Susan York, Center of Gravity, 2004. Wallboard, graphite, and porcelain, room 20 x 16 x 14 ft. View of installation at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.


Obsession, no matter how manifested, is profoundly romantic and taboo. It strikes at the foundations of social values because it is compulsive and potentially without end. Obsession is the antithesis of repression in its public performance of excess. It violates every standard of behavior considered respectable, “normal,” and responsible. Worse, it is a compulsion that refuses the very possibility of economy. Nothing could be further from the primary goals of contemporary techno-society than a profligate expenditure of energy out of proportion with its results.

Honoré de Balzac’s extraordinary 19th-century novella The Unknown Masterpiece is one of the supreme portrayals in literature of an obsessed artist. The protagonist is so driven by his notion of perfection that he has, without concern, been painting and un-painting the same woman on the same canvas for decades. In the penultimate scene of the novel, it becomes clear that the image-less canvas he presents to another character is complete for him, animated by a labor that successive re-paintings have, to other eyes, erased. The point is that the image and the labor remain visible to him.

This is a powerful metaphor for the ceaseless and invisible work (both manual and intellectual) that goes into every artistic endeavor. Yet what is seen as heroic, passionate engagement in one era is medicalized in the next. Balzac’s Romantic image of the artist was revered throughout the 19th and much of the 20th century. Now, the word “obsession” has become part of a psychiatric diagnosis: OCD, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Love and art-making may be among the few remaining arenas where obsession is permitted and even encouraged. Counter-productivity may be art’s most crucial remaining characteristic.