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For most of you, Nancy Reagan was right

Amedeo Modigliani: "Nudo coricato di spalle" (Nu couch de dos) -1917- olio su tela, (64.5 x 99.5 cm) Barnes Foundation, Merion (Pennsylvania)

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OK. This wasn't my idea. But somebody asked for it. So you all get it. Drugs and art. Art and drugs. Where do the two meet? I don't know. Better question: What do drugs do to my art? Depends on the drug. Different drugs affect your brain, and your creative capacities, differently.  Different drugs affect different people with different nervous systems differently. One person might become a master under the influence of peyote or mushrooms. Another might just turn into a loser. The official position is this: you probably shouldn't do drugs. Most people who use drugs with any regularity turn into douchebags. Sorry. For most of you, Nancy Reagan was right.

But Amedeo Modigliani is lucky he didn't listen to Nancy. Or his estate is, anyway. He died drunk and broke nearly a century ago. And these days, a lot of art critics aren't sure if his work is any good. But one of his limestone sculptures just sold at Christie's in Paris for a little more than $50 million. So that's good.

Modigliani did a lot of drugs. He died at 36 of tubercular meningitis. His diet of drugs and absinthe probably didn't help.  Rocky childhood, yada, yada ... and eventually he settled in Paris, in a commune for broke artists. It was there that he spiraled downward at a pace that might even stagger a Tacoma bartender. He was known for getting drunk, dropping his pants, lifting his shirt and shouting, "Don't I look like a god?"

But Modigliani was also known for sketching and painting like a demon.  He was known for knocking out 100 pieces in a single day. He painted portraits for some ritzy people, including people with names like Picasso, Soutine and Rivera. But the drinking and drugs (he liked them opiates, and hashish) forced him to trade art for meals, or sell pieces for a few francs to tourists. He drank so much he frequently blacked out. He died broke and diseased in 1920. But his paintings are selling for tens of millions.

Apparently the art world is still fascinated by crashing and burning in spectacular fashion.

I know. I know. Lots of great artists have been dope fiends. Van Gogh, Hemmingway, Nietzsche, Phillip K.  Dick, Rachmaninoff.  Plato characterized creativity (and love) as a form of divine madness. Genius and madness have always been intertwined. So have drugs and madness. Watch enough episodes of E! True Hollywood Story, and you'll see a lot of connections between drugs, genius, madness, and unplanned pregnancy. So yeah, you could probably argue that drugs make your art better in some cases.

Then I think of poor Layne Staley, who made the best music of his career (Mad Season) when he was sober.

So I don't really know. Master your technique before adding drugs to the mix. You can always tell the artists who learned to do their thing on drugs. They usually suck. Once you're a master, go for it. But wait until you're good.

Remember what Baudelaire said: "He who looks to a poison in order to think will soon be unable to think without it."

Joe Malik is a jaded, ornery, "power to the people type" that can't help but comment on all the stupid, awesome, or just plain questionable stuff he sees within the local arts community. Basically, he's kind of an arts-centric asshole - but we like him. The Weekly Volcano doesn't always agree with what he says, but we do enjoy stirring the pot.

Comments for "SLOUCHING TOWARD UTOPIA: drugs and art" (6)

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Desiree said on Jul. 09, 2010 at 1:45pm

Layne was shooting dope before, during, and after Mad Season.

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Desiree said on Jul. 09, 2010 at 1:59pm

I should have added how interesting a topic this is and one discussed at length not only among us artists. I'm sure there are some that can be found out there but the art that moves me, that I create, comes from a very complicated place. For the most part, "The mass of men lead quiet lives of desperation" and the art created by sometimes tortured individuals lets the rest know they are not alone. I don't know where you heard that about Layne but it is very easy to get incorrect information nowadays. It just shows how hard it may be to find an artist that didn't have some kind of relationship with drugs. I hope it prompts others to respond with some examples.

