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The Art of Alcoholism

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My friend Tall Girl and I were having an email conversation. She had just come back from New York and she was telling me about going to MOMA and seeing “her favorite Jackson Pollack” on display.I said, “People have favorite Pollocks? All those paint splotches just look the same to me. I like his dribbly ones better than the pointy, leafy ones. Those are scholarly, technical art terms, by the way.”

A Jackson Pollock painting
A Jackson Pollock painting

She knows I’m ironic, so she sent me a few photographs of Pollock’s signature paint drip works (to refresh my memory of his genius) and one that was more like a snapshot of hell with the caption, “Tell me this guy didn’t have serious demons. Did you know he suffered from mental illness and died a critical stage alcoholic? Of course you do – you’re the art expert. I think that’s why I love his work.”

Tall Girl is a person in long term recovery too.

I said, “The Flame is not your favorite is it? I’m sorry, but it seems obvious to me – shooting fire, subliminal screaming mouths, severed limbs akimbo… And yes, he did have his raging demons. I was just reading about his unfortunate, fatal car crash.”

Creativity and Alcoholism
I am not an art expert, but I did own an art gallery for a number of years and I am an addict. I have comingled creativity and alcoholism for most of my adult life. The subject of great art and addiction has long been a topic that fascinates me. There seems to be an inordinate number of brilliant, creative people who use their addiction as a catalyst to generate paintings and novels and symphonies.

Or the alternative, that extremely creative people are so sensitive to the world, they must self-medicate and produce art as a means of subduing their mental illness. I know this to be true with many fine artists I worked with as a gallerist.

Hemingway, Jack Kerouac, Vincent Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, C.S. Lewis, Edgar Allan Poe, Tchaikovsky, Pollock and more recently Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain and Whitney Houston: too many genius-addicts to discount or pass off as coincidental.

It’s a chicken or egg conundrum. Do I drink to create or does drinking make me more creative?

A popular belief is that the use of drugs and alcohol stimulate the creative mind. Psychology Today* says, “Why might being intoxicated lead to improved creativity? The answer has to do with alcohol’s effect on working memory: the brain power that helps us keep what we want in mind and what we don’t want out. Research has shown that alcohol tends to reduce people’s ability to focus in on some things and ignore others, which also happens to benefit creative problem solving…wielding more working memory may hinder performance whenever thinking creatively or “outside of the box” is necessary. Simply put, people’s ability to think about information in new and unusual ways may be hampered when they wield too much brain power.”

So, the “Aha” moment, the “Eureka” shouted from the dark basement or the writer’s garret can be the result of an alcohol fueled inspiration. And a couple of glasses of wine might narrow the artist’s focus and help to produce the genius we applaud.

But here’s the problem, Mr. Fitzgerald

Alcoholism is a primary, chronic disease that is often progressive and fatal. The sensitivity to the world might cause a brilliant artist to self-medicate with a drink or two, or the need to isolate the perfect thought that leads to a work of great fiction might be spurred on by a slug of bourbon. But when the drinking progresses and the disease takes over, the brilliant work begins to falter and take a back seat to addiction.

All you have to do is watch the documentary Amy, depicting the life and death of Amy Winehouse, to see that in the final stages of alcoholism and addiction, creativity is relegated to the wings and addiction takes center stage…

*Psychology Today Alcohol Benefits the Creative Process Sian Beilock Ph.D.

  • Marilyn Spiller
    Marilyn Spiller

    Executive Director of Marketing

    Author, Marilyn Spiller is a writer, speaker, sober coach and recovery advocate with a 20-year history of international hobnobbing and outrageous over-drinking. Five years sober, she writes a popular blog called Waking Up the Ghost, and acts as the Executive Director of Marketing for Sanford House at John Street, Sanford House at Cherry Street, and the Sanford House Outpatient Center.

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