Drugs and the Arts: A Perfect Match?


As an artist, I must admit to feeling a certain amount of ambivalence toward drugs. I’m speaking broadly here, not just about marijuana, the subject of this issue of Hilltopics, but also about alcohol, LSD, cocaine, and all other substances that Homo sapiens sapiens commonly uses for recreational, mind-altering purposes. For it seems to me that art and artists have a complicated, problematic, and probably overblown relationship with drugs, one that’s fascinating but troubling at the same time. There’s the stereotype of the genius, eccentric, mad artist (à la Allen Ginsberg and the Beats) who heavily experiments with drugs as a means of extended or heightened creative expression. The Beatles did it; recent discoveries suggest that Shakespeare might have done it. Drugs play a fundamental role in hip-hop and rap music (if not as a player in the creative process, then at least as subject matter), and taking drugs has long been a part of the audience experience for jazz and rock-and-roll concerts in particular. Even the copywriters and artists of Mad Men have been known to indulge in a joint on occasion, a supposed route to increased productivity that more often leads to strange and totally unproductive episodes of high-induced, faux-poetic folly. Nonetheless, the mythical association of drugs with the arts is there, and it remains strong today.

Drugs, we’re told, are a way to connect more intimately (or, perhaps, to connect in the first place) with your “creative side,” to see the world in fresh, unprecedented ways. For the poet, or the musician, or the painter—for anyone interested in artistic representation and interpretation of the world, whether physical, imagined, or psychological—this sounds like Heaven. Why not? All artists struggle to perform or produce up to their own expectations; perhaps drugs hold the key to a more relaxed, creative, focused, and clear way of living, to a more powerful artistic personality.

But, of course, not all artists agree. The late Mark Strand, one of the great poets of the recent age, was once asked about artists using drugs to enhance their work. I suspect many people will identify with his response: “They interfere. I mean, if I’ve had a couple of drinks, I don’t feel like writing. I feel like having another drink.” Moreover, for every artist who has successfully used drugs as an artistic tool, there’s at least one who has fallen, tragically, to the very real dangers of drug use. Bill Evans and John Coltrane, two of the most important musical geniuses ever, both died partially as a result of drug use (cocaine and heroin, respectively). Amy Winehouse, Heath Ledger…the list of artists who have died in drug-related circumstances is astounding, and it speaks volumes about the costs of the marriage of drugs and the arts.

For my part, I don’t put much stock in the need for drugs as a part of the creative process. Good art, I believe, is produced through a particular way of looking at the world, a sensibility that opens itself up to nuance, to gesture, to possibilities that most people are not aware of. The artists perceives the world uniquely, and then works hard to convey that particular, individual experience in a way everyone can understand. And while drug use may produce interesting results, it will not turn a non-artist into an artist—nor will it make an unperceptive or passive experiencer of art (whether an audience member in a concert hall or theatre, or an observer in a gallery, or a reader of poetry) more keen or interested. There’s simply no getting around the hard work of art, no magic pill with the power to make a miracle out of mediocrity.

The key to art is the, as Keats says, “teeming brain” of the artist, along with an audience willing to engage with that brain via the artistic product it produces. If drugs are involved, great; I suspect, however, that it will prove, in the long run, even better if they are not. For chemical-induced highs will always fade…on the other hand, the elation, understanding, and transcendence produced by sound art are, like diamonds of the mind, forever. Ours is a world of several pleasures, and none is less valid for being more fleeting—I’ll be the first to say that I embrace them all. But if I had to take just one, I know my choice, and that gives me more pleasure than all the rest ever could.