Whether alcohol or absinthe, LSD or heroin, some of humanity’s creative geniuses produced their greatest work as mind-altering substances did theirs. A Paris exhibit connects the dots.
PARIS – For the first time in Paris, the Maison Rouge art foundation explores head-on the role of drugs in art.
It is impossible to imagine a history of modern and contemporary literature without English essayist Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater or French poet Charles Baudelaire’sParadis Artificiels (Artificial Paradises). The list is long, from Baudelaire to American novelist William Burroughs and German writer Ernst Jünger.
Some will end up addicted to a “substance,” others will just experiment – like German philosopher Walter Benjamin with hashish in Marseille. The same goes for a large part of the history of musical creation in the last 50 years. Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, sang the Beatles. You know what the initials of the song title spell out, right?
What’s strange is not that the Maison Rouge’s exhibition, entitled “Under the Influence” and subtitled “Artists and Psychoactive Drugs,” talks about drugs and art, it is that it is the first foundation or museum to do so in such detail. Anyone with an interest in surrealism remembers French surrealist writers Jacques Vaché and René Crevel – two famous addicts – and playwright Antonin Artaud, of course, with opium and peyote. Many contemporary artists don’t even bother to hide their use of hallucinogenic drugs.
Such a wide-ranging topic should have its place in a big Parisian museum like the Centre Pompidou. Unfortunately it seems that talking about drugs in Paris’ temple of contemporary art is considered too shocking. Whatever, what’s important is that the exhibition exists.
“Under the Influence” goes from fact to fact, but also from interrogation to interrogation. Only one has a simple answer: the use or abuse of products by an artist that have the effect of affecting – briefly or durably – perceptions, emotions or thoughts is a major factor in art since the beginning of the 20thcentury, even maybe earlier. These products can be legal or illegal.
In the first category are alcohol and tobacco, there is enough for a separate exhibition: Van Gogh andabsinthe, Pollock and Bacon’s penchant for the bottle. The second category includes the substances that come from a plant – opium, cocaine, etc – and the third and last category the substances created by chemists – LSD being the most famous.
Many famous artists are represented: Francis Picabia, Hans Bellmer, Jean Cocteau, Martial Raysse, Daniel Spoerri, Gary Hill, Markus Raetz; and others less known: Daniel Pommereulle, Bernard Saby, Frédéric Pardo, Batan Matta.
This doesn’t mean that these 91 artists were all “drug addicts,” but, just like the writers, some artists got hooked and some even died because from it. A percentage of them took drugs in the 60s and 70s – when it was all the rage – and then stopped more or less quickly. Others experimented with drugs as if they were scientists, French poet Henri Michaux for instance, who drew after taking mescaline, or artist Jean-Jacques Lebel after dropping acid.
There are also those who broached the subject from afar, like a chronicler or a historian would. Matthieu Briand is one of them – his sculptures are tributes to the creator of LSD, Albert Hofmann.
Hallucinogenic drugs or hallucinations?
When a psychoactive drug is absorbed, how does it act and how far can it make the artist go? What perception of the world does it stir up? Or what “visions” – a word to be used with caution- does it impose? In some cases, the answer is easy. The comparison between Michaux’s “mescalinian” drawings and his work when he’s not under the influence suggests that the drug set off ideas of swarming and crystallization: “lots of crystals, everything always end up in crystals,” he wrote, but he also experienced muscle rigidity – his 1956 drawings resemble those produced by a seismograph.
With Lebel, the assessment is less definitive. Are these curves, the “psychedelic” interlacing, due to chemistry or the artist’s unique graphic style? Austrian painter Arnulf Rainer was drawing under the influence of mescaline, LSD, psilocybin, and hypnosis. What he accomplished was however very much like his work in a “normal” state, granted we know what normal actually is.
Painting by Arnulf Rainer
Like Rainer, Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, also went off the deep end. She spends her life between her workshop and a psychiatric ward. Where is the influence? Is it the hallucinogenic drugs or the hallucinations? This begs the question: how does creation happen? What mental and physical operations are needed to bring out archetypes and obsessions?
Many artists who try drugs are only trying to find the answer to this question. American performance artist Brian Lewis Saunders is the perfect example of this. In 2001, he drew, for weeks on, a self-portrait under the influence of a different mix: Valium, cocaine, marijuana and other various types of medicine. His portraits can be figurative or almost destroyed, hilarious or frightening.
