Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Getting high on paint fumes

(May 2008)

Drugs and Art. It is very easy to start thinking about the hoards of artists, musicians and actors who have been dedicated followers of the narcotic tradition that seems to often follow a rise to fame: every rock star in the sixties, seventies and eighties; Jim Morrison, the Stones, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, the whole of Guns ‘N Roses… ad infinitum. Nowadays things seem to have cleaned up, so much so that there are only a few true party animals that spring to mind (Winehouse and Doherty). Here I consider not artists who take drugs, but instances where drugs have influenced art’s creation in various forms. The ingestion of chemicals, prescribed or not, is seated deeply in human nature, society and culture, necessarily giving rise to a huge number of such examples.
Since the dawn of time, civilisations have taken drugs to enhance mood, bring people together, awaken inner thoughts and emotions and as part of religious ceremonies. It is, therefore, obvious how such things can aid one in the plight of artistic creation.

The Wooster group was a performing arts troupe from New York who in 1984 took LSD (Lysergic acid diethylamide, discovered in 1938 by Albert Hofmann) in rehearsal and filmed themselves performing a play. Afterwards, they emulated their actions whilst on the drug and it became “L.S.D. (…Just the High Points…)”. Among the actors were Willem Dafoe (Spiderman) and Steve Buscemi (Conair). This is an example of drugs being used as an artistic aid to bring something new to a performance and to shed new light on ideas which the creators had for the play.

Another instance where “art” has been carried out under the influence of the same drug is in a US Government experiment during the 1950s. A patient is given 50 micrograms of LSD and instructed to draw his doctor at hourly intervals. As time progresses the drawings become more and more minimalist and less representative of the subject matter. Obviously, the influence of drugs on an artist and their work comes from memory of a drug experience. As can be seen from the drawings done under the influence of LSD, if artists were to create art whilst on a drug, their works would be shambolic and unlikely to convey the artist’s intended meaning.

A literal example of drugs making art is Pill Wheels by Fred Tomaselli. In 1996 he created patterns using assorted pills and capsules, acrylic and resin on a wood panel. It had to be removed from a museum in New York due to the potential risk of drug addicts trying to sequester the pills from the surface of the wood panel. It also posed a problem at airports when immigration officials saw it s a possible method of drug smuggling. Some of the more ridiculous critics also saw it as a way of condoning drug use. Another of Tomaselli’s works is a collage made up of plasters and nicotine patches; perhaps this work was seen as a waste of patches which could have otherwise been used to cure smokers of their cigarette addiction.

Reams of singers have immortalised and praised their beloved heroin in songs so much so that heroin seems a very unoriginal subject matter for… any type of art. The Rolling Stone’s Brown Sugar; Guns ‘N Roses’ Mr. Brownstone and Strangler’s Golden Brown. My more innocent mind, aged ten, initially thought Brown Sugar was but an ode to a particularly lovely Black girl. In some ways, infatuation with a person may be akin to a drug addiction. Both are damaging in different ways. Jimi Hendrix, guitar God and genius, sang of Purple Haze (LSD infused marijuana).

Authors and poets have also used their trips to gain inspiration for literary pieces. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the founder of the Romantic movement, was an avid nitrous oxide user and also harboured an opium addiction. His poem Kubla Khan is an extract from a particularly vivid opium-induced dream he once had. It is also rumoured Lewis Caroll ingested the ergot fungus (from which Hoffmann derived LSD) which lent ideas for his classics Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass.

It begs the question, do people take drugs because they are creative or are they creative because of the experiences they have had on drugs? Definitely not the latter – creativity is not conjured simply from drug taking, as attractive as that idea is. Instead, perhaps creative people are more open to ideas and experience and so are more likely to try drugs and use them as a catalyst to art. That is not to say one needs drugs to enhance our artistic capabilities. And so thought Salvador Dali. “I don’t do drugs. I am drugs. Take me, I am the drug; take me, I am hallucinogenic.” Indeed, his paintings are very surreal and anyone wishing to trip out without polluting their blood and brains should take a look at his art.

The notion of “taking” a human being was taken to the extreme by Keith Richards when he snorted his father’s ashes. No small feat by any means: an urn full of ashes would have taken tens, or hundreds, of sessions to finish, I am sure and would not have gone down as well as other snortable illegals. However, that has nothing to do with art, only the eccentricities of an artist.

Science has fuelled inspiration for art when, in 1954, maverick scientist John Lilly conducted a set of experiments based on sensory deprivation research in isolation tanks. He was administered a variety of drugs including the obvious LSD and also ketamine. He was injected with 2-hourly doses of the “horse tranquiliser” for 3 weeks during which he claims to have communicated with alien and god-like entities. (Ketamine is actually used in combination with other sedatives on the elderly, children and small animals, although the idea of a horse tranquiliser is more amusing.) The research was the basis for the plot of the 1980 Ken Russell film Altered States. “In the province of the mind there are no limits”, said Lilly. And he is completely right. So complex is our brain that we have not even scratched the surface of possibilities and by using drugs which alter perceptions and shed a new light on everything, we can only but increase the realms of possibility. However, this is not an advocation to abuse them; anything used to excess for long periods of time will have a detrimental affect on the brain.

One person who did encourage the use of mind-altering psychedelics was Timothy Leary, psychologist and author of Turn on, Tune in, Drop out. The phrase was thought up by Leary as a catchy means to promote the benefits of LSD; the book a compilation of essays spanning religion, neurology, educational psychology, politics and, of course, drugs. During the sixties when LSD was still legal, the youth often misinterpreted the phrase to mean turn onto drugs, tune into the counterculture and drop out of school. Instead, Leary meant turn on/activate your neuronal and genetic equipment; tune into and act harmoniously with the world around you; drop out and detach from convention.

 Given the myriad of chemicals out there, and yet to be discovered, coupled to the infinite possibilities from a multitude of human brains, it is a comforting thought to know that we will never run out of inspiration for that something which makes life, and our world infinitely more pleasing and beautiful – art.

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