Drugs and Artists: The road of excess
“The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” - William Blake (1757-1827)
The relationship between artists and intoxicating substances is a well-established one. While it’s not true of every artist, many have used recreational drugs as a key to unlock the magic of their creativity.
Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) allegedly said, “Write drunk, edit sober,” and the names of his fellow writers who were drunks is long and growing. Some of history’s greatest writers – from Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) to Charles Bukowski (1920-1994) – are almost as well known for their drinking as their writing, but writers aren’t the only artists who have fallen under the sway of distillation. Van Gogh (1853-1890) and Picasso (1881-1973) were both fond of the highly alcoholic and hallucinogenic spirit absinthe.
It is no accident that musical trends are often born in bars and other venues awash in alcohol, but musicians and artists of all kinds haven’t limited their indulgence to liquid spirits. Because alcohol is a depressant, the use of cocaine and amphetamines are commonly used to balance the deadening effects of alcohol. During the 1960s, social and sexual experimentation fit neatly with the altered states of consciousness found in marijuana, LSD, and psilocybin mushrooms. The psychedelic music, writing, and artwork of that era – including groundbreaking work by The Beatles, Ken Kesey (1935-2001), and Stanley Mouse - were often created “under the influence.”
The rush of creating a meaningful piece of art is a unique high, one that inspires many who have experienced it to look for ways to replicate the feeling with mind-altering substances. Artists have also used drugs to break down barriers of inhibition and expectation, to find new and different views of the world and life. Displaying deeply personal thoughts and emotions for public consumption and criticism can be painful, and nothing dissociates a person from their pain as effectively as drugs (or therapy).
A crucial part of the relationship between drugs and artists can be found in the way some creative people connect to their work more closely than they connect to the people in their lives. As Robert Weiss put it in Psychology Today: “Addiction is not about the pleasurable effects of substances, it’s about the user’s inability to connect in healthy ways with other human beings. In other words, addiction is not a substance disorder, it’s a social disorder.” Or as lyricist Bernie Taupin put it in his song “Social Disease”:
I get bombed for breakfast in the morning I get bombed for dinner time and tea I dress in rags, smell a lot, and have a real good time I'm a genuine example of a social disease.