem to comprehend the concepts of humility or plenitude. An artistic egotist may actually believe himself to be an artist even when he isn’t producing any art. A real artist will reach out to other artists and find beauty in their work. An artistic egotist never looks anywhere but inward. An artistic egotist will often prioritize money and audience reach above all other concerns, but the real artist will sometimes be baffled when he is compensated. Because he’s going to be making art no matter where he’s at or what the world says about it.
An artistic egotist almost always sees the worst in other people and often masks this with a sanguine or “nice” disposition, but the ego is pretty easy to suss out. What are some of the artistic egotist’s tools of the trade? Microaggressions, gaslighting, the casual slandering of other struggling artists who would never harm a fly, the wholesale denial and condemnation of entire perspectives and even new ways of making and creating and thinking about art. An interpretation of a difference in opinion as a threat rather than a possibility to have a healthy conversation. A failure to offer the common courtesy of a response or the dignity and grace of a polite consideration. You’ll see that look in an artistic egotist’s eyes as he coldly assesses you within minutes, ranking you on where you stand in the pecking order, performing swift calculations on just how your work and presence can be advantageous to him. Because in the mind of an artistic egotist, his way is the only way.
Don’t be this person.
If you are this person, don’t think we can’t suss out your solipsism. Don’t think we aren’t paying attention to the way you behave. Don’t think we’re not talking about it with our peers — not out of malicious gossip, but because we really do care and are truly baffled by your unfathomable deportment. Wondering why your career is stagnating? Look in the mirror. Wondering why you keep getting passed over? Look at the signature on your rent check and you may find your answer.
The one thing you learn very fast in the arts is that there’s always someone out there who is better than you. The artistic egotist sees such a person as a force to be stubbed out. The smarter type sees that person as an opportunity to learn and know and understand and be more connected. If the smarter type becomes a serious artist, he will usually be perspicacious enough to understand that wisdom comes from every corner and from every level. The smarter artist who endures realizes that every other artist is a person and treats him not with dehumanization or contempt or derision, but with the decency and respect that all human beings should be afforded.
You are not here to be praised. You are here to make art. You are not here to be the best. I can personally guarantee that there is someone out there who is better than you. You are here to hold your work to very high standards and, once those standards have been met, you must find new ones. And then, only after years of hard work and limitless passion and care to craft, you may very well be a serious artist.
Ego has no place in this journey. Connection, however, does. If you’re connecting with other artists because you want to make yourself feel better, you’re doing so for the wrong reasons. If you’re connecting because you think another artist and his work are pretty cool, then there’s a pretty good chance that you’re not an artistic egotist.
But if you rebuff connection because you think you’re above it, then I urge you to reconsider your priorities. I beseech you with every fiber of my being to seek and court possibility. Every career trajectory, no matter how successful, is marked by ups and downs. You may very well be crushing it right now, but if you cleave to this temperament, then there will come a day, maybe tomorrow or maybe years from now, in which you will very much need other people, big and small. And they won’t respond. Because they remembered how you treated them.
Hold yourself to high standards, but never be an artistic egotist.