There is a timeless tradition of inducting new artists into the guild. It is not exactly passing the baton, as art is timeless. Rather, it is more like infusing fresh blood into the artistic gene pool and ensuring it remains current and vital for present and future generations. Contemporary artists
are a product of past influencers, even as they become the influencers of tomorrow’s rising stars. We celebrate those influences when they are good, while often overlooking the negative influence. In doing so, we paint over the ugly parts of our history and allow them to quietly poison the well.
Among the worst of the bad influences are the artists who were also drug abusers. They are like functional alcoholics. They have an apparent control over their addiction that is only surface-level coping. In some ways, those addicts are worse influences than the ones who are completely and obviously out of control and publicly hit rock bottom. Those, we can see and use as cautionary tales. But when it looks like someone has beaten the drugs when they haven’t, others take that to mean that drug use isn’t so bad and might actually be good for the artistic endeavor. To be perfectly clear, what is bad for the person cannot be good for the art. Here are a few examples:
Vincent Van Gogh
Van Gogh was a mess — a brilliant mess, to be sure, but still a mess. He had many documented issues. Had he been around today, it might have started with a simple opiate prescription
. For the wrong type of personality and chemical makeup, that prescription might as well be a death sentence.
Even in his diminished state, he tried to do his part to help dispel one of the common myths that circulate in the artistic community. There is a pervasive notion that altered states induced by drugs and alcohol make one a better artist. On more than one occasion, he admitted that he was not as good of an artist when under the influence. This is the message that seldom reaches the aspiring artist. We do not have to dismiss the greatness of Van Gogh’s work to be realistic about his poor legacy to the art community. But it is worth asking ourselves if we would celebrate his work were he a serial killer or rapist. There is a good chance we would not. We would be concerned about the message that would be sent. It seems equally valid to wonder how much celebration we should award known drug addicts who inspired many generations to follow in the worst of their footsteps.
Warhol was another brilliant mess with questionable judgement when it came to intoxicants. It is perhaps too generous to call his judgement questionable. It was more along the lines of abysmal. As with Van Gogh, the drugs did not enhance the quality of his art. His most critically acclaimed work came before his many addictions.
Another common theme is that both these artists had various known mental illnesses they were not addressing. And one of the worst things about having a sycophantic following is that they seldom let you know when you have a problem. Sports fans generally don’t care how many illicit drugs their favorite athletes take as long as the team wins. Fans are willing to enable the destructive behavior of their idol as long as the idol continues to produce pleasing work. That unhealthy, symbiotic relationship between artist and enthusiast is what is responsible for hiding the tragic truth behind the facade.
The press that covers artists is not just reporting the story; it is shaping the story. This is never more apparent when a famous person dies young and the cause of death is not announced. There is also the narrative that some famous person died of a heart attack
such as Michael Jackson. While technically true, it was cardiac arrest brought on by a drug overdose. When the press provides cover for their favorite artists and obfuscates drugs as the cause of death, that obfuscation can easily become the cause of death for the next artist who did not get the warning or hear the gong of what should have been a cautionary tale.
The real takeaway is that drugs do not improve the state of the art or the artist. By not sounding the alarm, we perpetuate a history that should never be repeated.