I remember seeing this ad as a child and thinking, "I don't get it. Maybe I'll understand when I'm older." Growing up, I often encountered things I didn't understand and sometimes I mistakenly assumed it had something to do with my naiveté. If only I could go back and let my younger self know that sometimes when you don't understand something, it's not because it's over your head, it's because the adult that is trying to communicate with you has no idea what the hell they are talking about. In this commercial, Calvin Klein has no idea what the hell he is talking about. He is pulling from some vague idea that obsession is cool, artistic, complicated and implicit in being human.
Obsession is an idea that has plagued the art world many years before the romantic movement decided it was cool to paint skulls into still life's. The message is simple. You are going to die. In recognition of this fact, the romantics prescribe a life of obsession, of frantic abandon, of burning desires and unquenchable yearnings. These yearnings are best expressed at night, perhaps in a desolate area of the city, staring out a broken window smoking a cigarette with a listless look in your eye as if to say, "What does it matter. We are all doomed." The answer to this doom is to throw yourself into something, anything, just as long as you are completely absorbed by it. "Your work" is the only thing that matters. It is so important that it should deteriorate everything else around you. If not, then you're doing it wrong. Who cares about human relationships? Who cares about social norms of behavior? All that matters is the work, the work, the work, the never ending work.
The word obsession is derived from the latin word, obsidere, which means "to besiege". This simple metaphor implies that you are under attack (at war) with whatever your obsession happens to be. If you loose the war, if you surrender to the siege, you have been completely taken over. You are possessed. We often think of possession as a demon, (The Exorcist, 1973) or as an alien (Possession, 1981). We only need to replace the demonic-invading-alien, with the object of our obsession, and we have a sense of how this all works. We are "taken over", have "lost control" are "driven mad" because we "can't get it out of our minds".
Psychologists have a word for obsession. They call it "fixation". The word "fixation" comes from the late middle english word fixare which was, "an alchemical term denoting the process of reducing a volatile spirit or essence to a permanent bodily form". (Google) In psychological terms a fixation is "a strong attachment to a person or thing... that manifests in immature or neurotic behavior..." (Wiki). These two differing definitions offer an insight into the problem of deciding what is a healthy exploration and what is a sickness. In its healthy sense, we are taking volatile abstractions and turning them into solidified concrete forms. In it's unhealthy sense, we are neurotically grasping at the shadows on the wall, mistaking over and over, the reality of our situation.
Don't get me wrong. Obsession isn't all hand wringing and sleepless nights. There's a pleasure to it as well. It's the kind of pleasure that megalomaniacs experience at realizing they actually are the most important thing in the world. It is the pleasure of being (or at least thinking you are) sexy, young and cool. It drips sexuality because we often experience obsession in our sexual relationships. (See Calvin Klein commercial) It is "young" because it's our early experimentations with love that usually devolve into obsessive unmanageable yearnings, and of course, it is cool because there is a destructive edge to it that takes a blasé attitude toward the one thing you might show an interest in, your life.
Given all of this, we might think of obsession as counter cultural, eccentric and subversive, but that is getting it exactly backwards. In the above commercial Lowe's also has something to tell us about how we should nurture our obsessive tendencies. After showing us over and over the linkages between children's authentic adventurous play (another romantic ideal) and adult home improvement, we are left with the message, "Never stop improving." In the John Updike quote given in relation to "On Behalf of our Obsession" at the Haw Contemporary, we are told that, "The refusal to rest content, the willingness to risk excess on behalf of one's obsessions, is what distinguishes artists from entertainers, and what makes some artists adventurers on behalf of us all." Both messages share a common theme. Never be satisfied with what you have. Always be striving for more. Never be content. It should be noted that the definition of contentment is "simply a way of accepting one's life state and being grateful or happy with it." (Wiki)
So according to the romantic view, being besieged by unrelenting voices of discontent is a good thing. It's a good thing because these negative voices keep us working, they push us beyond what "normal people" would do. The purpose then of all this obsessing, the real utility of it, is motivation. Motivation is the stick that prods us along, in this case, by hitting us with a perpetual-dissatisfaction-with-everything-around-us. The question we must ask ourselves is, "Is this really true? Is this really why we get up in the morning and make work?" If it isn't, then maybe we don't have to be perpetually dissatisfied. Maybe, like most romantic conceptions of human behavior, it doesn't make sense.
I would submit that a curiosity about the world around us is a much healthier way of thinking about the relationship between an artist and their work. This is not the action of throwing yourself into something with reckless abandon. It is the development of a slow steady conscious attention to what is going on and then becoming engrossed in the intricacies of what enfolds through investigation. It is not the tunnel-like demonic possession of smoldering desolation. It is the soft conscious intentionality of being curious about what is happening around you. Once this distinction is fully appreciated, the anxiety ridden obsessions will seem less and less useful. In fact, if you observe this internal neurotic voice, if you close your eyes and spend some time studying it, you will find that it is quite egocentric, and much like Calvin Klein, has little idea of what the hell is going on. In experiencing this, those demonic voices will quiet down and you will be left with the curious joy of being in the presence of life.