Sunday, April 27, 2014


I speculate on phases that I think each artist has to pass through, developmental phases like that of an infant to an adult. For example, I think each artist has to reach a stage where they are willing to actually put their work out there for consumption, another usually later stage is learning to ask people to pay for your art.

I'm not sure where it is, but I think an artist needs to free themselves from a yoke of originality. Which isn't particularly fair to label as 'originality' I just lack a better word. But that's perhaps why I feel compelled to write about it. I was watching a certain somewhat popular band play the supporting slot for Erykah Badu when it hit me, the trouble with originality.

As an ideal, it tends to be overstated. I mean, people often treat 'originality' and 'creativity' as synonyms which isn't fair, being creative if merely engaging in the act of creating. It doesn't necessitate being original as well. Many creatives are dedicated to very rigid forms, the beauty of what they create driven by the adherence to the rules of those forms.

But when I say 'originality' is over stated, I think many artists get into their head the pursuit of some holy-grail. Some wholly original work, a quantum creation plucked from the ether that bears no resemblance to any preceding piece of art. An immaculately conceived idea.

Hok sput.

It's bullshit. Hogwash. Quantum breakthroughs do occur. But it's rare. The problem I have with artists caught up in originality, is as near as I can articulate this:

It doesn't produce good art.

Whatever that means, here's what I mean - 'originality' isn't an aesthetic as such. It just means without precedent. You wan't your art not to resemble anything. It doesn't matter how it doesn't resemble anything.

That's a very hard thing to try and imagine. It's a very hard thing to avoid by accident, it would take a lot of research to figure out every form thus far created, and then avoid them all. I don't think anybody does it.

What artists tend to do when aiming for originality is attack the problem in very predictable ways. They attack the foundations, break the forms. A much lighter challenge than taking an existing form or genre and then creating a wholly new iteration of it.

So they attack the underpinning, and create... a mess. Those striving for the original tend to produce shit that hurts the ear drums or waters the eyes. They take existing rules and break them. But it's always the big obvious rules. Not a partial deconstruction, and the original works wind up being predictable and cliched. The contemporary and avant garde tend to resemble each other as much if not more than the works of antiquity.

Those striving for originality so rarely achieve it. Which is to be expected.

I find the pursuit quite juvenile, in the egocentric moody teen years of being an artist. Where one draws or paints or writes or composes to express themselves as unique, special, a rebellious identity. They create in an attempt to create themselves, a self they hope is worthwhile.

Just create because you love creating, that you deal with a subject you are into. If you can't manage that, create because you are getting paid.

I often think about Einstein and just what chain of events lead him to sit around contemplating the curvature of the universe. I mean would it ever occur to you to think about that? The geometric qualities of space and time itself? It never occured to me, and I probably got taught more in year 11 physics than was understood by most physicists of Einsteins age. Admittedly a year 11 student is never going to go deep. But I raise Einstein because that's imagination. Almost an unrivaled imagination, but I don't know. Maybe you mixed in the right circles and curvature of space and time seems a very obvious thing to concern oneself with.

I'm going to postulate that Einsteins are rare, and I imagine it takes that kind of imagination to come up with something truly original. The vast majority of people don't have it. What we see at the cutting edge of art I think, are people who aren't obsessed with being the cutting edge, and never were. They were obsessed with something, something forgotten or overlooked by most, but was commonplace to somebody somewhere. And through their obsession with this overlooked subject they made it new again.

That's not originality, that's love.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Why do artists take drugs?

Which 'why?' are we asking, Dan Dennett may be able to differentiate and explain but I can't. I imagine the 'why' as an explanation eg. 'why artists take drugs' is no different an explanation from why anybody does.

I found this question hard to answer, because there's really less compelling reasons for an artist to do drugs than, as per the Jerry Seinfeld bit, an accountant. Yet the acceptability, indeed the expectation of artists taking drugs is categorically different from non-artistic vocations.

A career in the arts, specifically as a content creator - an artist as such, and not any of the peripheral para-artistic careers (gallery curator, record executive, talent scout etc.) - you are pursuing a profession I would characterize thusly:

low odds of success, high potential payoff.

