Acid and Absinthe in the Creative Process

'Van Gogh' charcoal by Mara Leighton

Artists have been known to sacrifice much in pursuit of genius—money, stability, relationships, and sometimes even their lives are offered as collateral to the higher power of ingenuity. For many, the veracity of their art can be measured by how much of themselves they have exchanged for it, and how precious the cost. No longer is it enough to own a pair of paint splattered jeans and a homemade haircut. It is an unapologetic crusade, and one filled with self denial. As a result, the image of the tortured artist—the genius—has to some extent begun to resemble that of the religious drug user.

This is due largely in part to the popular practice of artists willing to ‘go the extra mile’—those who subject themselves to narcotics regularly in search of the more creative, novel, and intense quality of art believed to be produced under the influence of a distorted reality. This method stems from the logic that to produce something others presumably cannot, they must see things in a way that others do not. An alternative perspective yields alternative results. Since antiquity, drugs have aided artists to access the unprecedented. However, are they necessary requirements of what it takes to become a true artist? Are we truly in agreement that the Levi’s are not enough?

Within the last few centuries, art as an outlet for liberated expression has given rise to varied countercultures, such as France’s Belle Epoque from 1871 to 1914. During the 19th century “artists developed an admirable distancing to preserve the quality of their art from the contamination of bourgeois values. This quickly turned into an artistic moral exceptionalism in which drinking to excess and sex without regard to human consequences were acceptable, and even became necessary part of the artistic pose” (Adams 109). This moral exceptionalism formed to safeguard the artists from the culture they dedicated their career to defying eventually partially formed the modern idea of what it means to be a committed artist. Similarly, this immunity is the answer as to why we view civilian drug users so much more critically than artistic drug users.

On the basis of their career, we have ceased to apply normative social standards to artists. However, this exemption does presumably come with its conditions—the artist is exempt from scrutiny so long as they are simultaneously enjoying success. Should they cease to create, they seem to forfeit the benign neglect of their society. In this manner, drug use and potential addiction is permissible and even praised if present as a companion in the great artist’s work and scrutinized as a reprehensible habit and hinderance to the failing. Moreover, the integration of drugs is an increasingly customary coming-of-age for the serious artist—the artist that will sacrifice his money, stability, relationships, and life in search of the remarkable. In other words, the artist worth betting on in the artistic community.

The double-edge to moral exceptionalism is the unpredictability of the practice. From the outside, prior to their development and introduction to drugs, the talented artist looks surprisingly similar to the impending ‘failure.’ There is no particular brow or complexion that betrays genius. Carl from 2D with the perm could be the next Jackson Pollock, but you’d never know! The problem with using an artist’s willingness to use drugs as a means of separating the strong from the weak is that only the talented will thrive as a result, and the majority will be left to continuously invest in addiction and ignominy. Likewise, even a ‘successful’ addiction can outlast the productive years, and once you have served the curious public, you will not be spared their fickle condemnation in retirement. And thus, another sacrifice is added to the real artist’s ‘Terms of Service’ contract.

Many artists view the use of narcotics as an extension of their work, rather than a recreational outlet. Van Gogh, for instance, “saw drugs in relationship to his work; therefore their recreational function (if such a driven man had what would generally be defined as recreation) was secondary” (91). In the manner that drugs are often used in spiritual practices, so they are used for art. Similarly, the French dramatist, poet, and novelist, De Musset felt that artists should fortify themselves with absinthe, just as the troops were refreshed before battle by brandy (19). Instead of buying food, many artists of the day would spend their money on drugs and paint in the Latin Quarter of Paris. The melodrama of beautiful struggle lends a bit of glamor to starving. You may be malnourished, but jeopardizing your own mortality is in pursuit of the immortal. In the contemporary arena, two well-known ‘work drugs’ frequently used to stimulate the creative class’ endeavor are the potent hallucinogens of absinthe and LSD.


Absinthe: the Magic Beans of the Belle Epoque

Absinthe has been the elixir and muse of poets since at least Shakespeare’s time. It is the highly potent liquor composed of alcohol, wormwood, and anise. And by potent I mean an alcohol level of up to 75% by volume. But what made it a muse more than any other alcoholic drink? Chic for its vibrant green appearance, exotic for its origins and extreme bitterness, and capable of inspiring vivid hallucinations in the drinker. Somewhat validated by research in the 1970s and 1990s is the claim that absinthe’s appeal was greater than it’s alcohol content; thujone, a chemical found in wormwood, has a peculiarly stimulating effect on brain chemistry (3). It became famous for “the suggestion that it acted on the consciousness to produce ideas not otherwise accessible—making absinthe the artistic equivalent of Jack’s Magic Beans. Take one, elevate yourself to a previously inaccessible genius. Absinthe became a must-try for aspiring artists all over Europe from the 17th century to the twentieth. As an official report of the following century remarked, writers and painters in the artistic circles in Paris ‘gave themselves to ‘the green’ with passion, seeking to make their thoughts faster and more original, typing to promote newer and more exquisite ideas’” (27).  As the fellow absinthe drinker Ernest Hemingway appropriately wrote, “go all the way with it. Do not back off. For once, go all the goddamn way with what matters.” Particularly for artists in France, the ‘it’ here was art, and the ‘how’ was through absinthe. Accordingly, serious dedication meant forfeiting a bit of their autonomy in exchange for the seductive potentiality latent in a glass of absinthe.


