Art & Drugs

The Art World's Favorite Mind-Altering Substances: A Sociological Study

Rob Pruitt, Cocaine Buffet, 1990s. 

 

 

Alcohol smiley

The most important drug in the art world is alcohol. It works as a legal tool to ease the atmosphere between people with very different statuses and lifestyles who still have to get to know each other or who already know each other far too well. In the world of literature the bond between writers, publishers and critics used to be fuelled by large amounts of alcohol as well, but this stopped happening at the end of the twentieth century. With the digitalisation of accounting and inventory, bookselling became a pretty sober business. In film and music, the situation must be similar. Only the art world remains deeply attached to alcohol. At international art events in strictly Islamic states, it’s impressive to see how willingly the international crowd squeezes into chartered buses, sometimes for an hour or two, to end up in a generic five-star hotel that is licensed to serve booze.

Without alcohol, the art world as we know it would collapse.

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Cocaine devil

After a few hours of drinking, alcohol starts wearing you out. Cocaine is a popular remedy to feel fresh again and less edgy than speed or crystal meth. It's not just the chemicals – alcohol and cocaine react to become the highly addictive dopamine stimulator cocaethylene – it’s also the joyful excitement of collectively doing something illegal. Cocaine works as an ego-booster, but at the same time there is more social pressure not to take it alone than with any other drug. It makes you want to talk a lot, and it feels too egotistical to be a monological nuisance without including your listeners.
The consumption of cocaine is highly inefficient: you have to take it at least every thirty minutes, probably in a toilet; it's expensive; and outside of Latin America you hardly know what you are actually sniffing. But all of this makes its use even more bonding: you are doing something together that is no doubt a bit ridiculous and dangerous. Imagine you are in a country with the death penalty for the possession of illegal drugs and you hardly know the people who ask you to join them for some white powder. But this is the art world and in the worst case someone rich with good connections will bribe you out of of trouble. 

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MDMA, GHB, GBL, Ketamine angel

The art world shows less affinity to more recent party drugs like MDMA, GHB or ketamine. Cuddling and spacing out doesn’t make collectors buy your art or curators exhibit it. Berlin art events where MDMA is served might be cute but unfortunately they are pretty irrelevant.

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Orthomol cool

More and more art events like fairs and biennial openings last several days and nights. The accumulation of interactions, transactions, events and random encounters is an energetic effort similar to the blitzkrieg – a German tactic that came to full effect in WWII, fuelled by crystal meth. But when I asked a couple of gallerists discreetly how they manage to perform over such a long period of time, often jetlagged, they didn't refer to any strong drugs. The danger of finding yourself already completely wasted on day two would be too high. Despite all the dinners and parties, fairs and biennials have a rather sobering effect – at  least for those who are there to do the actual business and not among the many lonely butterflies and ambitious blowflies who decorate any prestigious event. Proficient gallerists settle during the day with a workout and high doses of Vitamin B complex and magnesium, for example in the supplement Orthomol Vital. Since the body gets used to everything, even a surplus of vitamins and minerals, they use it only during such events. Coffee and energy drinks provide an extra boost for very important meetings.

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Ritalin, Adderall cool

But does vitamin B really work? The younger generation simply increases their Ritalin or Adderall dose a bit – these drugs relate to speed and crystal meth like methadone to heroin: you are on, without the kick.

 

Clorazepam indecision

To find sleep during stressful events the art crowd doesn't just rely on the usual Ambien but on strong benzodiazepines as clorazepam, originally a remedy against epilepsy. Some would prefer to smoke weed but in combination with the unavoidable dinner alcohol it easily results in a severe hangover.

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Beta blockers wink

Beta blockers help you to stay cool and not to be pushy or antagonistic. I heard of a renowned New York art institution that is offering free beta blockers at all their meetings to lower adrenaline levels and make the discussion less tense, less aggressive, less macho. Beta blockers act like cookies without sugar, fat, gluten, lactose or taste. 