Which is to say, if you were to compare being an artist to opening a milk bar, what you would find is that in the history of milk bar owners, you would find a lot of financially comfortable and secure small business owners achieving pretty consistent standards of living, with a peppering of failures. The reverse would be true in the history of artists, you would find a vast nameless diaspora of failure, people who slowly bled to death or simply gave up trying to eek out a living from their art, peppered with a few well success stories.

But what you will find, is that the best day of being a milkbar owner ever, wouldn't even rate compared to the best day of the successful artist. The potential upside of owning a milk bar, is kind of capped. Can you for example, imagine a milk bar owner's work leading to an email inbox flooded with thousands of messages from strangers telling them how much their work meant to them? Tricky right, you are already imagining heroic acts that have little to nothing to do with the operation of a milk bar, like rescuing a child from a burning building. But I put it to you that it's pretty easy to imagine this happening to an artist, because of their artwork.

Gee, tohm, you wrote a long two paragraphs, but what is your point? My point is, that if you are in the business of being an artist, you are going for such a reward, such an achievement. The feeling of being inundated with the validation of strangers as to just how great your work is. A level of recognition unobtainable to most. You want it, even though it may well be unobtainable to you. You are looking to overload your neural reward systems, reserved for exactly such achievements.

Now take a fairly innocuous drug like XTC, successfully re branded to MDMA. A drug I looked pretty hard at taking. I should say in due dilligence, that I never took it, nor any other restricted substance, probably because by and large my motivations were poor for raising the question in the first place and also because ultimately it breaks one of my ruling rule of thumbs - risking something important to gain something unimportant.

Anyway, the thing about drugs, is that they work and in the short-term they can 'solve' problems. But consider my risks as an artist myself - I have these dormant, latent reward systems waiting for some event in my environment to trigger - kissing my soul mate, having a successful exhibition, running faster than I've ever run before etc. One of these events causes dope to release in my brain hit all those receptors and let me know that I am doing something right.

Or I can take a drug, that hits all those receptors anyway regardless of my external reality. What could be more damaging to your career as an artist?

I'm told, MDMA feels great. And anybody who ingests it, is going to feel something.

But this is also true of running a marathon. The difference being that people who run marathons are less inhibited about broadcasting that they do and they feel people should in the public domain, more so than recreational drug addicts. But in contrast somebody who pushes marathon running, is often regarded as self-righteous, and the idea of spending a year training for a marathon to obtain that high is seen as justifiably dismissable - no doubt because of the time commitment, the difficulty of starting, the demands for lifestyle change etc.

But among artists particularly, despite the demonstrable damage and risks of drug use (legal or illicit) EVEN AFTER discounting damage caused by ineffective anti-drug legislation (eg. when weed possession was still criminal) cannot shake the stigma of somebody who declines the experiment with being 'closed minded'.

Which perhaps is the hook that gets most aspiring artists. they should be open to altered states of consciousness. But before moving too far away from the 'fucking with the reward system' counterargument, let me draw this one last line between running and being an artist (of which I am both) is that it is hard to imagine, and I imagine incredibly rare to find a runner that before/after a run shoots some morphine or other opiate to stimulate the exact same reward response that they get from running.

Yet for some reason, for an artist, in between actually completing and releasing works of art that they should stimulate the exact same reward centers through cocaine or MDMA. I can imagine, because running is addictive, injured runners getting hooked on painkillers, certainly, but I don't hear of runners taking painkillers in the off season.

Believe it or not, I often actually argue with myself. A lot, and most of this is done before writing a blog or conversing with a friend. And the best counter argument I could come up with is that the analogy is a poor one. One could argue, that recreational drug use is to an artist, what training is to a runner when compared to the actual marathon.

