Art and drugs have been happy bedfellows since before recorded history. The dawn of man was soon followed by the birth of curious types, seeking to alter their mental state and express it in every which way they could: song, dance, rudimentary forms of painting and inscription.
From Native Americans and peyote to Ancient Egyptians and blue lotus, high societies have always been a global phenomenon.
After thousands of years you’d be forgiven for being blasé about the subject. But a certain mystique refuses to budge when we talk about drugs and art. So why are we still intrigued when the two collide?
Drugs as a creative burden
“There was a time when art, intoxication, religion and the sacred were all the same thing,” says Mike Jay, author of “High Society: Mind-altering Drugs in History and Culture”.
Jay rattles through Minoans in ancient Crete and their opium habits, South Americans and hallucinogens; lotus-eaters in Homer’s “The Odyssey” and stories of witchcraft – potions and shape-shifting and communion with the natural world.
But for a modern understanding of the relationship between art and drugs, writer Thomas De Quincey is pivotal, suggests Jay. Best known for his autobiographical account of 1821, “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater”, De Quincey pioneered the ‘drug confession’, a mode that set the tone for many artists since.
“[He’s] playing a slightly ironic game,” suggests Jay, “saying that to the common person [opium is] just a painkiller, but to people like me – an artist – it takes me to places you can’t even dream of or imagine.
“The pleasure and the marvels are beyond your imagination. But so are the perils and the pains.”
De Quincey’s ambivalence – a sense of both pride and anguish towards the burden of creativity and drug consumption – is an image that has been cultivated by others and has carried great currency in the centuries that followed.
Contemporary artist Bryan Lewis Saunders is a fine example. Saunders has created over 10,000 daily self-portraits and rose to prominence for his drug-induced series “Under the Influence”. He lives a hermetic life in Johnson City, Tennessee, impoverished but refusing to sell his work or engage with the commercial art market. Saunders, when pushed, says he now considers his life a work of art.
Across the Atlantic, Damien Hirst commented in 2000 about how his appetite for drugs and alcohol turned him into a “babbling wreck” in the past. Around the time of those remarks he was crafting “Standing Alone in the Precipice and Overlooking the Arctic Wastelands of Pure Terror” (1999-2000), one of numerous pharmacological works stretching back to his time at Goldsmith’s College of Art, London.
“It didn’t come from any of the things that I had,” said Hirst of “Standing”, “it came from everything I had.”
Drugs as an experiment
Some artists have experimented with drugs in a clinical fashion, embracing the notion, as Jay puts it, that “drugs are not great for writing and drawing and physically doing work.”
In the 1930s German scientists were trying to use mescaline to map hallucinations and learn about the brain, says Jay. Artist and poet Henri Michaux was similarly recording his own mescaline consumption, but with drawings; chaotic, kinetic works of incredible detail that nonetheless display a dissolution of fine motor skills.
Marina Abramović went down a similar route with “Rhythm 2” (1974), ingesting in two stages medication for catatonia and then for schizophrenic behavior. At first Abramović experienced muscular convulsions, then under the second drug mental detachment, “forgetting who and where I am,” she recalled in “Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present”.
Jay describes how throughout the twentieth century “drug use was pathologized, marginalized and socially excluded.” Taking this to its local endpoint was Zurich/London art collective !Mediengruppe Bitnik.
In 2014 their installation “Random Darknet Shopper” brought drug experimentation into the digital age. Their creation was a bot, given a weekly allowance in bitcoins to purchase items from the dark web via TOR.
Items were picked at random and delivered to the Kunst Halle in St. Gallens, Switzerland. One day the bot decided to throw a party, when it bought 10 ecstasy pills concealed in a DVD case. Like the other items bought on the dark web, they went on display, contraband becoming an artistic expression, in and of itself.
Drugs as a medium
Other artists are more playful when it comes to drugs, riffing on perceptions and preconceptions of illicit substance use (and abuse).
Kenny Scharf’s “Closets”, a series of over 30 installations, started life in 1981 as a “safe space,” “a place to go and trip” on magic mushrooms, he explained in 1985. Explosions of Day-Glo phantasmagoria, Scharf’s “Closets” are as stimulating as they come.
Dutch artist Diddo sculpted “Ecce Animal” (2013), a skull made from street-sourced cocaine, testing its purity (a mere 15-20%) before combining it with gelatine.
A Yorick for Generation X, the artist explains the piece is not intended to be a “parable on the self-destructiveness of addiction or substance abuse,” as you might expect. Instead it’s intended to be a meditation on the conflict between civility and our animal instincts – a conflict resolved by the drug.
As a medium, we also see drugs in the work of Fred Tomaselli and Sarah Schoenfeld. Tomselli collages with pills and has drawn connections between with medically-induced states and the “parallel universe” of his unremarkable hobby, bird watching, two subjects he frequently combines. Schoenfeld meanwhile drops drug solutions onto film negatives, subverting the normal method of light exposure and, like a brain on drugs, allowing the film to “see” things that aren’t actually there.
The enduring appeal
Some artists have earned fortunes from their drug-inspired art; others notoriety. But as consumers, what’s its enduring appeal?
“It forms a bridge into a kind of demimonde,” suggests Jay. “I think on one level it’s as prosaic as that.”
“On another I think drugs are about raw, unmediated experience in a world that’s increasingly mediated. We live very safe lives, relatively speaking,” he says.
“I think we still have a sense that there’s something connected with drugs that can take us into realms, types of immediate experiences that are hard to come by in our mediated culture.”
It’s a conceit, of course. For most of the works detailed above – “Rhythm 2” a notable exception – our experience and interaction with them is mediated by the gallery environment, a safe space, like Scharf’s “Closets”, in which to reach into this illicit world.
You could go as far as to argue we consume this art almost for the same reason we consume drugs.
“You’re taking a drug for a new experience,” says Jay. “It could be fantastic or it could be terrible – but it’s going to feel real.”