Saturday, June 8, 2013

What a long, strange theory it's been

The 1960s psychedelic movement mainstreamed the idea of drug-fueled creativity. Not just any creativity, but creativity that claimed to "break through" our traditional perceptions of reality. Artistry that pushed the envelope so far past established artistic conventions it supposedly couldn't be achieved by an "unopened" mind. Comedian Bill Hicks referenced this sentiment in the setup to a celebrated bit:

Drugs have done good things for us. If you don’t believe they have throw away all your albums, burn all the music, throw away every movie, burn all the prints, take away every painting throw them on the fire.

I don't think the notion of drugs being the key to breaking the mold is as prominent as it once was, but I still hear it recited by seemingly lucid commentators. I often wonder if these parrots have ever examined the world of art as it existed before the narrative of drug-aided brilliance took hold.

Among the famous non-psychedelic visionaries:

William Blake (1757-1827) England's greatest painter (not a hard throne to ascend; while in London I spilled ink on a napkin and it sold at Sotheby's for £8,000,000). Dude, I'll have whatever he's having...

Evidently, visionary painter/poet William Blake believed he saw angels. More than a few times. No seriously, he thought he was a genuine mystic. This makes him an odd duck, but as for his lifestyle, there is no indication he lived as anything but a God fearing square. This "uptight" chap with his "unopened mind" created works so trippy he was cited by two psychedelic notables:

Aldous Huxley - The title of his pointless The Doors of Perception comes from Blake's line: If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite, and the title of "Heaven and Hell" comes from Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. 

Jim Morrison - His band's name came from the same "doors of perception" line Huxley used, and the "End of the Night" lyric "Some are born to sweet delight, some are born to endless night" comes verbatim from Blake's remarkable poem Auguries of Innocence.
Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516)

Ordinarily warnings about the "faint of heart" are moronic. Except when it comes to Bosch paintings:

Little is known about Hieronymus Bosch, but among the extant info. is that he belonged to Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady, and was a cleric (i.e., a religious square). Despite the likelihood that he was "repressed," the guy created works that make drug taker Francis Bacon's paintings look like the leavings of a pigeon after a bad Tijuana buffet (Bad example. Bacon's work looks like that no matter what it is compared to).
El Greco (1541-1614) His stuff is so spacey he must have been mellow, right?

El Greco didn't drop acid, but he did drop prayers; possibly starting as Greek Orthodox and converting to Catholicism. Despite not living as a pseudo-shaman, he managed to "see beyond" the painting conventions of his time, even going so far as to criticize Michelangelo (by the way, was the Sistine Chapel not "visionary?").

These far-out artists painted long before there was ubiquitous "otherworldly" art around to use as inspiration, and long before there were countless pizza delivery guys from which to buy drugs. Yet they still managed to see things in a quite different way.

They also weren't libertines (the "freeing" flower power lifestyle is sometimes credited alongside drugs for fostering artistic achievement). A common factor among all three is religiosity. Should we start proclaiming that fear of Hellfire is the key to taking your medium to the next level? Do we need a new Victorian Age to usher in the next batch of far seeing art (and was there no great art created during the first Victorian Age)?

Strangely, opiners like Bill Hicks bash alcohol while praising the "creativity enhancing" powers of drugs. Yet so many of history's greatest artists were heavy boozers. But I guess because booze is The Man's drug of choice, it can't be given credit for helping artists break through.

Artists are often cheerless malingerers who intoxicate themselves in all kinds of ways. Doesn't necessarily mean this fertilizes their minds with brilliance. Who is to say these altered states of creativity don't diminish the works that occur under their influence? How about the list of artists whose spark seems to have been damaged by drugs: Brian Wilson, Syd Barrett, Roky Erickson, to name a few.

If ingesting psychedelics and creativity go together like whipped cream and tits, why didn't all the flower children create lasting works of genius? Why didn't they transform the entire world into a visionary's paradise? Seems like a lot of them ended up as office-inhabiting duds like their non-trippy parents.

I have focused mostly on painting, but obviously plenty of other molds have been broken without tuning in or dropping out. Sergei Eisenstein and D.W. Griffith (God fearing square) were free of both mescaline and sandals when creating the very language of cinema, and Beethoven (God fearing square) didn't create the first choral symphony after a long, strange trip.

The evidence that drugs (especially psychedelics) spur epochal creativity is flimsy at best. The evidence that they cause brain damage is unequivocal.

My Twitter feed is both square and trippy:

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