 

SSRIs laugh

The year that Prozac hit the US market – in 1986 – Jeff Koons stopped putting basketballs in tranquil equilibriums and produced The Rabbit, an inflatable toy rabbit cast in stainless steel. The harsh and cold beginnings of the 1980s with Punk, New Wave and the fear of a nuclear WWIII were over. Art could be all about shiny colours, comforting shapes, and harmless jokes.
Before Prozac, which was the very first selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), antidepressants were above all sedative, toxic, addictive and made you fat. SSRIs promised to lift your mood without any substantial side effects. Besides, SSRIs worked as a gateway drug for a much more potent mood enhancer: MDMA. Conveniently, it also helps to alleviate severe MDMA hangovers. Today we know that for most consumers the mood-enhancing effects of SSRIs are moderate to non-existing; that they lower your sex drive and can make you suicidal. Still, the epoch of SSRIs is far from over. About ten per cent of the American population take SSRIs – twice as many women as men – and if they’re not taking it for depression then for eating disorders, OCD, social anxiety, ADHD etc. The older and richer you are, the more likely you are to be on SSRIs. It would be interesting to know how many collectors – in particular collectors' wives – are taking them. The number must be immense, all the more since an interest in art is an obvious substitute for having sex.

The massive growth of the art market since the 1980s is partly fuelled by SSRIs.    

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Nicotine angry

It's impressive how many people in the art world still smoke. In an overpopulated world where everything has to be saved and recycled, the public inhalation and exhalation of cancerous poisons has the nostalgic flair of a pre-digital bohemia, still struggling with the elements. It's the perfect match for speculative realism, a retro ontology that is meant to explain why sculpture is still relevant.     

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Heroin surprise

Smoking used to be a cool gesture and a stupid habit. But since heroin is more and more beyond the pale, smoking inherited a bit of its drama. Ten, twenty years ago, after Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994, the art world experienced a little heroin revival. It was the thrill of death combined with the arrogance of thinking one wasn’t as stupid as some uneducated pop musician. The global financial crisis and Dash Snow’s subsequent death put an end to this hubris. Since then, heroin is only suitable for super-rich heirs who have enough time and money for occasional spa-like rehabs, skin treatment included.    

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Ayahuasca enlightened

Since cigarettes are going e-, there's a new extreme drug experience on the horizon. It is one that can’t possibly become a frequent habit. It's not even particularly dangerous in a physical sense, though it can be profoundly mind altering: ayahuasca. But the visual arts have never been at the forefront of psychedelia. When psychedelics became popular in the 1950s and 1960s, the trippy epochs of Symbolism, Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism, and Surrealism were already over and being a professional artist was more about restraining your creativity than letting loose. More recently, artists like Francis Alÿs and Paweł Althamer harnessed the use of psychedelics within the conceptual setting of an artistic research, turning them into just one source material among others. Outsider art – inspired by psychedelic or other psychotic experiences – got rehabilitated, though just in retrospect.    
What is so special about ayahuasca is not just its hallucinogenic properties. As its consumption causes heavy nausea and vomiting it is only attractive when embedded in a ritual that reliably turns it into a cathartic experience. The indigenous chants and ceremonies of an Amazonian shaman save the ayahuasca trip from falling short as recreational amusement. Instead, it is experienced as extremely dense and intense therapy work. No wonder that ayahuasca became particularly popular in Buenos Aires during the recent recession. Argentinian Artist Eduardo Navarro recently explained it to me like this: “Psychoanalysis has been everything in Buenos Aires, but it never worked. People are still depressed and miserable. So now there is a new-age comeback mixed with aboriginal drugs and fancy handmade clothes. I relate ayahuasca to a dark emptiness, like an echo of guilt in a society that’s all about ass, money and cars. Everyone I know who has taken it has said ‘it is like 7 years of therapy in one night.’”
And it's only a matter of time till the middle classes of the Northern hemisphere give in too. The time and cost advantages are striking: an ayahuasca group session costs 100 to 200 dollars per person, no more than the weekly or twice-weekly 45 minutes with your shrink.

Will there be a new era of deep ego or trans-ego art, inspired by ayahuasca sessions? Maybe.

For now, it works as a gateway to all sorts of hallucinogenic experiences, whether with shrooms, LSD, N-Bomb, or inhaled DMT. Post-Internet art is basically psychedelic: The new digital media are perceived through the old analogue media of mind-altering substances. Both are cheap and don't need more space than a mattress to make you trip into other worlds. Together, they could turn this mattress into a flying carpet. And they will, once art goes head-to-head with a fully equipped virtual reality. Art will go mental. 

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Ingo Niermann is a writer and the editor of the Solution book series. Together with Adriano Sack he published the book "The Curious World of Drugs and their Friends" and recently updated it in German as "Breites Wissen... nachgelegt. Die seltsame Welt der Drogen und ihrer Nutzer".

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