Nell on drugs
From Coleridge's opium dreams to Damien Hirst's Pharmacy, drugs have provided inspiration for artists across the centuries. But, asks our columnist Nell Frizzell, can mind-altering substances conjure creative greatness, or is it all just high in the sky?
In the words of Kingsley Amis, I write this sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider crab on the tarry shingle of the morning. Some evil sprite of wine and inappropriate footwear has upended a Hoover bag into my lungs, replaced my blood with vinegar and poured gravel in my eyes. My tongue has been used to clean the pound and my feet have been chewed by a very big dog.
I bring this up, not simply to beg for mercy from a jury of my peers, but to introduce the knotty problem of substance abuse. Whether it’s tripping the light fantastic on an emerald sea of absinthe and opium with Toulous-Lautrec and Baudelaire, or chomping down a sack load of stimulants with Blockhead buddy The Sulphate Strangler, abusing your body has been unlocking artists’ minds for centuries.
High Society, the current exhibition at London’s Wellcome Collection, explores the historical and cultural role of mind-altering drugs via pill bottles, a jar of medicinal cannabis, cocaine eye drops and illustrations of hallucinogenic mushrooms.
While many of these substances have been and remain illegal, for me the more interesting part of the exhibition is that which looks at currently legal substances that were once as strictly prohibited as heroin and cocaine. Alcohol, coffee and tobacco – the three ingredients that make up my 93-year-old grandmother’s entire diet – have all at some point been illegal. The line between the legal and the prohibited, it seems, is often no thicker than a cocaine-dusted razor blade.
The classification question is particularly significant considering the government's current plan to make it no longer compulsory for scientists to sit on the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). No longer will we need a vet to pass judgement on plant fertiliser, yet neither will we necessarily have a chemist advising on the chemical consequences of ingesting new compounds.
The debate, of course, is whether drugs can transport a mediocre artist to greatness, or whether drugs simply funnel existing talent in to an unexpected direction. Coleridge – a man who zoomed his way through so much opium that John Mortimer described him as “green about the gills and a stranger to the lavatory” – may have written the psychedelic fragment Kubla Khan while dosing off a particularly constipating dose of opium, but he also managed to write one of English poetry’s most beautiful meditations on consciousness from simply staring into a dying fire.
Furthermore, even when he was inhaling a gram of cocaine a day, Elton John still churned out such musical wet farts as Your Song and Too Low for Zero. Brian “12 pills” Harvey may have espoused the virtues of ecstasy (before managing the Herculean feat of actually running himself over while vomiting three cheese and tuna baked potatoes), but he still reached his musical peak with an underwhelming Christmas No 1 apparently written from the point of view of a pervert (if the lyrics “I touch your face while you are sleeping” are anything to go by).
From Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater to the psychedelic musical wanderings of Jimi Hendrix, to Damien Hirst’s pharmaceutical-focused installations, drugs have inspired creativity for generations. Yet perhaps for every great artistic work, there will always be an army of unsuccessful addicts.
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