The relationship between art and drugs is a matter of intrigue for many people. It is true that art and drugs often find enthusiastic allies in one another. And, there is a prevailing stereotype that artists of all sorts often use drugs to help them create art.

This is not a baseless assumption. It’s not difficult to imagine how being in an altered state directly affects one’s artistic output. Whether it be in the form of visual art, music, dance or writing. There is even some science to back up the idea that drugs boost creativity.

What exactly is the relationship between art and drugs like and what does it tell us?

Drugs for Art

Probably the most obvious way people engage with the relationship between art and drugs is by taking drugs to help with the process of making art.

This is quite a trope, but the legacy of this practice traces all the way back to the Neanderthals. Some scientists believe that hallucinogens, specifically psilocybin mushrooms, played a crucial role in helping our ancestors make some of the first documented pieces of art in human history, namely cave art.

Photo by: Vincent Verroust

It’s easy to imagine some unassuming Paleolithic shaman foraging in the wild, stumbling onto psilocybins and unintentionally tripping balls. However, scientists believe it is highly likely that our early ancestors knew about the effects of hallucinogens. Some scientists suggest they sought them out for, among other things, the process of creating art. Paintings of psilocybin mushrooms found in caves point to this conclusion. Sure, the first trip may be accidental, but all the trips after were likely planned.

To this day, different cultures continue to produce shamanic art, especially Indigenous cultures. Different groups have their own conventions on the process. For instance, the Shipibo of Peru uses Ayahuasca to induce trances, which inspires in the shaman geometric visions considered to contain their own energy. The shaman then interprets and translates the visions into music known as medicine songs for the purpose of healing.

Beyond shamanic practice, artists have long been quite frank about their experiences experimenting with drugs. Andy Warhol was particularly fond of the diet drug amphetamine Obetrol. He credited it with helping him produce artwork at an unrelenting pace. There is also some speculation that the drug contributed to the repetitive aesthetics and motifs that have become a Warhol signature.

One of the most popular anecdotes about the relationship between art and drugs comes from the writer Thomas De Quincy. His autobiography Confessions of an English Opium-Eater is particularly revealing:

Now opium, by greatly increasing the activity of the mind generally, increases, of necessity, that particular mode of its activity by which we are able to construct out of the raw material of organic sound an elaborate intellectual pleasure.

Thomas De Quincy

His and his contemporaries’ experiences with opium have led many to theorize that opium is particularly effective as a literary stimulant. The French surrealist Jean Cocteau also had a tempestuous love affair with opium. His book Maison de Santé depicts dozens of smoke-induced drawings about his experiences with opium.

The phenomenon of using drugs as a stimulant for art is also well-exemplified in the trend of artists taking different types of drugs while making the same image, primarily to show off how different effects influence aesthetic outcomes. This trend harks back to the 1930s when experimentation on the effects of psychedelics was in full swing and artists like Henri Michaux produced drawings done while high on mescaline.

Painting by: Henry Michaux

The infamous performance artist Marina Abramovic heavily incorporated the use of different drugs into her performances. As part of her “Rhythm 2” performance, she took medication for catatonia in order to induce a loss of bodily control while remaining fully conscious. An hour later, she took medication meant for treating schizophrenia in order to induce what she described as a state of unconsciousness. The purpose of the performance was to experiment with consciousness and unconsciousness.

Her work represents an interesting intersection between the practice of using drugs to make art and the representation of drugs themselves in art.

Drugs in Art and as Art

Artists have been writing, painting, making music and performing pieces about drugs for the longest time. The entirety of Dr. Dre’s The Chronic is a witness to this phenomenon.

Cannabis and hallucinogens are probably the most popular kids on the block for this practice. Although, other drugs frequently make appearances as a medium for art as well.

At first glance, Dutch artist Diddo’s “Ecce Animal” is a skull made from chalk. However, the sculpture is actually a combination of street-sourced cocaine and gelatine. It serves as a thought-provoking thesis on the role cocaine plays in resolving the conflict between human civility and our baser, more animal instincts.

Another contemporary artist who frequently uses drugs as a medium is Sarah Schonfeld. In her piece “All You Can Feel“, Schonfeld puts liquified drugs (both legal and illegal substances) on photographic negatives. After a few days or weeks, a unique chemical reaction develops, creating a “portrait” of each drug.

Image by: Sarah Schonfeld

Perhaps one of the highest-profile examples of the use of drug imagery and aesthetics in visual art is Damien Hirst’s “Empathy Suite” at the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas. It’s a gaudy and obnoxious example, but a well-known one. Labelled the “world’s most expensive hotel suite” at $100,000 a night, Hirst incorporates a pharmaceutical aesthetic throughout the suite, perhaps as a sort of ironic tongue-in-cheek jab at the culture of Vegas. For example, he encases pill bottles, medication and other medical paraphernalia inside glass fixtures on the kitchen islands, bars and bathroom cabinets.

I like to think that maybe he’s trying to mentally torture the hyper-billionaires who’d stay in that room by constantly reminding them of the next day’s impending Aspirin binge. In fact, this theory is highly likely as many of the art pieces in the hotel room have similarities with an older work of his titled “Standing Alone on the Precipice and Overlooking the Arctic Wastelands of Pure Terror.” My money’s on irony.

Slightly less ostentatious but more popular, The Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” became an anthem for LSD. Over the years, John Lennon repeatedly denied that the song is about LSD. The name, according to Lennon, is from a painting by his son. He chalks up the title’s pointed acronym to mere coincidence. Despite his protests, popular culture continues to insist on the song’s double meaning, alluding to the enduring demand for the representation of drugs in art. 

Destigmatizing the Relationship between Art and Drugs

Stories of celebrities, particularly musicians and artists, using drugs, are often used to further stigmatize drugs while wider society continues to ignore the root problems that result in the marginalization, isolation and disenfranchisement of people. The refrain goes that people try to become better artists by using drugs but inadvertently become addicted. Despite mainstream attitudes that view artists as perpetually unemployed, the job of an artist is actually incredibly demanding. It shouldn’t be a surprise that some succumb to addiction. Jean-Michel Basquiat is one such example. His tragic story is often blamed on his drug use, despite general agreement that it started not as a result of him wanting to enhance his creativity but as a way to escape the pressures of his life.

Image by: Yann Caradec

Science has tried to account for the relationship between art and drugs by looking into how drugs boost creativity, reduce inhibitions, inspire emotional openness and encourage introspection. Speaking of emotional openness and introspection, new knowledge derived from research now tells us that certain drugs actually have immense potential for therapy when used correctly and as such are not as black and white as anti-drug brigades make them out to be.

Infamous scientist and advocate for psychedelics Terence McKenna even came up with the “Stoned Ape” theory, which posits that exposure to psilocybin mushrooms helped jumpstart human evolution by unlocking a myriad of physiological advantages, including the ability to create art. With art, early humans developed culture, learned to communicate better, understood abstract ideas and formed communities. In line with this theory, it is plausible that drugs, many of which are naturally occurring, are simply part and parcel of the human environment and those seeking to broaden their horizons and experiment with cognition and creativity are bound to utilize them as a tool. 

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