Psychopaths and Art

Today, Quora asked

Can psychopaths and narcissists be truly great artists since they have no empathy and limited emotions?

bach_colWhat we usually call “great art” is from the European tradition, “classical” (including “romantic”) art. I don’t think Bach’s music was very emotional. I don’t know much about the plastic arts of painting and sculpture. Lots of great paintings were pretty objective, faithfully giving form to what they saw. But all art, including music, goes through cycles in which work created in a certain period has a certain kind of similarity which makes it recognizable as belonging to a particular period. It’s kind of weird talking about great art during a period in which there is none. But, perhaps, it seemed that way throughout history. People usually don’t recognize great art that has been created during their own lifetimes.

I decided to explore the question by looking at one artist: Richard Wagner, German, 19th Century. I pick him because he may fit some of the characteristics listed in Hare’s PCL-R and because I know more about him than any other artist. I have studied Wagner because he is one of the most exciting figures in the Romantic Era.

wagnerwreathThe first problem I encounter as I try to assess Wagner as a psychopath is the fact that his music dramas are full of emotion. Maybe you should have asked whether a psychopath can appreciate art, including art that evokes a lot of emotion. I will answer that question “yes.” I certainly appreciate the emotion in Wagner’s work. How much or how deep my appreciation is compared to others, I have no way of knowing.

Here goes…glib

Glib/charming? Based on his voluminous writings, I would say he was glib. Of course, glibness normally manifests during actual person-to-person encounters. (Backwards people of the 19th Century! Don’t even have video cameras!) And based on his success with the “fair sex,” I would guess he was also pretty charming. (2)

grandioseGrandiose? Once he wrote, “Some day, people will be erecting statues of me but, if I try to help myself out now, tongues wag.” (I don’t have his exact words before me but this is a fair paraphrase of what he wrote.) He knew he was great and was able to admit it. Of course, he’s been damned for it. (2)

Need for stimulation? Hard to say for sure but he certainly led an exciting life. He was a revolutionary when he was young, a disciple of Bakunin. (2)

Pathological lying? There was plenty of that in his music dramas. I mean the characters lying to and deceiving each other. Some of his biographers accuse him of lying in his autobiography.  (2)

Conning/manipulative? Like the last item, there was plenty of that in his stories. Once the bad guys gave the hero, Siegfried, a drought to drink that made him lose his memory and forget the woman he loved, to whom he pledged fidelity, and fall in love with a woman they (the villains) wanted him to marry. Then, under the delusion of this drink, he put on a Tarnhelm that made him look like the bad guy and woo (as if he were he) Brunhilde, the woman he really loved. Plenty of conning and manipulation there. Of course, this wasn’t something he did in his real life but the fact that he could think in such a convoluted way suggests the talent. (2)

Lack of remorse? His autobiography tended to paint himself as an innocent victim of other people’s bad. Of course, he may well have been justified in this. (2)

wagner.minnaShallow effect? How would I know? (?)

Callous/lack of empathy? He left his first wife high and dry with no means of support. (2)

Parasitic lifestyle? This is one feature that really got tongues wagging. He had a habit of accumulating debts which he couldn’t pay. Of course, there was no safety net in those days. He was trying to make it as a conductor and composer and it was hard. He liked the better things of life so he lived better than he could afford. If people loaned him money, that way their business. (2)

Poor behavioral controls? Judging by the biographies, he behaved in ways that caused a lot of negative gossip. Will that do? (1)

mathilde_wesendonckPromiscuous sexual behavior? By the standards of his time, I guess one could say so. He left his first wife. I think he left her without support. He had a really hot love affair with Mathilde Wesondonck. I don’t know if they ever consummated their passion but they had a really hot correspondence. Later, he had an affair with Cosima von Bulow, the wife of a dear friend (and daughter of Franz Liszt). Cosima got divorced and married Wagner. The friend remained friends with Wagner, BTW.) (2)

Early behavioral problems? Wouldn’t know. (?)

Lack of realistic long-term goals? He accomplished a lot in his life so I would say no to that. (0)

Impulsivity? Probably. Hard to know how much thought went into every decision. (1)

wagner_richard_opera_tetralogie_nibelungeIrresponsibility? Ask the wagging tongues. They think being in debt would qualify as “irresponsible.” (2)

Failure to accept responsibility for own actions. This seems to go with the one above it. If you are “irresponsible,” isn’t that because you “fail to accept responsibility.” That would mean 4 points for being irresponsible.  (2) (written under protest)

Short term marital relationships. Two marriages. Not bad by today’s standards. But then?  (2)

Juvenile delinquency. No sign of it. (0)

Revocation of conditional release. No known arrests. (0)

Criminal Versatility. No known crimes. (0)

Well, the numbers don’t add up to 30. I got 25 in my calculations. Other people might find more. <shrug> He gets most of his points in the first half of the checklist, the “primary” one. One might question how someone with emotional deficits and lack of empathy could have written such powerful emotional scenes. But psychopaths are know to be good actors. Maybe the quality that allows us to display whatever affect we want, in other words, the ability to be a good actor, could allow a musical genius to do the same thing musically.


5 thoughts on “Psychopaths and Art

  1. Mr H here. Good points! And as I’ve hinted on the blog, the entire Romantic movement (up to and including Symbolism and – particularly – Decadence) just reeks of narcissism. Your typical Tormented Romantic is as narcissistic as one might wish – and as for Oscar Wilde…

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Dramatic enough. And then the five minutes of music and three hours of noise & shouting…


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