There's even that Bill Hicks bit that featured on the Aenema recording of Tool:

“You see, I think drugs have done some good things for us. I really do. And if you don't believe drugs have done good things for us, do me a favor. Go home tonight. Take all your albums, all your tapes and all your CDs and burn them. 'Cause you know what, the musicians that made all that great music that's enhanced your lives throughout the years were rrreal fucking high on drugs. The Beatles were so fucking high they let Ringo sing a few tunes.”

The thing is, this characterisation has always stuck in my craw, much as I love Bill Hicks. 

Read this:
Don't you drink? I notice you speak slightingly of the bottle. I have drunk since I was fifteen and few things have given me more pleasure. When you work hard all day with your head and know you must work again the next day what else can change your ideas and make them run on a different plane like whisky? When you are cold and wet what else can warm you? Before an attack who can say anything that gives you the momentary well-being that rum does?... The only time it isn't good for you is when you write or when you fight. You have to do that cold. But it always helps my shooting. Modern life, too, is often a mechanical oppression and liquor is the only mechanical relief.

It's by Ernest Hemingway, and I think better sums up the role of drugs in most artists lives. Because when I went searching for it, I found it remarkably difficult to find art produced under the influence of consciousness altering substances, which is to say, it's hard to find evidence that drug use ads much to creative output. 

The role of drugs in most artists lives, is as medication. If it aids or abets the creation of art in any way, it is probably in the alleviation of symptoms of depression and other trauma that render one unable to produce art at all. But Hemingway himself an alcoholic, wrote cold. Just as I find it hard to believe that Pink Floyd when in the studio, tripped on LSD to compose. It does not necessarily mean they didn't, just that with my layman understanding of music and composition, Pink Floyd's music (Gilmour era at least) always struck me as far too deliberate and coherant.

Compare that with every piece of art that accompanies new age spirituality. I am only an expert in what I like, but I find psychadelic art generally as ugly as shit, and if you have to drop a pill to really 'get it' then it's ugliness can be joined by it's unimpressiveness. 

People who have used MDMA have self-reported to me experiencing super enhanced empathy, having been sober around MDMA influenced people, I can assure you their empathy is actually not happening at all. In the same manner, I do have the experience of feeling extra-charming when drunk, and I have enough first and second hand experience to tell me this is not the case.

Thus drugs as training are bogus, alter your consciousness and you alter your ability to track reality. Despite the popularity of the New Age movement, it is a movement most certainly on the fringes, and not the sweeping innovation that Islam was in a time where the spread of ideas was much slower. The reason being that people eating mushrooms and connecting with a higher consciousness, the 'Other' that speaks to them the secrets of the universe, seem incapable of bringing back anything that really makes a compelling case when not tripping on shrooms. 

It is harder for me to deny, particularly speaking from zero experience, that trips can serve as inspiration. I just am living the proof that it is unneccessary, and I suspect the inspirational yield from drug experimentation I would evaluate as quite exceptionally low when compared with dating somebody, travelling, reading books, seeing movies, listening to music or even studying economics. 

Way that up against the risks of ingesting neurotoxins, associating with dealers (who are partaking in criminal activity, bringing with it risks whether the legislation is just or not) associating with drug users, your having undiagnosed mental issues...

which reminds me. My mum bought me this comic book called 'marbles' which was very much on this point, the author being diagnosed with Bipolar or Manic-Depression, the book is in essence a lengthy documentation of her reconciling this with her art. It features much drug use as well. It is well worth reading if you are interested in this stuff, my reason for raising it is because it taps into the question of correlation-causation of mental illness and creativity.

I have a very strong view on this point. I feel to the depths of my bones, this is a correlation-causation error, a myth, that is damaging to art itself. 

I got my view, like all my best stuff from basketball, an article in Slam magazine no less on race. And not even the article - one of those enlarged print excerpts layout people pepper over an article. It said to the best of my recollection 'there is a white Michael Jordan out there somewhere, except life is such that he is a dentist or lawyer or something.'

Not an exact quote, but it will serve. In the same way, allow me to bring in some economics (I am also quite vulgarly, an economist) say you are looking at two prospective careers - being an artist or being an accountant. As an accountant you are guaranteed an income every year of $100,000 for the rest of your career. But you are actually quite brilliant at art, showing so much potential that every year you have a 1 in 10 chance of making $1,000,000. But you have a 9/10 chance of making no money at all.

