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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very passionate... totally agree with you!