Is the kind of obsession many artists have with their creative work a mental health problem, some sort of OCD, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder?
Therapist and creativity coach Eric Maisel, PhD notes in his article In Praise of Positive Obsessions that artists can be more than happy – and productive – when obsessed, but psychiatrists may wrongfully judge any sort of obsession as a disorder, because, Maisel writes, they have defined it that way.
“As a feature of its namesake disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or as a feature of some other disorder, an obsession is a sign of trouble and a problem to be eliminated. But the main reason therapists find themselves obliged to consider obsessions invariably negative has to do with language: an obsession is invariably negative because clinicians have defined it as negative.”
In her post Creative Mania and Obsession, Barbara Martin writes about the energy-building aspect of “positive obsession” and “mitigated mania” that Maisel describes in his book Coaching the Artist Within.
Martin notes Maisel “carefully explains that making meaning with passion, drive, etc. serves to spark and generate the massive amount of mental energy required to create. To maintain that high energy level, you may need to encourage a ‘positive obsession’ in yourself.”
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Adam Savage talks about his passion for making a replica Dodo skeleton.
He relates how he collected thousands of images and documents, and crafted a beautiful museum-quality mounted skeleton of the defunct bird.
Video page: MythBusters Co-Host Adam Savage on Obsession.
[Another video: Inside Adam Savage's Cave: The Dodo Birds Project.]
[For more about Savage, see the Mythbusters site.]
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Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes (2008 TV documentary)
In his documentary, Jon Ronson reveals some of the late director’s obsessions with collecting source material. The image is from the video trailer below.
In his post What Do Your Possessions Say about Your Creative Obsessions?, Mark McGuinness writes about seeing the documentary and notes, among other examples, that Kubrick once had a photographer take pictures of every single building on a road in London, so he could lay them side-by-side in his living room.
McGuinness writes, “But crucially, he didn’t want perspective to get in the way – if taken from street level, the buildings would look tilted backwards, and he wouldn’t be able to line them up properly.
“So the photographer had to take a large ladder to the Commercial Road, climb up 12 feet in the air, photograph the first building, then climb down, move the ladder along to the next building, and climb up to take the next photo. All along the road (it’s not short). Both sides. All the while fielding phone calls from the director asking him to hurry up and how soon could he get the photos back to him. Nice work, if you can get someone else to do it.”
McGuinness also mentions obsessive collections by Bill Graham and Robert Crumb.
In his article Citizen Kubrick, documentary filmmaker Jon Ronson relates a number of details about what he found on Kubrick’s estate, such as a former projection theatre room now filled with books and drawers of papers – all about Napoleon.
Kubrick and assistants also spent years creating a cabinet full of 25,000 3×5 library cards of data about Napoleon and his family, for a movie that was abandoned by MGM, so Kubrick made A Clockwork Orange instead. For part of his vast collections, he had a company make 400 boxes with tops he designed to lift off more easily.
Here is a trailer for the documentary.
As a clip from my video above (“Creative obsession: Adam Savage and Stanley Kubrick”) indicates, OCD is portrayed humorously in the TV series “Monk” – with the highly talented detective shown using a second carpenter’s level to check the first one.
The final clip in my video is a public art installation that spelled out “Obsessions make my life worse and my work better” made of 250,000 eurocents, in four different shades.
Like perfectionism, obsession can fuel creative excellence – but it can also become extreme and unbalanced, wasteful and even destructive.
For example, maybe Kubrick could have used multiple panoramic photos from street level of that London road, and his great imagination, instead of having a photographer stand on a ladder to shoot each house individually.
It sure would have saved a great deal of time and effort that might have been put into other projects. Just a thought.
A variation on obsession is “stubborness” or perseverance. Like other labels, it depends on your conception and viewpoint.
When she was a newly single mother and struggling to support her baby daughter in Edinburgh, J.K. Rowling chose to commit herself to her dream of becoming a novelist by writing “Harry Potter.”
For more, see post “Positive Obsessions To Be Creative” – an excerpt from my main book.
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Also see multiple posts on Perfectionism (High Ability site).