Turn on, tune in, become the next Monet. What, if any, causality exists between taking drugs and making art? Wanting to learn more and lacking personal experience with these substances, I began my research into the subject.
I often found that artistic drug advocates turned to rock stars such as Graham Nash, who credited marijuana with “unlocking my mind and my emotions, which had to be awakened for me to start writing meaningfully” as justification for their own indulgence in illicit substances. However, I discovered that in near unanimity those musicians who survived their juiced-up youth stood by their decision to get clean, refusing to make the degrading concession that their art was dependent on the drugs they abused. As David Bowie revealed, “The thing is so many people find it fashionable to say you couldn’t write those things if you weren’t on drugs and all that. I just doubt that’s the truth at all because some of the best things I wrote in [the 1970s] I had already cleaned up.” It soon became clear that many of the artists revered as examples of creativity’s blossoming under the influence of drugs only turned to substance abuse later in their careers as a form of self-medication against the pressures of fame, not as initial means of producing their art.
These same drug advocates also venerated such figures as Poe and Blake, claiming that by taking drugs they could induce the same madness that inspired these men’s masterworks in their own healthy minds. LSD promoters like Aldous Huxley claimed that while tripping one can “actually be introduced into the kind of world that Van Gogh lived in, which [only] certain privileged people [can move] in and out of…all the time.” Yet “The Scream” artist Edvard Munch once said “My sufferings…are part of me and my art”, he and other truly mentally ill artists enduring lifelong struggles with their psychosis and producing art from their tormented process of attempting to heal their ailing minds. Drug dissenters argued that such an arduous personal journey and similar artistic by-products cannot be replicated as a result of a short glimpse into madness induced by an 8-hour trip. Even Timothy Leary, the man who coined the psychedelic mantra “turn on, tune in, drop out” was frustrated when his revolutionary declaration was misinterpreted as an excuse to “get stoned and abandon all constructive activity”.
In the end, most artists found ways of expressing their creativity through their own voice, not the voices of drugs spoken through them, making the firm distinction between their own creative capacities and the drugs they indulged in.