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Renee Z said on Jul. 10, 2010 at 9:06am

Very interesting article, but really only reinforces what I think many have known for years; true inspired artists are of a different mind frame. Some in this world analyze life with their minds, others feel life with their hearts. Most fall somewhere in between with touches of both. I think it is those on either end of the spectrum that constitute the greaest of talents we have to offer. The greatest scientists, the greatest artists. The far extremes are also those most prone to being "mad." In the case of artists, my opinion is that those very qualities which help them view the world through different eyes.... to FEEL the world and create, are the same that make the world so amazingly painful to deal with. I assume I do not have spell out what that leads to. I do not believe that the art is inspired by chemical abuse, but rather that perhaps when an artist is creating the most, reaching deep, pulling from the depths of their soul, will be the same time that they will find they are most vulnerable to the drugs. I think time has showed this again and again, but people have had the cause and effect reversed. Those who manage to survive and learn to channel that pain (which takes work, work, work ) can still go on to create great things sans substance abuse. Sadly, I believe that those who "party" with substance abuse and surround these people have no understanding of the different motivation behind the use of an inspired, yet troubled soul- thus they have no understanding of how to help or protect them. And yes, there is a difference.
Thank you (I think) for Layne's mention. Yes, as the previous poster states, Layne was active in his addicition during all stages of Mad Season, though many were trying to help him. Another great from that band, John Baker Saunders lost his life to drugs prior to Layne, which to me proves how confusing and strong this pain can be.

If artists can discover a way to reach that very frightening place from where the inspiration comes, without feeling that an armour of drugs is needed to protect them, we will stop having to mourn the passing of our great ones.

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Joe said on Jul. 10, 2010 at 7:49pm

Thanks Desiree for a well-worded challenge. Thank you Renne for your thoughtful contribution. I stand corrected on Staley. Maybe it was all the atypical lucidity and honesty of Mad Season, combined with several apparently erroneous reports of a brief struggle with sobriety while working with McCready and crew. I saw them at the Crocodile back when Belltown was still cool. They were breathtaking.
I hope some artists respond with some examples too. I once drew Yoda with a vagina while on a healthy dose of Sandoz-quality LSD. I'm pretty sure it was the best picture of Yoda with a vagina that anyone has ever drawn.
I think you're right that, nowadays, most artists that go pop, and many that don't, probably dabble or dive into one or more addictions. And most of them, despite achieving what might be considered some degree of success, end up producing a lot of bunk-ass art. Stayley, Curt Cobain, Hemmingway, Hendrix, Van Gogh, Nietzsche, were geniuses before they dabbled in drugs. They had the good fortune of being born with a brain, eyes, a set of hands and a profound sort of discipline that were configured just right. Most people are not in that category.
Then there are those who can get away with some drugs without suffering consequences. But they are exception, not the rule.
Then there are people like William Blake and Hieronymus Bosch, who were sober as my mom, and expressed pain more beautifully, distinctly and powerfully than anyone I can think of.
I have to challenge the statement about people who create art from a so-called complicated place, at least as it relates to drug use. In my limited view, there is nothing all that challenging, complicated or romantic about being strung out on neuro-toxins, whether it's beer, wine, crack or DMT. In fact, addiction is about the most predictable and boring states of human existence I can think of. But I get you on the tortured and not alone statement. I think you're right.
Thanks you both very much for your delightful challenge, contribution, and clarification.

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Warren said on Jul. 14, 2010 at 2:49pm

Hey WV, you shouldn't publish articles like this, because they will surely cut art programs in grade schools from zero to less than zero and continue to threaten SOTA. Parents will even be afraid to let their kids draw. No wonder no one wants their kid to be an artist. Naaah.., but really I think artists have the unique positive ability to use both sides of their brain and it spills over in a helpful way to all other aspects of life. Reading, Writing and Arithmetic are positively affected by the arts. SOTA has the highest graduation rate in WA and the highest WASL scores. Hmmmm. I think it's just that we don't hear about the drunk accountants, lawyers, and drug addicted doctors, like we hear about the artists. I guess the drug addicted non-artists never produce anything after they start the long slide into the darkness. Too bad and ironic that the artist only realize the worth of their art after they are dead.

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Warren said on Jul. 15, 2010 at 12:36am

Hey wait their really are artistic doctors. Oh no, I mean drug addicted incompetent doctors. Just kidding about that, but is it really only the artist that practices their craft from the complicated place? No not in the least, but the artist is the one who's product we can harmlessly collect and later tell the story about the crash and burn. All the others (complicated non-artists) loose their jobs, wash out or go to jail and there is nothing left over to celebrate. And to beat all 17% of doctors surveyed will not expose incompetent doctors they know of.

To give an alternative view of the arts and artists: How about Norman Rockwell as an illustrator of our country? Scorned by the art establishment forever, he was our artist, and we will be able see his paintings next year at the Tacoma Art Museum! I love the nostalgic images and especialy the ones that forced us to look at issues that were difficult and he did it in a way that still makes us think “WHAT WERE WE THINKING?” example: “The problem we all live with”

Pictures for the American People - He was hero!

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