Obsessiveness: a Necessity for Artists

One of the highlights of the Chinati Foundation‘s full collection tour is the “100 Untitled Works in Mill Aluminum” created by minimalist Donald Judd. After having walked through the exhibit, a woman in my tour group, commenting on what she perceived as Judd’s obvious obsessiveness, said, “I come from a long line of obsessive-compulsives, so it just jumps out at me.” She went on to say that at least in this instance the obsessive-compulsive impulse was used for good.

She had a point. It would be exceedingly difficult to create 100 aluminum pieces of that scale without some measure of obsession.  But isn’t obsessiveness a requisite for all artists, not just those concerned with making 100 variations of something?  I have read some writers who say that no, you don’t have to be obsessed to produce art. And I think, who are you kidding? Of course, you do, at least if you want to produce art on any sort of consistent basis.

Assuming that there are no other factors forcing you to do your work, where else are you going to find the stamina, discipline, and courage to produce, particularly if you are not one of the fortunate few whose works are in constant demand?  The impulse is internal and personal. We all know stories of writers who will write on napkins or matchbook covers rather than not write at all, or painters who will paint the walls of their rooms if they run out of canvases. What else but obsessed are such people? And that obsessiveness extends to all the arts.

Obsession may take different forms in different artists, and they may be compelled in a variety of directions. Some, as in the above examples, find they need to make multiple variations of a piece. Some must produce in volume. Some may have to create in great variety. Some may need to work on a given piece slowly and meticulously for an excessively long time. Some demand perfection in their work; others imperfection. Some may hallucinate concepts for months before ever picking up a brush or chisel or pen. Obsessive behaviors are as varied as artists, but make no mistake, these people are obsessed

And that’s a good thing, because (I am convinced) without obsession there would be very little art. If you have the opportunity to observe young artists, it is easier than you might think to determine which of them has the best chance of success in his/her chosen art. They are the ones who live, breathe, eat, and sleep their art; they are the ones who concentrate on their art almost to the exclusion of everything and everyone else. Many may have talent, and even ego; what they do may come very naturally to them, and they may really enjoy the work. But no matter how much they love what they do, those without the drive, the compulsion to create are not likely to succeed—at least in making art.

Real artists are not well-rounded individuals; these are people like Hazel Dooney who said, “Art can never be part of a balanced life. It only works if it’s a complete obsession.

For most people, making art isn’t easy; it’s something they must do. They may experiment; they may play; they may change media.  But finally they have to make something that says what they need to say. They can’t not produce art. And without that obsession, no matter what form it takes or how it expresses itself, there would be no art.

Not even artists themselves understand it. They just recognize that they have to create. Well, you know.


Date: Sunday, 2. December 2012 23:13
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