The go to source for Creatives seeking Resources and Insights





email logo youtube iconfacebook icontwitter icon Instagram

Art Essay: Art and Addiction

By Jenni Doyle
ART TIMES Summer 2014

Healing And Transforming:

The connection between drugs and art is an ancient one. Plato described creativity as “a divine madness”[1], and his contemporaries followed him in the belief that true creativity required an altered state of consciousness. Worshipers of the Greek god Dionysus used alcohol, opium, and mysterious, frenetic rites to work themselves into a state of psychedelic frenzy – in which they believed themselves to be more receptive to the god and his inspiration. The greatest poets of the Norse sagas were invariably to be found liberally imbued with ‘divine liquid poetry’ (or, as we would term it today, highly alcoholic mead [2]). Throughout history, creative people appear often to have either suffered from the ‘divine madness’, which Plato deemed essential to true creativity, or to have inspired it through artificial means with drugs and alcohol. The writer Thomas De Quincey in his “Confessions of an English Opium Eater” [3] expounded his belief that the opium he quaffed in such quantities enabled him to communicate on a deeper level with his soul, Van Gogh famously spent his life bouncing between alcoholism and mental asylums, and Rolling Stone Keith Richards has likened his own experiments with drugs to those of an “alchemist in search of the perfect rock’n’roll cocktail” [4]. However, what is less known is the propensity of the arts and other such disciplines to ‘save’ those who are suffering from addictions and the mental health issues which underlie them. Often, addicts and those with mental health problems turn to art in the first place as a way of expressing and thus assuaging their predicament. In such cases, art, far from incurring and inspiring the use of drugs and other substances, can help to control and even cure it.

Drugs And Art:

There has always been something of a ‘chicken and egg’ debate over the association of creativity and drugs. The Calgary Vision and Ageing Lab, for example, argue that Van Gogh’s preoccupation with the color yellow may have had a lot to do with the cocktail of what we would now consider dubious substances prescribed for him by a succession of doctors. They claim that this may have caused “a disturbance in yellow-blue vision…similar to viewing the world through a yellow filter” [5] - as well as inducing certain psychedelic and psychological effects which may have driven him to strike canvas with paint. Others argue that creative people themselves may be more susceptible to drug abuse due to a general inclination towards mental health issues. Thus, any creative influences stem more from their own psychological make-up than from the drugs they take.

Shelley Carson, a Harvard psychologist, has noted “a connection between high levels of creativity and strange behavior and actions” [6], including a propensity, given the right stimuli, to self-medicate through drugs and alcohol. However, Carson also states that, in such cases, it can be the individual’s very creativity which saves them from the worst of the downward spiral. “The greatest thing you can do is to follow your creative tendencies”, she has stated. Perhaps, therefore, many drug addicts and sufferers of mental illness have turned to the creative arts as a cure – or at least a coping mechanism – to aid their problems, rather than creativity being a side-effect of these issues.

Spiritual Recovery:

One aspect of recovery promoted by many rehabilitation and therapy programs is that of ‘spiritual recovery’. In their “Big Book” [7], Alcoholics Anonymous promote spiritual rigor and self-comprehension as a key element of successful recovery. This need not necessarily be religious spirituality, but awareness of and interaction with a higher level of consciousness, be that internal or external, which prevents the individual from reaching into the Slough of Despond and grasping therein the neck of a bottle. Studies by Harvard scientists have shown fairly conclusively that yoga practiced with an adherence to its spiritual and meditational aspects can have a profound effect upon addiction. John Denninger, leading the study, told Bloomberg News that “There is a true biological effect. The kind of things that happen when you meditate do have effects throughout the body, not just in the brain” [8] .

This mind-body effect and enhanced spiritual awareness arguably provide that which the drug and alcohol users were initially (perhaps subconsciously) seeking through substances, and thus allowed them to eschew their addictions far more easily than therapies lacking a spiritual element. Art can have a similar, if not better (depending upon the proclivities of the patient) effect. The Journal of the American Art Therapy Association points out that “Art fosters spiritual development through both the creative process itself and in contemplating a work of art which moves one to a higher level of understanding” [9]. It also allows a degree of personal expression which can be highly cathartic and spiritually liberating for those feeling trapped in the traumatic isolation of drug addiction and poor mental health.