Acid: The Absinthe of the 20th century

Acid, on the other hand, is the much younger sibling born in the same vein. First synthesized by Albert Hofmann in 1938, LSD/Acid is one of the most potent mood-altering and psychedelic drugs. It is well known for its psychological effects, such as altered thinking processes, closed- and open-eye visuals, synesthesia, an altered sense of time, and spiritual experiences which can last for up to 12 hours. It “profoundly alters and expands consciousness by loosening or—at higher doses —completely erasing the normal filters and screens between your conscious mind and the outside world”—with these filters down, more information rushes in. As a result, the user senses, thinks, and feels more. They become aware of the visual, auditory, sensory, and emotional things that are usually automatically filtered out by the mind. These include the “intricate details on surfaces, the richness of sound, the brightness of colors, and the complexity of your own mental processes” all being brought to the foreground of consciousness [3]. Since most of the prominent effects occur in the prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain involving mood, cognition, and perception) the drug quickly gained a following within the artistic community for it’s apparent advantage in creative thought and was employed with a vigor and dedication akin to absinthe.

Artists such as Paul McCartney and Steve Jobs have attributed LSD to making them better, more tolerant, and more talented artists. Jobs went so far as to tell a reporter that taking acid was “one of the two or three most important things” he did in his life. As a co-founder of a $185 billion dollar company, one might assume he had quite a few other contestants worth considering for the top three slots. Moreover, he’s known to have commented that Bill Gates would be a “broader guy if he’d dropped acid or gone off to an ashram when he was younger” [5]. Though perhaps not the most poignant quote, Jobs, since a more open-minded billionaire when in comparison to a narrower minded billionaire is, still, miraculously, a billionaire.


Raise Your Hand if You’re an Artistic Zealot

Not to be upstaged, LSD’s dark-horse older sibling, Absinthe, has long enjoyed the patronage of renowned artists such as Van Gogh, Gauguin, Alfred Jarry, and Edgar Allen Poe. But how much of an influence do either of the two actually have? Is the recommendation from any of the aforementioned any more reliable than that guy trying to sell something vinyl on Amazon—“It really does sound better, I swear, man”? Is the seemingly inextricable relationship between drugs and good art really causation or simply convenient coordination?

Well, the big answer is that we really don’t know for sure. Sorry, no MythBuster here. It’s hard to gauge creativity, especially when doing it from hindsight. However, we can assume that creativity is, in part, the ability to divulge novel thoughts from known information. And there is some promising evidence; In the case of Van Gogh, his heavy use of absinthe perfectly coincides with the development of color in his artwork, something that occurred during his most creative and disturbed years—and does the correlation really surprise anyone? Coincidentally, this period of time occurred in Arles, France.. a town with four times the national average consumption of Absinthe.

You can be sure that he helped maintain that statistic, sitting at a cafe alone roaring “IT’S FOR WORK!!!!!” if anyone asks. But, the question still remains whether it had a direct effect on his art, or as Wilfred Niels Arnold put it, “the novel experiences of relative sizes, shapes and colours perceived under the influence of absinthe could have been recalled later and incorporated into a new font, palette, or composition.” (92) In the case of Gauguin, his approach to colors and unique perception of colors as representative of moods rather than direct representations of a scene is seen as an approach to artistic conceptualizing for the synaesthetic effects of absinthe.

But absinthe does not stop there. Next on the historic tour of absinthe effects is: Realism, Surrealism, and basically Western Art as a whole.  As Realism flourished in the years between 1850-1865, absinthe was also having one of it’s glittering moments. Realists were dedicated to the earthly merit of “sincerity in art — art was to tell the truth about life, however sordid or ugly” (32). Take out a blender, throw in the idea that art is only as good as it’s subject, and add in a handful of men who thought that ‘the life was the art’ — then shake.

All together, you have the conviction that realists must manually make their lives subjects worth representing. And so began the mutually advantageous love affair of artists and absinthe. Absinthe altered reality, but did not entirely remove it, — a useful skill for the aspiring realist. Absinthe became an increasingly popular and supposedly imperative tool for the movement. Baudelaire once said that “he will be truly a painter, the painter who will know how to draw out of our daily life its epic aspect.” Through the lens of the “Green Fairy,” colors were more vibrant, light more entrancing, and reality distinctly, infinitely more interesting. They were able to depict daily life while simultaneously extricating the ‘epic’ aspect spoken of—they could perceive the real in an unreal, alternative manner and therefore give the populace something they could not necessarily surmise for themselves, what it was like to see the world from the eyes of another.