In economics we would call these two outcomes 'actuarial equivalents' meaning that their probable value is actually identical. After a decade you would expect to make a million dollars.

This scenario is fanciful, and lest I be criticized I know I'm leaving out the time value of money, and even beyond the realm of economics, the gamblers fallacy is actual not fallacious here - if an artist made $1,000,000 one year their chances of making the same amount the next year would sky rocket, because success like interest compounds.

But, let's say in principle, it's close enough - functional if fanciful. Here's the thing, money wise - most people choose to be an accountant. What we know, is that people are bias towards the certain $100k, over an uncertain $1M. (though you may not be persuaded if you watch enough Deal or No Deal) 

Now, add to our scenario Mental Illness, a debilitating one like bipolar, depression, schizophrenia etc. suddenly the choice is drastically altered. Many mental illnesses make being an accountant unfeasible, debilitating and at best much much more difficult than the rest of the playing field.

But not so for art. Ruby Wax in her show at last years comedy festival, pointed out that she was able to hide her depression so long, because her job enabled it. An actress can disappear for weeks at a time in a way that accountants can't. 

Being an artist is very different from other jobs, the uncertainty of outcome is actually justified. For one it is very peak and trough, times of intense (almost manic) productivity, preceded and followed by periods of intense inactivity (that can be quiet depressing). Deadlines tend to be flexible, as does payment.

Enter then a dichotomy of conditions to be an artist: The first is that you are among the minority of people who are risk seekers - the utility of losing a gamble (ie, not making any money for 9 years) doesn't effect you as much as the thrill of winning the gamble (making a million once in a decade). If you are like me, then the thought of making a steady $100k per year means nothing to you at all. Is almost incomprehensible. Winning the long odds is the only thing that gives you meaning.

The second, is that you simply don't have a choice. Art is the only job that offers you equivalent prospects to what your mental state consciously or unconsciously rules you out of. Yes, you can be an undiagnosed bipolar, depressive, schizophrenic and still gravitate towards the arts. Innate in you is the understanding that you aren't cut out for a regular job.

And so you are Ernest Hemingway, John Lennon, Janis Joplin, Karen Carpenter, Vincent Van Gough, Michelangelo ...etc. You are a working artist, with a mental illness or personality disorder, and a subsequent drug addiction. These conditions are far more common than being an entrepreneur - a risk taker. And often people that really had no choice, and subsequently took no risk, are labelled risk takers, even though they were almost certain to fail in the secure career paths available to most.

They medicate their mental illness, do their artistic works when they can, and survived to be remembered.

But just because there's a high correlation, doesn't mean we conclude that there's any truth that drug use is beneficial or necessary for artists, nor can we say the same of mental illness and hardship. 

Thankyou art, for providing some of life's worst treated but most beautiful people with hope, with a livelihood and with meaning. Art is almost certainly a better treatment for suffering than drugs are. 

But if you are an artist, I for one feel there is no reason to take drugs. No good one anyway.

Monday, April 14, 2014


Today I saw something really cool, it was an AA 3 month medallion. My friend showed it to me. An object that in his hand I felt was a source of intense pride and intense pain.

There needs to be a word for that specific epiphany you get when you realise something well known is in fact true. It's like a blazing ray of white light illuminating something incredibly obvious. Often a truism.

It's hard to do the right thing.

For me this has finally reconciled the presence of the word 'should' in our vocabulary. I always hated the word, to me it was something always uttered as a wine, by those not wanting to deal with the world as is. Yet much as I felt 'should' was a word I never wanted to hear, there are obviously achievable and desirable states for the world, for your world to be in.

Thus while I still don't want to hear how you feel the world should be to better serve you. I want to see everyone for their own sake do what they should do.

I find it hard to elaborate from here into some examples without it seeming like I'm trying to excuse myself on the historical record. Just that if I were to take a gamble, I would say that life will throw at almost everyone problems for which the solution is unpleasant.

