Drugs are synonymous with countercultural movements but how have they influenced creativity, and do they still have a place in our artistic landscape today?
When we were teenagers in the late 1960s, drugs were new. Not only for us, but for our parents and for the culture. We suburban kids knew that something strange had been going on in London because even the world’s most popular group, the Beatles – who had been respectable and decent but had now got weird with their colourful clothes and unusual hair – had talked about it. The music they made in their great middle period was concerned with tripping and smoking and swallowing stuff that appeared to take your mind into a free, uncontrolled zone where the usual rules didn’t apply, where you might see that which was ordinarily hidden.
This music was about freedom and leaving home and, particularly at that age, freedom meant a lot to us. The boredom and violence of school, and the drudgery which had been planted ahead of us – work, mortgage, debt, childcare – was already heavy. Our future and what was expected of us had been laid down early. It wasn’t thrilling and we weren’t ready for it.
The London suburbs were not as affluent as the American ones. Our area was still wrecked from the war. The food was repulsive; the men wore bowler hats and education was an endless sadism. But The Graduate spoke to us pretty things. As Benjamin Braddock realises in Charles Webb’s lovely novel and Mike Nichols’ film, when he returns home from university his parents’ world looks false. From the kids’ point of view, the way the adults lived seemed crazy. Who would want to fit in with that uncomfortable, John Cheever-like world where everyone should be content and yet was not? Their unhappiness and discomfort was plain, and their pleasures – of alcohol and promiscuity – were half-hidden and guilty.
We were the wrong people in the wrong place. Some people said that art could change the way you saw things. But somnolent Mozart, or Hollywood movies, or Renoir paintings couldn’t make the revolution we craved. Then we heard Little Richard and Chuck Berry. Occasionally we could see the Rolling Stones or the Who on TV. Suddenly we became aware of a dirty obscene noise which violated all decency and which represented a heightened pleasure we hadn’t encountered before. It led to the fatal association: pleasure was insane. Too much of it could make you mad. Like sex, it was excessive. You couldn’t grasp or understand it, but you wanted it, and it could make you dance and want to be creative. Music – not the cinema, television, or the novel – was the most significant cultural form of the day and it changed everything for everyone.
It was sometimes said the country was awash with drugs, but try scoring when you needed something. In the late ’60s mostly we smoked hash, took amphetamines and downers, and dropped LSD, often at school. Baudelaire in his writing on drugs notices an encounter with what he calls ‘the marvellous’, but also with an increase in anxiety and paranoia when taking hashish. He also tells us that one is no longer master of oneself. You lost control. This might be an inspiration in itself. You could see and feel things stoned that you couldn’t know straight. There might be enhanced communication. If you were less cautious and uptight, you might be able to speak and laugh more. If you lost your straight self, you might discover a better one. You might want to live differently. That became the promise.
The fact that drugs were illegal and disapproved of made them doubly exciting. Breaking the parents’ law, or indeed any law, was a big kick in itself: you could believe that by arguing with prohibition you were making the world a little wider.
Writers like Baudelaire, de Nerval, Huxley and, later, Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson, wrote about drug-taking among the artistic elite. Now, for the first time, drugs were generally available and, like pop, they had even reached the suburbs. And the drugs we began to take in one another’s bedrooms, in the parks and later in the pubs, represented instant pleasure, while everything in the suburbs was deferred. Consumerism was about patience, waiting, slow accumulation and gradual improvement. Capitalism no longer starved the workers, but it starved them of pleasure. We were supposed to work, not make love. We were made aware that happiness, if not pleasure, was always elsewhere.
The West had been growing out of God. Religion was going but hadn’t quite gone, and was yet to be entirely replaced by consumerism. The threat of God’s disapproval was still used as a form of control. Yet as we drifted around in our tie-dyed grandad vests and ripped jeans, hiding from mods and skinheads, we knew that the game of traditional authority was up and that the law we were brought up to respect wasn’t sensible. Drugs were prohibited but worse things were allowed, if not encouraged: genocide, war, racism, inequality, violence. No one would kill their own children, but they were keen to kill other people’s. We didn’t believe the grown-ups, who were not grown-ups after all. The levelling of generations had begun.