Alfred Jarry, a man who described absinthe as ‘holy water’ and the ‘essence of life’, refusing to dilute it with water because he considered it unclean, expressed a desire to empty the mind of intelligence so as to leave it open for hallucination (133). One can imagine why he is considered today an important precursor to surrealism. His primary concern in art, especially art through drug use, was to go through all of life with a “dislocation of the rational mind from the imagination…to this end he developed the ‘science of imaginary solutions,’ which he called ‘pataphysic’” (134). One could reach this enlightened state of separation through practice and conscious effort and discipline, or, they could simply be drunk on absinthe all the time. Many surrealists chose the latter. Heck, many civilians chose the latter.

In a larger sense, absinthe inadvertently transformed Western art. By manipulating the artists view of reality and distorting colors and light, it provided a need for products that did not exist prior to their hallucinations. The users called for brighter pigments and greater representation of color and light in art — and as any study of capitalism will predict, manufacturers responded in their best interest to the consumer demands. Suddenly, admirers of art were drawn to the vibrancy, and other artists responded in kind by devoting more of their process to color. The snowball effect revolutionized Western art.

Acid has claimed to touch many professions, both technical and abstract. Francis Crick, an English molecular biologist, biophysicist, and neuroscientist reportedly claimed to have envisioned the structure of DNA on an acid trip, for which he and James Watson were awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. Similarly, John Lennon attributed the Beatles’ album Revolver to the group’s acid use. An album which was ranked first in the book of All-Time Top 1000 Albums and third in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums ever made [4].

Though also popularized by hearsay, the advantage to discerning acid’s influence is that due to it’s contemporary use, the available evidence is significantly better grounded in scientific discovery and research when compared to studies on absinthe in the 19th century. Creativity is hard to quantify. However, using our earlier definition of novel output from known input, it is logical to assume that having a new way of perceiving said information would increase the potentiality for a new (and hence creative) outcome.

One study conducted in 1966 about psychedelics and creativity called ‘Psychedelics in Problem Solving’  was conducted by the ‘International Foundation for Advanced Studies’ and contained promising results. However, in a cruel twist of irony, the first day researchers administered LSD to the participants was also the day the ban on psychedelics was passed‚ dismissing any further studies singularly. Despite the setback, the initial findings were provocative.

Twenty seven volunteers from a variety of professional careers requiring creative thought were given a dose of mescaline and allowed to work on a pre-chosen problem from their own profession that they had been working on for at least three months, but had failed to solve. When they reported back six weeks after, at least 12 had either solved their problem or come “significantly further in the development of the ideas.” Their reports also included enough information to determine that creativity lasted significantly longer than the effects of the psychedelic substance itself. Several of the solutions that were found were in highly technical fields and were “sufficiently novel and useful to be considered significant enhancements in the study of the science. This included a mathematical theorem regarding ‘NOR gates1’; a design for space probe experiments for measuring properties of the sun; and insights into the use of interferometry in a specific field of medicine” [2]. And, as LSD does not affect memory, you can hold onto the creative ideas and apply them later once the trip is over. So, if you can’t figure out the Sunday crossword, perhaps try again after an Earl Grey and a tab of acid.

So what are we to think? Is our genius lying in wait, dormant, waiting for the narcotic to unlock some infinite potentiality? Is it necessary to success in art — an inextricable component of genius? The compiled answer is muddled. For absinthe, most art historians allow that though it had a definite impact on art, absinthe acted upon and improved an art movement that would have occurred regardless of its influence. For acid, the results have been truncated by prohibition and marred by inconsistent methodology, though more promising than not. However, in both drugs’ application, one thing became apparent: though both hallucinogens have the capability to increase creativity and talent, the individual using must already be both creative and talented.

The key to genius and fame is not through acid and absinthe use. If the user does not already have the crude, untapped well of genius to draw from, it will not appear while tripping. In short, either you have “it”, or you don’t—as Jack Kerouac would have said. Altered perception will yield altered insight, but just as playing the guitar won’t make you Jimi Hendrix, drinking absinthe won’t make you Van Gogh, or a tab of Acid turn you into Steve Jobs until you have to be home from the ball at 11. You have to bring the talent, the drugs may just provide a different way of turning the key.


Works Cited

[1] Adams, Jad. Hideous Absinthe: A History of the Devil in a Bottle. Madison, WI: U of Wisconsin, 2004. Print.

[2] “Brighter Brains.” N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Dec. 2014.

[3] “LSD Effects.” – Long Term Effects of LSD. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Dec. 2014.

[4] Palmer, Brian. “Could Acid Make You As Creative as Steve Jobs?” N.p., 6 Oct. 2011. Web. 15 Dec. 2014.

[5] “Steve Jobs Shocker: Bill Gates Should Have Dropped Acid.” N.p., 24 Oct. 2011. Web. 14 Dec. 2014.

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