Where would art be without drugs?
For an artist like Brian Pollett, it’s safe to say his work wouldn’t exist without help from a wide array of mind-altering substances. The San Francisco-based digital artist’s most publicized series to date was his 2016 “Binge Project,” which entailed taking a different recreational drug and rendering an illustration of each experience for 20 consecutive days. The results, all variations of a floating head in profile, show details corresponding to each drug’s cultural associations and effects, from trichome tendrils and an emerald third eye for THC to a skull x-ray and neon eye laser for the anesthetic MXE (methoxetamine), Pollett’s favorite substance for creating.
“[I]t put me in this chaotic mindset, often a present mindset,” he explains, “where I could create honestly and was inspired by and had this great appreciation for everything I saw.”
“I would assume there [are] a lot of artists in the past who have felt the same way. I can imagine a caveman eating mushrooms and thinking painting on the wall is probably the coolest thing ever.”
Stanley Krippner — a founding professor of psychology specializing in consciousness at Oakland’s Saybrook University — is one of many who espouses the entheogen theory that psychoactive substances played a pivotal role in mankind’s earliest artistic and spiritual practices. Modern research findings that psilocybin treatments can inspire mystical experiences add to the existing evidence of ritualistic drug use throughout human history, like stone sculptures of mushrooms emerging from the heads of gods from 1500 B.C., or cave art connected to Native Americans’ peyote rituals going back even further.
“When people took psychedelic substances, they saw the world differently, and they wanted to communicate what they saw,” Krippner tells DOPE. “They could [relay what they saw] in a story, but since the effects were so visual, it was probably easier to draw, paint, sculpt or dance what they saw.”
Though seldom acknowledged, drugs have continued their profound impact on humanity’s artistic and other creative endeavors to this day. While caffeine and alcohol are widely accepted as prerequisites for accomplishing workday tasks and entering unfamiliar social environments respectively, cannabis has been used as a subjective performance enhancer for centuries, becoming an integral part of American pop culture through its embrace by Jazz Age pioneers like Louis Armstrong.
However, only psychedelics, the loosely defined class of hallucinogens credited with early spiritual practices, have inspired their own subgenre spanning artistic disciplines. Before Silicon Valley coders began micro-dosing for productivity boosts, the popularity of LSD in the ‘60s spawned new waves of abstract visual art and acid rock, characterized by droning vibrations, “emotional ambiguity” and “interest in novel sensations.” Some who claimed its influence on their work include The Beatles, Lewis Carroll, Steve Jobs and Nobel Prize winner Sir Francis Crick, who told friends that the double-helix structure of DNA came to him during an LSD session.
In a 1969 survey Krippner conducted of 180 artists who’d had psychedelic experiences, as well as noting common themes in the content, approach and execution of their work, he concluded that psychedelics enable one to think beyond their culturally imposed frameworks – a major factor in any creative innovation (not to mention belief in a “higher power”) – citing effects like fluency of thought, problem-solving motivation, relaxed ego boundaries and mythmaking tendencies. The studied effects of psychedelics to increase the “Big Five” personality trait of openness to experience back up this ability to expand anyone’s perspective, more often than not, for good – even when the trip itself is perceived as “bad.”
“An experience I had on DMT … felt like I was trapped in hell,” Pollett relates, for example. “When I came out of that, I felt like all my first world problems don’t really matter that much. It just put things into a perspective that was more meaningful.”
This doesn’t mean just anyone taking a dose can win a Nobel prize or record the next “Revolver.” While increased appreciation for music and art is a common takeway from psychedelic experiences, these compounds tend to only make artists, scientists, spiritual leaders, etc. more engaged and intentional about what they already do, though there are exceptions like Isaac Abrams, who discovered his passion for drawing on LSD, but followed up with education and continued practice.
“There’s a whole chain of events after one takes a psychedelic and wants to portray it in some way,” says Krippner. “I think psychedelics don’t help too much with the expression part of it; they help with the perceptual part of it.”
Indeed, far from performance enhancers, many in Krippner’s survey reported they couldn’t perform or render anything artistically on psychedelics, while those that do usually show poorer technical execution and self-evaluation skills. Funnily enough, this relaxation of our normal, critical selves may be key to our enjoyment and achievements spawned from psychoactive drugs, including cannabis – by increasing our subjective feelings of creativeness, they make it easier to fully immerse ourselves in whatever we’re doing, a state of effortless “flow” invaluable for actually creating.
“It helped me create very presently,” Pollett recalls of MXE. “I’m not thinking about how many likes this will get on Instagram or whatever. It is what it is, and I’m enjoying it, and I can express in this moment.”
Though many drugs may aid creativity, too much of any one can easily be the death of it. Even non-habit-forming psychedelics can have their consciousness-limiting downsides if one becomes dependent on them to create, as Pollett, now almost two years sober, reports:
“It’s difficult for me to make art now because I’m not getting that dopamine drip from a drug that’s saying, ‘What you’re doing is really good.’”
New experiences stimulate creativity, and drugs offer a concrete way to change our perceptions, leading to new experiences even with familiar objects and settings, which we then want to communicate through whatever means are available to us. They are tools for affecting human consciousness and, like all tools, can be used for good or ill.
Drawing a parallel between drug-induced states and those achieved by meditation or other “peak experiences,” Krippner suggests it’s the diversity and fluidity of mindsets to draw upon that can improve not only the creativity of an artist’s output but mental health more generally, as isolated therapies using psilocybin and ketamine as well as hypnosis have all been shown to treat conditions like depression and bipolar disorder better than the current pharmaceutical regimens. Though long demonized (literally) by Western institutions like the Catholic church, altered states of consciousness help us recontextualize problems and meet universal human needs for meaning and “curiosity,” which can be harder to satisfy in a crowded world with few remaining frontiers.
“I think the same curiosity that propelled the astronauts propelled what we might call the psychonauts,” explains Krippner. “It’s not given that much credit, but I think curiosity, the need to discover, the desire to know more, is an underlying trait in both of these expeditions, both outer space and inner space.”