Narcissistic altruism

I have just came back from watching a film with a good friend.  He was over visiting from Ireland.  We went to the GFT to see Waste Land

The movie centred around Artist Vik Muniz who travelled back to his home country of Brazil to meet the ‘Pickers’ of one of the largest land-fill sites in the world.

The film had a strange inverse prodigal  son theme, with a successful Muniz returning to the favelas of Rio in order to liberate the noble hard working people of Jardim Gramacho, through the medium of modern art.

(Originally posted 10 March 2010) Cont.…


Muniz directs the people of Jardim Gramacho to create large artistic representations of themselves, which he in turn plans to action off – for their benefit.  A noble cause, however the part that I find cringe-worthy is the disgusting back-slapping tone the film takes.  At one point in the movie, Muniz is seen discussing with his colleagues about whether it is wrong to expose these workers to a high life of modern art, or is it unfair to give them a glimpse of a world so unobtainable to them.  At another point in the film, one of the female workers bursts into tears, after two weeks away from the ‘garbage’, she does not want to return, she pleads to the camera to be allowed to work for Muniz, even just for $150!

The film is concluded with the sale of a series of photographs of the work for around $300,000, which in turn is invested into the ACAMJG, the union of the ‘pickers’, this is unquestionably a very charitable act by the incredibly wealthy artist. However I do not believe that Muniz would have been quite so keen to spend two years on a land-fill site, had it not brought him world-wide acclaim and a very successful documentary film.

It is worth noting that Muniz is not by any means the only person guilty of narcissistic altruism, I believe this strange contradiction drives us all at some level.  Why is it honourable to give money to pickers, and not – say –  prostitutes? Are they too not victims of misfortune in some way?

As Ernest Becker so famously explored in his genius book ‘The Denial of Death’, we are all trying desperately to become the hero of our own lives, in an ultimately ill-fated attempt to rationalize our inevitable mortality.

Are we all just narcissists?

The answer is, no.  I don’t think that we are.  I think there is undoubtedly an element of self-preservation in all of our action, and I don’t think human mammals are capable of a completely altruistic act.  In fact, I would go further to suggest that such a concept is not possible, that it is a trick of language.  The concept of selfless altruism is most prominent in religious philosophies, people are compelled to aim for selflessness, but destined to fail regardless.

Luckily human mammals have an incredible sense of fraternity, and solidarity, which has served us well for millennia.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s