Long before acid advocate Timothy Leary advised people to “turn on, tune in and drop out” back in 1966, people have taken that doctrine and lysergically run with it. From the French exchange students browsing Bob Marley stash tins in Camden Market to Miley Cyrus harping on about ayahuasca, people are looking to buy into that heritage of intoxication and creativity. Coleridge was laying back and writing poems on opium, Basquait was emblazoning New York with murals and his veins with heroin, Hendrix was noodling away on LSD and Warhol buzzed about his Factory frantically coursing with amphetamines. As such, it’s perhaps the creative community that has most visibly combined intoxication with their job description. Either that, or they just talk about it more than accountants, or landscape gardeners – or do so in a more public forum.
There’s a long and clichéd lineage of creative drug-users that bears no repeating. But in today’s creative world, are people still looking to higher consciousness to inform their work? Or are they too busy scrolling through Tame Impala album artwork on Instagram to bother with lysergic or opiate matters? Are young people just plain sensible now? Has the recession meant that everyone’s too terrified about not having a job to spend their school nights hoofing ketamine?
Of course people today take drugs: yes, even graphic designers. I wanted to speak to normal people working in normal creative roles about how and why they use intoxicants. Hopefully, it’ll avoid the well-formed character tropes of the strung out fine artist, the coked up advertising executive or the stoned illustrator. What I discovered was fascinating – not least how willing people were from across the disciplines willing to speak to me about their experiences with drugs and how that relates to their practice. Naturally, it turns out it’s not as simple as someone using hallucinogens making trippy patterns or someone using uppers to stay awake for days straight to meet a deadline.
“For art to exist, for any sort of aesthetic activity to exist, a certain physiological precondition is indispensable: intoxication,” said Nietzsche in 1889’s Twilight of the Idols . “Intoxication must first have heightened the excitability of the entire machine: no art results before that happens. All kinds of intoxication, however different their origin, have the power to do this…” Clearly, he didn’t just mean people totally losing it. He meant a sort of heightening of feeling that precedes an idea or a manifestation of creativity.
“Some of my designs use a lot of repeating and rotating but it’s hard to know if the things I see when I’m tripping influence my designs. I think they influence my mindset more.”
Rosie, Brixton-based textile designer
It all sounds very romantic and lofty – and exactly the sort of thing so easily latched onto by well-meaning teenagers justifying balancing a recreational pot habit and their art GCSE. But of course, Nietzsche wasn’t referring to people idly lolling about watching Adventure Time. He meant a sort of heightening of feeling that precedes an idea or a manifestation of creativity. And what was interesting was that everyone I interviewed – be they digital designers, graphic designers, portrait photographers, didn’t discuss using drugs and working under their influence, but of using drugs and taking the things they discovered into their approach later on.
Claire* is a photographer based in Bristol, and credits using speed, ketamine and ecstasy during her late teens as both a destructive habit and one that led to her starting in the career she loves. “I think when you’re 18 you’re heavily influenced by your parents, and you have to do what they say. I went to a private girls’ school which didn’t really encourage creativity – I couldn’t paint or draw but then I realised I could take my ideas across into photography,” she says.
“I was djing and dancing when I was taking drugs, and I think that gave me confidence. I do think [drugs] open your mind, but I didn’t enjoy it every time. When I did k [ketamine] there was a time I thought I was dead or that I’d be in a vegetative state forever.”
For more performative branches of creativity, such as live art, confidence and easy interaction with others is vital for the work to be convincing. East London-based performance artist and musician Evelyn* says that while she’d never use drugs while performing, her experiences using substances (mainly former legal high mephedrone) outside of performance changed her perception of her creative abilities. “Everything you think you’re capable of on drugs, you eventually realise you’re capable of doing anyway in your day-to-day life,” she says. “I don’t take drugs any more but it did serve a purpose, I think; it opened up new avenues of power I didn’t think I had. But meditation is helping me get there in the same way.”
When I set out on this feature, I’d naively assumed that people were directly using drugs to inform their practice, but the unifying theme across disciplines seems to be that using substances brought about a wider change that enabled people to pursue a line of work and creative thinking. It’s worth noting (before we’re sued) that the majority of people no longer use drugs, and don’’t advocate their use.
Rosie* is a textile designer based in Brixton, south London, and feels that using psychedelics has both directly and indirectly informed her work. She first started using mushrooms and substances like 2CB and 2CE (hallucinogens) in her early 20s. “I always liked making things, but it was taking psychedelics that opened my mind and made me more free creatively,” she says. “I didn’t study anything creative but I think [psychedelics] put me on that path – I began developing skills I didn’t know I had.”
Where most of the creatives I spoke to felt that the influence of drugs had little or no bearing on the look and feel of the work they produce, Rosie suggests that her psychedelic experiences have potentially informed her creative output. “Some of my designs use a lot of repeating and rotating [seeing geometric patterns is a common effect of hallucinogens] but it’s hard to know if the things I see when I’m tripping influence my designs. I think they influence my mindset more.”