Societal Aid:

It is also worth noting that art can be used in powerful ways to fight back against drug addiction on a wider scale. Last year, New York artist Zefrey Throwell opened an exhibition of a series of his artworks entitled “Panic in The Chalk Cave”. In a highly personal and powerful move, Throwell created his artworks by mixing crystal meth with the ashes of his dead father – who had been horribly addicted to the substance. He used the resultant mixture to create a set of haunting images of his father from the age of seven until his meth-addled death at the age of 59. Throwell told the New York Daily News that he had found the experience of making the portraits extremely effective in sorting through and reaching conclusions about his own issues surrounding drugs and his father’s death. “It made me face a lot of issues around how I deal with the memory of my dad”, he said, as well as commenting that the artwork represented a solid rejection of drug issues which he, personally, had suffered from [10].

However, above all Throwell wished the portraits to act as a salvo in the battle against addiction nationwide. The exhibition, according to him, “shows the two paths you can take…One is that you can embrace the addiction and you fall down the rabbit hole as far as you can until it kills you. The other path is clean, and you survive”. It’s a powerful message, represented in a powerful way, and it cannot come a moment too soon. claim that “nearly 11 million Americans” have tried methamphetamine, and “Every year, thousands of Americans struggle with meth addictions, and even people who have never had a substance abuse issue before can become addicted to meth” [11].

Expressing the Inexpressible:

Art provides a direct route through which artists can communicate with their own unexpressed, perhaps unrealized feelings and desires. It then gives them a channel through which they can express these feelings both to themselves and the world. Some drug users suffer from isolation issues. Isolation and the inability (or perceived inability) to express oneself adequately to one’s contemporaries can be a major factor in addictive behavior. Scientists in Texas found that even rats which were subjected to social isolation became “more vulnerable to addiction to amphetamine and alcohol” [12]. Applied to a theoretical human model and extrapolated to accommodate the enhanced sociability of the human animal, the implications for those who feel vulnerable and isolated in our society are clear. The theory runs that communication with others gives the brain a dopamine hit – which it needs and craves.

Without the dopamine rush which comes from human communication, the brain will inevitably turn to other reward-giving behaviors like drugs, alcohol, food, and sex. Art, however, opens a channel of communication which allows people to express the inexpressible. As one recovering addict put it in an interview with WNCN, “You can express how you feel like, ‘Today I’m feeling very emotional. I’m feeling very vulnerable. But with art you don’t always have to say it…It’s like, the words I can’t come up with, I can physically put on a piece of work, or a painting or an easel or a canvas using all different types of mediums and it really develops into this thing that it then shows how I’m feeling instead of having to verbalize it” [13]. Even if this is not direct communication with others, it can clearly have much the same self-expressive effect, which gives the brain what it craves and at the same time can release a good deal of pent-up emotional angst.

Healing Art:

Far from being something which causes addiction, therefore, art in all its multiform disciplines can actually aid those suffering from addiction, alerting them to potential problems in their lives, providing a pressure valve for turbulent emotions, and alerting them to issues lurking in the murky depths of the subconscious psyche. Rather than castigating art as something done by drug-fuelled lunatics, we should instead be celebrating and utilizing its ability to heal and transform suffering psyches and societies.


[1] Plato, "Phaedrus", 260 BCE, The Internet Classics Archive

[2] Norman Sheppard, "The Mead Of Poetry", The Norse Gods

[3] Thomas De Quincey, "Confessions of an English Opium Eater" , Penguin Classics

[4] Erin Coulehan, "Keith Richards on Drugs: 'All Experiments Come to an End'" , Rolling Stone Magazine, June 2013

[5] Vision And Ageing Lab, "Van Gogh, Vincent (1853-1890)"

[6] Harvard Extension School, "Creativity and Madness: Shelley Carson on the Psychology of Creativity"

[7] "Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book" , Hazelden

[8] Makiko Kitamura, "Harvard Yoga Scientists Find Proof Of Meditation Benefit" , Bloomberg, November 2013

[9] Holly Feen-Callgan, "The Use of Art Therapy in Treatment Programs to Promote Spiritual Recovery from Addiction" , Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 1995

[10] Rheana Murray, "Artist uses crystal meth, dad's ashes in artwork" , New York Daily News, February 2013

[11] , "Residential Centers versus Outpatient Facilities"

[12] University of Texas, "Socially Isolated Rats are More Vulnerable to Addiction, Report Researchers" , January 2013

[13] Justin Quesinberry, "Art therapy can help overcome addiction" , WNCN, May 2014

Share |