One of the most basic tensions in our life is between short term and long term payoffs. The stuff we should do, tends to always pay off long term, and cost us short term. It requires of us courage and patience. It may even feel bad, and exact a toll on us. When you are dealing with love, it exacts a heavy toll to do what's right.

 When a man needs a woman's love so much
It can be a beautiful love story
But not all love is beautiful 
It's that last line that is the heart of the matter. Sometimes, it seems the best course of action is to stand up to people we love and who love us. Just because that's the way it is. And this is the lasting trouble, the lasting pain and suffering that we can live with, and without.

The guiding rule-of-thumb, how do they (/does it) make you feel? is tricky here, because it's hard to remember pain, and the most painful thing to relinquish is hope. Here, it's the lesser of the shitty feelings. You can feel bad about giving them/it up, but you need to remember that it's not as bad as they made you feel.

Perhaps the saddest thing about having to say no, to take a negative stance, is that it's easier to be made to feel shit, than to be responsible for feeling shit, even if the two don't even compare.

Good luck everybody, life can most definitely be hard.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014


So down towards the bottom of the commitments I have made is 'listening' something, a skill set, that has been on my 'to learn' list since just about forever.

And while I'm even less committed to listening exercises than I am to drumming practice (which is to say not very committed) I do from time to time summon up the presence of mind to stop talking about myself and enquire into other people's state of wellbeing.

In fact, I have learned a few tricks. One is to associate with people it is easy to listen to. Exciting, interesting people. Another not very good one is to deflect all personal questions back onto whoever is talking to you. It may not be good, but it sets up listening as an act of martial dominance that I seem to actually be capable of getting my personality around.

For example, if somebody asks me the open ended 'how are you?/how have you been?/how is your life?' I answer them with a platitude 'good' then hit them with a much more specific and conversation inducing 'how did the vesectomy of your rabbit go?' and suddenly, I am listening to them talk.

It's pretty magical to somebody who talks about themselves all the time to get this trick down.

I'm not really conscious of how long this has been working for me, and I am conscious that some people I do the opposite to and try and shut them down (very very rare) but recently I've been noticing that I actually quite often don't have to use the trick at all.

When I start making a concerted effort to listen to people, it coincided with me having stuff I actually wanted to talk about, not just to reflexively control conversation. I noticed that people rarely pay attention to me, I am yet to get into a true duel of listeners. Once I get somebody talking about their life, they tend to just keep talking.

And it's great, it's actually great for me to learn that other people are the heroes of their own stories, to get a reminder that not everyone (read: nobody) actually needs me there at all. And it's not even a damning thing, a scathing indictment of our society.

It's natural. Normal. Good.

In the last season of Qi, they talked about an early psychology study where researchers concealed themselves under the beds of dormitory students to find out what they talked about. It turned out that 80% or something of the time, people talk about themselves.

But I wanted to point to a form of egocentricity I found counter-intuitive, and thus deeply valuable. As I wrote earlier on this blog I've never experienced first hand depression or anxiety, but I have read about it, and recall vividly, reading something to the effect of 'depressives are by nature self absorbed...'

It kind of fractured and rearranged my naive notions of depression, and over time anxiety (which I started to encounter in others long after reading the thing) as somebody who spends heaps of time worrying about shit out of their direct control, like genocide in Rwanda or something.

I've since increasingly learned that this type of egocentricity holds true. While it's natural to be the hero of your own story, in the depressed and anxious (it seems) there's a failure to do the basic differential, an error is made where people assume they are the hero of other people's stories too.

I feel like the 'basic differential' may not be obvious, so I'll illustrate it. If I wake up tomorrow having a bad hair day (currently, highly likely) I may be concerned that I will look bad, perhaps ridiculous or foolish. However, when I walk out my doors into a world populated by people, I can project my own concern for my own appearance onto all those people. The amount of time I spend concerned about my own appearance if 'normal' leaves me little time to be concerned about the appearance of others. In fact I spend almost no time concerned about the appearance of others. If this holds true of others, I need not actually be concerned about my appearance, as everyone else is most likely, preoccupied with their own.