Not only that, as the 1970s progressed, capitalism – which required everyone to be anxious and hyper-alert – began to falter. The system was more anarchic, bumpy and unpredictable than politicians made out. It went up and down quickly, and you went with it. The very things that capitalism likes to promise – growth, wealth, increased consumption – couldn’t be delivered. Soon there would be unemployment, social devastation and ‘No future’, as punk recognised. And yet capitalism could never be abandoned. Since the end of socialism, it saw itself as the natural world. The only way forward was to find a place inside it which wasn’t impossible, hence the retreat into spiritualism, yoga, Zen and mindfulness. Or drugs.
‘Drugs’, when they first became generally available in the ’60s, caused such outrage and consternation that we understood that it wasn’t the undoubted damage that they did which was the problem. The drawback wasn’t the possibility of ill-health or addiction but the instant pleasure which drugs provided. Or at least the pleasure that others believed they provided. This was what R D Laing called ‘a mental Shangri-La’ – the longing for something ‘beyond’.
In the 1990s and 2000s, drugs went respectable and mainstream. Ritalin, Prozac and other anti-depressants – substances which fixed adults and children up for work without the agony of self-investigation – became the royal road to efficiency. A subject’s life and the significance of symptoms were replaced by biology and the language of science; chemistry replaced an individual’s history and doctors were substituted for self-authority. We had become machines which dysfunctioned, not individuals with parents and a past that might be worth exploring in talk and art, or subjects wondering why, inexplicably, they were fatigued or exhausted. There were no illuminating questions or slowing down. The important thing was to function, to work, compete and succeed. Drugs, cures and ideas about what a self was had become an arm of capitalism.
Pleasure, the devil’s elixir, a magic substance more valuable than gold, is always a source of anxiety, which is why pleasure is usually located in other people or groups, where it can be thought about, enjoyed and condemned. The dangers of drugs were not the fact they made for disorientation if not madness and addiction, but that they provided too much unearned illicit, or even evil enjoyment. Drugs were an idiot’s euphoria. The story was: if you liked it, or couldn’t make money from it, it couldn’t possibly be good for you.
Of course, after so long, we now know that neither legal nor illegal drugs are it either. For a time, they seemed to promise freedom from the cycle of work and consumption. But rather than representing a point outside – a place of rest, spiritual enlightenment or insight – they became the very thing we thought they might replace. Soon we would see they created as much dissatisfaction as any other cheap fetishised object.
The druggies, from Baudelaire to Kerouac, had learned that the route to paradise wasn’t simple. Though Baudelaire talks of stoned bliss, of calm, of a place where all philosophical questions can be answered, and of a liberating vulgarity, he makes it clear what hard work it is having a good time all the time.
These artists were artists first, and stoners after. The demand for pleasure can become infernal, and another form of authority. And while drugs might make you poetic – filling the gaps in reality – they can render you useless, if not impotent.
No one believes in drugs anymore. At least in art there is movement and thought. Working at something intransigent, one can make and re-make oneself, combining intelligence with intuition. Drugs, when they are effective, abolish ambivalence. But being an artist can never be straightforward. You must cede control and give way to chaos. In art, as in any other form of love, there will be strong feelings of attraction and of abhorrence. Artists may love what they do but they also hate it. Work can become a tyranny and treadmill. It is boring; the material resists; the audience might be uninterested. It can never be an uncomplicated or straightforward pleasure.
Not only can few artists make a realistic assessment of their own work, their state of mind cannot be expected to be serene. There can be no art without anxiety, self-disgust, fear of failure and of success. It is hard and dull labour, and can feel forced. Notice how almost impossible it is to convince an artist how good their work is. But that is the price of the ticket. At least one is going somewhere.
Illustration by Tim McDonagh