Picture the scene: your creative writing deadline is rapidly approaching, you’ve completely run out of ideas, and then the internet tells you that Ernest Hemingway – one of America’s most celebrated writers – once said: “write drunk, edit sober”. In such desperate (hypothetical) circumstances, you’d perhaps be forgiven for thinking that it might just work. After all, drugs – including alcohol – definitely have the ability to elevate your thoughts, or give you a new perspective on life; in the words of songwriter Graham Nash, “weed unlocked my mind and my emotions, which had to be awakened for me to start writing meaningfully”.
Nash certainly isn’t alone: the high-pressure music industry is particularly infamous for creating drug addicts, often with tragic consequences. Reduced inhibitions, enhanced imagination, and vivid hallucinations can all add to the artistic process, although of course it’s worth noting these artists might simply be using drugs for the enjoyment of it.
Dr Alain Dagher wrote that drugs help you when “making conceptual links in your brain between things that you may not normally link”, but other studies suggest that a large part of this is simply the feeling that you’re more creative. A study from the Netherlands tested this theory, asking 60 cannabis users to invent as many alternative functions for domestic items (for example a pen or a shoe) as possible. Their research showed that low doses of cannabis had a minimal impact on creative ability, and high doses actually impaired them, so there isn’t a clear-cut relationship between drugs and artistic success.
There’s definitely a link though, and one which stretches back through the centuries. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Romantic poet extraordinaire, famously composed ‘Kubla Khan’ after a particularly vivid dream, whilst on a “medication” which was presumably opium. He described laudanum as “a miracle”, and was glamourised by the public as a fantastic, drug-fuelled genius.
Vincent Van Gogh frequently drank alcohol to excess, especially high-percentage spirits like absinthe. On top of this, the digitalis that was used to treat his epilepsy could have caused him to see yellow spots, hence his frequent use of the colour.
Obviously, the 60s was an important decade for drugs, and this was abundantly clear in the art world. In particular, art critic Ken Johnson notes the importance of the psychedelic movement, and the trend for eye-catching acid posters, which he argues contributed to an artistic revolution where “color exploded… typography was twisted and oozed and melted into shapes”.
THE TREND FOR EYE-CATCHING ACID POSTERS IN THE sixties contributed to an artistic revolution
From Jimi Hendrix to The Beatles, these gig posters suddenly felt like mind-bending optical illusions that “spoke directly to an audience happily experimenting with LSD”. These bright explosions and groovy colour-schemes are still prominent today, filtering into modern art and even being used in adverts for companies like Coca Cola.
Bryan Lewis Saunders, from Tennessee, took the concept of drugs influencing art to the next level. Experimenting with a new drug every day, he produced a range of self-portraits under the influence; he now has over 50. Although the science is questionable, the range of styles and images is intoxicating: heroin, for example, produces a distorted line drawing, in which his eyes, nose and mouth are barely visible underneath a mess of incoherent squiggles; hash, meanwhile, leads to a recognisable portrait in childish pastel colours, with pink, blue and yellow fumes filling the background. After 60mg of Geodon, Bryan even decided to add bullet holes to the sketch, saying he recalls “bouncing into the walls like a fly going bong, bong, bong”. Saunders’ experiments show the range of feelings produced by drugs, and the variety of artistic possibilities a creative mind can create.
But does that mean drugs make artists more creative? Well, it turns out the Hemingway quote about writing sober is completely falsified, or at least misattributed, and maybe that shows society has a poor attitude towards art. The ability to create great art can’t simply be attained by anyone with access to drugs: it takes hard work, practice, and skill. Hallucinogens might be able to release an artist’s imagination, but you still need a brilliant creative mind for anything to come of it.