As such, there's only a few occasions in my life where I will be concerned about my appearance, these are times where my appearance enters the domain of somebody else's ego. Like a job interview or a date. Somebody is potentially taking some onus of me, so they will actually be concerned about my appearance. The rest of the time, fuck it. I am default invisible, protected by everyone else's egocentricity.

But say I'm sitting at work, I look over at my friend Jon and he seems withdrawn and miserable - I am inclined to think 'I wonder what Jon is thinking?'

What I've come to experience in people consistently anxious, shy, withdrawn or depressed, is that they are naturally inclined not to think 'I wonder what Jon is thinking?' but instead think 'I wonder what Jon thinks of me?'

Yet these are not the typical narcissists we intuitively think of as egocentric. Note that I'm not saying obnoxious narcissists aren't egocentric, but that the shy sensitive types are often overlooked as really egocentric.

Because they are shy, and they are sensitive, in ways that are baffling and perplexing to me.

I have once pointed out to somebody particularly anxious about the good opinion of others that they shouldn't care because people don't actually care, and it didn't go down well. As in it provided them no relief, and they said I made them feel worse. Careless language I guess, and perhaps people don't possess my same level of opportunism.

The hard thing is, that its hard to notice just how many people you don't notice every day, and realise that you are most likely, not noticed by a lot of people that you will never get to know and will never come to know or care about you over the course of your life.

How many times have you been to 7-11? Did you ever stop to think that you will probably never see the person who served you ever again? It's a Louis C K bit, why don't we have farewell expressions like 'I don't care if you die.' (in the same bit, he also unnervingly pointed out that statistically somebody in the audience was likely to die that night, almost certainly before they ever saw him again.)

I've probably depressed a bunch of already depressed people. But even depressives need to be challenged from time to time. It's not tough love, it's actually argument. An attack on a self-delusion.

Consider: A ship is going down in the middle of the pacific, in the middle of a storm, in the middle of the night. The Cabin crew are roused awake by Captain Ingrid, cool-under-fire, charismatic, born-leader Ingrid. She starts issuing orders and prepping the passengers to abandon ship.

In contrast there's Steve, quiet and unassuming, his worst fears have been realised. He clings to a life vest and patiently stands out of the way as Ingrid takes charge.

I can't know, and neither can you who is the more egocentric character, but I'm willing to bet. Our societal intuition is to label charismatic Ingrid as an 'extrovert' and identify leaders as egotistical, assertive characters. Queit and polite Steve is seen as shy and sensitive (which he is) and an introvert, and therefore we assume he is relatively non-egocentric.

I bet the other way, the situation is, Ingrid is concerned about everybody's lives, and by assuming the organisational role and assuming responsibility for everyone, she is actually assuming the downside risk (drowning - death) for the sake of everyone else. Steve is concerned about his own survival, happy to defer all decision making to Ingrid and interpreting the ship wreck as God's personal vendetta against him. Even the act of getting out of the way may be more motivated by not wanting to be attacked or dragged under by a panicked fellow passenger than actually trying to cooperate so as to maximise everyone's chance of survival.

It's important to not confuse Ingrid an actual leader with many of the self-centered people who vie for leadership in the popular press. A sinking ship is a situation where the responsibilities of leadership, the costs and risks of leadership far outweigh the perks. It's a sad sign of the times that so many positions of power these days involve almost all perks and no responsibility/accountability, such that we need it actually pointed out to us that they are 'leaders'.

There's a double bind, with this lesser appreciated egocentricity. It's not an arrogant egocentricity, it's obviously crippling and costly. An affliction. Imagine having to worry excessively about your hair or appearance based on what fellow train commuters might think of you? I'm exhausted already. But it's generally not true that you don't actually care about people in this bind. Yet, should you express your concern for them, you are reinforcing the notion that they weigh on your thoughts.

I don't have the answer, and the answer can't be simple, else we'd have it already.