Writing by Orane Bloch. Artwork by Yury Aleksanyan.
When doing research for this piece, most of the articles I stumbled upon were on the
websites of rehab centres, or blogs to help people suffering from alcohol or narcotic
abuse. They all tried to debunk the myth that drug abuse led to bursts of creativity: instead,
they depicted it as a vicious and nefarious blanket against stage fright or mental illness that
polluted the artist’s work. Furthermore, alcoholism and drug abuse took the life of many of
the greats: it killed Kobain and Hendrix at 27, Pollock at 44, and Kerouac at 54. With this in mind, one might wonder why the myth of artists operating better when abusing substances has been shining bright for centuries, the association between genius and addiction never having been erased. Finally, it is important to note that addiction, if revered in men, or at least glamorised (Cobain, heroin chic, etc. ) is villainised in women (Winehouse seen as a junkie, Monroe as a pillhead, etc.). For women, addiction is no longer seen as a creative venture but as a weakness. In this article, I plan to explore the longstanding relationship between creativity, art and substance abuse, as well as demonstrating how, even in regards to substance abuse, it still is a man’s world.
Four of the six Americans who have won the Nobel Prize for Literature suffered from alcoholism; W. Faulkner, E. O’Neill, E. Hemingway and J. Steinbeck. Is the price of writing the great American Novel addiction, and does this mythos create pressure for creatives to indulge in vices? This supposed correlation (good art = substance abuse) is still alive and well in our day.
For instance, I grew up believing that in order to write ‘The Great American Novel’, I had to have a penchant for indulgence in vices. I thought of Kerouac drinking as he was writing The Dharma Bums, and of Hemingway sat at a bar corner, in a drunken stupor, his genius stimulated by bourbon. Drug use was always put on a pedestal, with Hemingway stating that “modern life is often a mechanical oppression and liquor is the only mechanical relief”. Quincey, in his Confessions of… depicted opium as “a panacea, a φαρμακον (remedy/poison) for all human woes…the secret of happiness.”
Yet, Kobain died from it, Reed sang about it, Hendrix played guitar with it, Hemingway revelled in it, and Baudelaire extracted his ‘spleen’ out of it. Known for a tendency to self-destruct, we forgive – nay, glorify – drug use and, ultimately, drug addiction, if it makes for a great novel, a great song or a great film. The belief alcohol strips down one’s vulnerability and frees up imagination, as if substances were the pathway to a world where genius lies strengthens.
As Charles Baudelaire said in ‘Les Paradis Artificiels’ (1860): “Rêver magnifiquement n’est pas un don accordé à tous les hommes” (to dream beautifully is not a talent gifted to everyone).
However, this is not an empirical fact: the link between substance abuse and creativity is personal to the artist and varies. Many feel that substance abuse has been detrimental to their work – Stephen King, for instance. In a Rolling Stone interview, King stated that he felt the books he wrote through the late 70s and early 80s (e.g. 1974’s Carrie) were flawed due to his alcohol and cocaine addiction that lasted from 1978 until 1986.
Eminem, a Detroit-based American rapper, is listed as one of the best-selling artists worldwide. At the height of his career, he suffered from overdoses and was sent to rehab due to his addiction to benzodiazepines and opiates. An argument promoted by his fans to dismiss the claims that his music is now (arguably) not as good as before is that his genius was at its best when he was abusing drugs. If his previous albums (notably The Slim Shady LP, The Marshall Mathers LP and The Eminem Show) displayed mastery in writing and ingenuity, (‘Stan’), the albums he wrote at the worst of his addiction are at best, tolerable and pale in comparison to his previous works.
On the contrary, Hemingway famously stated that he drinks “to make other people more interesting”. Kerouac ordered us to not “drink to get drunk” but to “drink to enjoy life”. Great art has stemmed from drug use: Francis Bacon, ‘drunk since the age of 15’ stated in multiple interviews that his bursts of creativity stemmed from alcohol use. Baudelaire depicted his relationship to narcotics in three major works: ‘Poems for hashish’, ‘Opiumman’ and ‘Wine and hash as a means of extending the personality’. To him, they are "harmony in the most charming form" and "instantaneous control of paradise". These artists stated above used drugs in a creative endeavour, which propulsed them to leave us an artistic legacy.
We can then start to realise with the previous examples that it is more of a personal issue than a common rule: if it is normalised to take drugs when writer’s block occurs, it is important to note writers are amongst the ten professions with the highest rate of depression. With the pressure of show business, and in a world where celebrities are treated as performance pieces, artists are more likely to succumb to burn out and other forms of mental illnesses. Had they been properly medicated, would the issue of substance abuse still stand? This mythos translates to another common one: that in order to be an artist, one must suffer through trauma.
The Velvet Underground’s ‘Heroin’ starts with the following lyrics:
“I don’t know just where I’m going
But I’m gonna try for the kingdom, if I can
‘Cause it makes me feel like I’m a man.”
The link between manhood and addiction has been drawn time and time again. In a demonstration of virility, men would one-up each other, akin to a sports competitions. For many writers, for instance, their profession was not (in the common eye) deemed ‘masculine’, as the vulnerability that comes with the deeply personal work that is writing could be seen as a stripping down of the masculine facade. Substance abuse then gave them an edge that elicited respect. Hemingway’s or Dylan Thomas’ alcoholism is deified, seen as a proof of resilience and dedication to their work…
In Sarah Hepola’s addiction memoir, Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, she writes,
“I looked up to women who drink. My heart belonged to the defiant ones, the cigarette smokers, the pants wearers, the ones who gave a stiff arm to history.”
Here, Hepola associates cigarette smokers and women who drink to ‘pants wearers’, making addictive habits look like masculine attributes. She says later on,
“When men are in a blackout, they do things to the world. When women are in a blackout, things are done to them.”
Anais Nin, Patricia Highsmith and Jean Rhys were also notorious drunks; yet, it is not for that they are remembered. Indulgence in substances is either ignored or vilified in women.
When women use drugs, it is seen as a downward spiral. Britney Spears, the ‘young, sexy thing of the time’ started to seem less appealing as her drug addiction came to light in the 2010s. The same applies to Lindsey Lohan and Demi Lovato. Women are idolised in a different standard to men: we expect from them perfection, innocence, a sexual bravado mixed with a chastity (i.e. Madonna-whore complex). They have to take accountability for their actions a lot more than men do: they have to admit and apologise for their behaviours whereas in men, it becomes part of their image. This relationship between women and substance abuse is illustrated in music: there are many more mentions of drugs in men’s songs than in women’s. If it ever is the case, like in Amy Winehouse’s ‘Rehab’, there is criticism about the image they are giving to their young audience and the vulgarity and roughness that apparently come when a woman evokes such ‘crude’ objects.
Once we notice the difference in treatment between genders in regards to substance abuse, we can establish the following conclusion; that is, that substance abuse is seen as necessary for male artists because we have constructed a whole ideology behind it. If women do not need to indulge in substances to make great art, surely men do not either
Ultimately, the concept of artists operating better under drug use is neither true or false as the question spills beyond these confines. Finally, the substance abuse correlation is harmful as it creates a kind of elitist peer-pressure to beginning artists: to follow in the footsteps of the greats, one has to adopt their work method, even if it includes dying from kidney failure at 54.