“The way [using psychedelics] feeds into my work is gradual, over the next few weeks or months afterwards. You do feel more open and receptive. It feels like a reset button.”
Rob, digital designer
These sort of musings seem perhaps unsurprising in fields like textile design, but the polished, dynamic arena of digital design seems worlds away from Mandalas and tie-dye. However Rob*, the founder of a London-based digital design agency that works with clients including MTV and Red Bull feels that very occasional use of psychedelics has informed his viewpoint and as such, his ability to think around creative issues. “While I don’t think most drugs aid creativity, there’s been a resurgence in the use of psychedelics in psychology. It was used a lot [in psychology] in the 1960s, but people got carried away.
“[Psychedelics] shut down the filters about who you are and what you see yourself as: they strip that away and allow you to see the world without the negative voice that gives you the reasons you can’t do things. It’s about taking steps forwards,” he says. “The way [using psychedelics] feeds into my work is gradual, over the next few weeks or months afterwards. You do feel more open and receptive. It feels like a reset button.”
While very keen to state that she doesn’t see using drugs as a positive thing, Claire did suggest that in their ability to “open up” the mind, she feels an increased empathy with others – something invaluable to her portrait photography work. “I think I can understand things about people that they don’t say,” she says. “You need to intuitively know how people react to the camera and how they want to be seen.”
In his book Artificial Paradises, the writer Mike Jay suggests that the reason we’ve so long associated creativity and drug use isn’t necessarily that intoxication is more prevalent in the creative community, but that “it is often creative and artists expressions, more than scientific descriptions, which give form to the effects which drugs produce.”
He continues: “Few criminal accounts of drug experiences have had as much popular impact as the metaphors of artists and writers: Baudelaire’s ‘thirst for the infinite,’ Huxley’s ‘doors of perception’ or Leary’s ‘turn on, tune in, drop out.’ And yet words themselves have always seemed to many an inappropriate vehicle for the protean, ‘ineffable’ experience in which drugs produces: their more natural vehicles have traditionally been the symbolic and visual arts and, particularly, music.”
Paul is a fine artist with a hugely successful career behind him, and who speaks frankly about his use of drugs, though he puts his experiences of intoxication as no more or less important than other events in the hierarchy of things that have informed his work. “When it comes to drugs influencing my work, I think they influence everything in the world we live in,” he says. He suggested that the cliché of the tortured artist is a familiar figure because there’s truth in it: people are “born” artists, and see the world in a certain way for that sensibility.
He explains: “A lot of artists use alcohol to mitigate the pressure of looking at the world all the time, and its details,” he says. “It enables you to take yourself outside yourself and escape that madness. [Intoxication] can mitigate the pressure and the confusion of being an artist.”
It’s perhaps little surprise that drugs and art have been seen to be so sinuously intwined. The bohemian character living a louche, sexual and wild existence – from Wilde’s aesthetes to Jagger’s groupies – intoxication is rarely far from creative self-expression.
“When I was 15 a lot of the art I was interested in was to do with countercultures,” says Paul. “I started using LSD and mushrooms. It didn’t cement the world view that I had but it helped it. There’s a lot [in the world] that doesn’t meet the eye; though my parents were trying to protect me or stop me trying to investigate certain angles, as soon as I looked over that parapet it had a profound effect on me. It’s a oneness with nature that I’ve never lost.
“I think if you take hallucinogens and you have an experience on them, it changes you fundamentally, so I so think it impacts your work. When you take LSD, whether you like it or not you will fucking let go. Most people are terrified of death and avoid talking about it, but if hallucinogens are done properly you’re pretty much guaranteed a visit from Lady Death. Most people don’t want to know – they want their jobs and to watch X Factor. There’s a lot of fear of drugs, and of losing control, but the illusion of control we propagate is a thin layer.”
“The concept of the ‘tortured artist’ doesn’t need to be furthered by drug abuse. Life can be hard enough without making things worse…the reality [of drug use] is far away from the fantasy.”
Evelyn, performance artist
It’s hard to argue that any experience that allows you to confront death, envision alternate realities and ways of thinking wouldn’t affect your cognitions and your creative work. If not directly, then at least in impacting things like compassion, and how you view what you do in relation to the world. It’s about more than patterns, more than the idea of suffering for your art and making your body suffer, too. But there’s a fine line between using substances and finding value in that, and using substances in a fraught effort to emulate the mind of the tortured artist, or draw inspiration from sources that may indeed be more damaging than they are helpful.
“It’s a tricky process to navigate,” says Evelyn. “If you push too far you can become lost in a different world, and if you don’t have a good support network you can lose yourself. That’s detrimental for your mental health and therefore your creativity – you can become lost in a world that you don’t understand.
“There’s no point just tormenting yourself. The concept of the ‘tortured artist’ doesn’t need to be furthered by drug abuse. Life can be hard enough without making things worse…the reality [of drug use] is far away from the fantasy.”