Sunday, August 03, 2008


Which Came First, the Addict or the Artist?

As we all know there is a stereotype of the "mad artist." The cliche abounds; there's a fine line between genius and creativity. But does this also hold true for the addict and the artist? If someone were to do a study, assuming no one already has, would he or she find that a disproportionate number of addicts are also artists, and vice versa?

This is of interest to me, vis a vis my own life. I knew I was artistic at a young age. Had it not been for my mother's homophobia, and possibly artist-phobia, I might have been a visual artist. At age nine, I had "the girl collection," a collection of drawings of girls' faces that was growing weekly as I would take it out each Saturday and entertain myself by drawing a new girl. One day, my mother took it from me, saying, "Enough of that," ripped it up, and threw it in the garbage.

Despite my aborted career as a visual artist, I identified myself as a writer from even before age nine. I loved to read, and I knew that that was what I wanted to be: a writer.

But then, Life intervened and by early adolescence, I was already showing some typical signs of an addict, perhaps the most obvious being that I couldn't wait to get high. This is really no great surprise, considering both my parents drank, as did many of the WWII generation, but my parents were addicts.

One thing I also enjoyed as a young child, which my mother did not put a stop to, was sipping the cool, watered down Scotch that remained at the bottom of my father's drinks. It was a treat! As we waited together for my mother to get dressed on a Saturday evening, before Dad picked up the baby sitter, we sat together watching "People Are Funny" and "Candid Camera" and sipped at Scotch on the rocks. So yes, I developed a taste for it and the warm, fuzzy feeling it induced.

A life-long love/hate affair with substances followed. Ironically, it wasn't until after many years of therapy, that I began to have an explanation for certain aspects of my personality. Often, I thought it was that I was an artist. Then, one day, I knew it was because I was an addict. So that was it... that was what made me into the loner that I tend to be. That's what caused me to have the need to escape rather than face emotional pain head on. That's what made it difficult for me to have fun without chemical intervention.

For a while I was convinced that being an addict was "what was wrong with me." But then, I'd get confused, thinking that these are also the qualities of many artists. So which came first, the addict or the artist? And, does it matter? Yes, if only because when I do things like "isolate," which twelve-step programs say is a big No-No for addicts, I also believe that isolating is typical for the archetypal artist. So how I define my behavior determines how I feel about it. Addict = unacceptable; artist = acceptable.

These days, the bottom line is, yes I am an artist and yes I am an addict; the order is arbitrary. What matters is whether or not I am producing art. One thing I know for sure is that if I'm engaged in addictive behavior I'm usually not producing art. So the bottom line once again lies in a cliche: actions speak louder than words. I can be an addict, and I can be an artist, as long as the former describes something I am, and the latter describes something I do.


panther said...

Denise, I haven't been on a 12-Step programmme but I do know it's important to isolate to be an artist. Up to a point. I write-mainly poetry-and I just can't do that in a crowded room where I'm in and out of conversations, supporting the children with homework and, in general, being social. On the other hand, if I locked myself away almost permanently, what would feed the writing ?

I saw a locum doctor a while ago because my usual doctor was on holiday. This doctor said, very disapprovingly, "You do seem to spend a lot of time alone." Rubbish. I have a husband, three children (one of whom is autistic and learning-disabled) and have to CARVE OUT time alone. What I should have said as a rejoinder is "And you seem to spend a lot of time with sick people !"

As for someone doing a study about addicts/artists, I think someone did. I'm afraid I can't recall the book I read about it in. Technically speaking, it wasn't about addiction, it was about the high levels of depression and bipolar in creative people.There IS a connection. . .but (this was the book's main conclusion) healthier people tend to create more and better than people mired in their problems. For example, Sylvia Plath had mental health issues, and they certainly fed into her work,but she was most creative when she was well.

Thank you for this article.

best wishes, Panther

mickey nice said...

I am an addict of sorts by how I feel strangely addicted to art. I do not feel good about it as when I wish to not paint I go through withdrawals. These come in the form of remorse, grief, and self-criticism. I wonder why, or, what it is that causes this pain. Why can't I just walk away from art without the hurt.