A Breitbart reader criticizes an actor’s apparent “indulging in a form of narcissitic exhibition,” but I don’t want to say anything about fashion, psychology or Jaden Smith. The commenter then makes much broader claims:
I will always hold self-gratifying forms of expression the basest form of art relative to those genuinely purposed for the benefit of others…. Producing value for others rather than self is the fundamental building block of a cooperative and healthy society.
Art “genuinely purposed for the benefit of others”? An artist should be conveying something that he intends another mind to perceive and grasp; he is not and should not be drafting in a void, without regard to whether there is any possible means for anyone else to appreciate and benefit from what he makes. But his motivating purpose–his primary motivating purpose–should indeed be personal, a matter of achieving his own creative vision. Doing so, if done well, will benefit others (or may; it depends on those others too, not just the creator). But the driving purpose should be the artist’s own benefit. And that kind of selfish motive is not synonymous with “narcissistic exhibitionism.”
The commenter sets up a false alternative, implying that if my own good is of more importance to me than the good of the person with whom I trade (contrasted in his remarks with producing values “for others rather than for the self”), then my personal selfish motive must undermine my ability to offer something of value to others whose own good is properly of primary importance to them. This is not true. In any trade in the free market, the producer’s primary motive should be his own benefit, which does not imply lack of any reasonable consideration of others whom I would want to appreciate the value I have selfishly created. I do my best for any client or employer. But I do the work first of all for my own sake, not as an act of charity or self-abnegation. I do it to pay the rent, to make my service worth paying for, to maintain values of character that I depend upon, to be proud of my work, and other suchlike self-sustaining and self-improving considerations.
The commenter suggests that “self-gratifying” art is per se degrading. Does “self-gratifying” art include any work of art consistent with a personal artistic vision? Any human activity may take a degrading form. But it does not become degrading because the ultimate intended beneficiary is the self. One must examine the artwork and the standards that the artwork meets or fails to meet. (Or perhaps nihilistically flouts.) Eating delicious food gratifies the hungry self. Is this “self-gratifying” activity in and of itself the “basest” form of eating, rendered base by its selfish motive? Or is consuming a particular meal self-debasing only if one eats like a glutton or treats dinner guests shabbily, et cetera?
Plenty of imitative artistic fare is animated by no motive force in the imitator’s own personal and integrated vision. But having such a vision and seeking to effectively actualize it is selfish. If one succeeds at all in actualizing the vision, one is gratified. Which is completely consistent with offering it as a value to others who are seeking just such value primarily for their own sakes. The artist hopes that others see what he has tried to make. That too, is to his personal benefit, and to the personal benefit of the person who hopes to find values created by others that are possible to appreciate.