Another spectacular experiment comes from French artist Bruno Botella. He worked on clay mixed with a hallucinogenic substance. By contact of his skin, enhanced by a solvent, the molecule penetrates the body and affects the movements – and therefor the shape that is given to the clay. The protocol resembles a lab experiment. The relationship between science and art appears very clearly all throughout the exhibition.
Installation by Yayoi Kusama
The exhibition also confirms that the hypothesis that is repeated all too often – that these substances liberate the creating power, by taking away inhibitions and stimulation the central nervous system is just not true. This is no more true than to say that Van Gogh was only Van Gogh because of his inner turmoil or than Jean-Michel Basquiat needed heroin to draw or paint. But it is also worth remembering that it killed them both.
Psilocybin, the Drug in ‘Magic Mushrooms,’ Lifts Mood and Increases Compassion Over the Long Term | TIME.com
The mushroom-derived hallucinogen, called psilocybin, is known to trigger transformative spiritual states, but at high doses it can also result in “bad trips” marked by terror and panic. The trick is to get the dose just right, which the Johns Hopkins researchers report having accomplished.
In their study, the Hopkins scientists were able to reliably induce transcendental experiences in volunteers, which offered long-lasting psychological growth and helped people find peace in their lives — without the negative effects.
“The important point here is that we found the sweet spot where we can optimize the positive persistent effects and avoid some of the fear and anxiety that can occur and can be quite disruptive,” says lead author Roland Griffiths, professor of behavioral biology at Hopkins.
Giffiths’ study involved 18 healthy adults, average age 46, who participated in five eight-hour drug sessions with either psilocybin — at varying doses — or placebo. Nearly all the volunteers were college graduates and 78% participated regularly in religious activities; all were interested in spiritual experience.
Fourteen months after participating in the study, 94% of those who received the drug said the experiment was one of the top five most meaningful experiences of their lives; 39% said it was the single most meaningful experience.
Critically, however, the participants themselves were not the only ones who saw the benefit from the insights they gained: their friends, family member and colleagues also reported that the psilocybin experience had made the participants calmer, happier and kinder.
Ultimately, Griffiths and his colleagues want to see if the same kind of psychedelic experience could help ease anxiety and fear over the long term in cancer patients or others facing death. And following up on tantalizing clues from early research on hallucinogenic drugs like LSD, mescaline and psilocybin in the 1960s (which are all now illegal), researchers are also studying whether transcendental experiences could help spur recovery from addiction and treat other psychological problems like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
For Griffiths’ current experiment, participants were housed in a living room-like setting designed to be calm, comfortable and attractive. While under the influence, they listened to classical music on headphones, wore eyeshades and were instructed to “direct their attention inward.”
Each participant was accompanied by two other research-team members: a “monitor” and an “assistant monitor,” who both had previous experience with people on psychedelic drugs and were empathetic and supportive. Before the drug sessions, the volunteers became acquainted enough with their team so that they felt familiar and safe. Although the experiments took place in the Hopkins hospital complex in order to ensure prompt medical attention in the event that it was needed, it never was.
As described by early advocates of the use of psychedelics — from ancient shamans to Timothy Leary and the Grateful Dead — the psilocybin experience typically involves a sense of oneness with the universe and with others, a feeling of transcending time, space and other limitations, coupled with a sense of holiness and sacredness. Overwhelmingly, these experiences are difficult to put into words, but many of Griffiths’ participants said they were left with the sense that they understood themselves and others better and therefore had greater compassion and patience.
“I feel that I relate better in my marriage. There is more empathy — a greater understanding of people and understanding their difficulties and less judgment,” said one participant. “Less judging of myself, too.”
Another said: “I have better interaction with close friends and family and with acquaintances and strangers. … My alcohol use has diminished dramatically.”
To zero in on the “sweet spot” of dosing, Griffiths started half the volunteers on a low dose and gradually increased their doses over time (with placebo sessions randomly interspersed); the other half started on a high dose and worked their way down.
Those who started on a low dose found that their experiences tended to get better as the dose increased, probably because they learned what to expect and how to handle it. But people who started with high doses were more likely to experience anxiety and fear (though these feeling didn’t last long and sometimes resolved into euphoria or a sense of transcendence).
“If we back the dose down a little, we have just as much of the same positive effects. The properties of the mystical experience remain the same, but there’s a fivefold drop in anxiety and fearfulness,” Griffiths says.
Some past experiments with psychedelics in the ’60s used initial high doses of the drugs — the “blast people away with a high dose” model, says Griffiths — to try to treat addiction. “Some of the early work in addictions was done with the idea of, ‘O.K., let’s model the ‘bottoming-out’ crisis and make use of the dark side of [psychedelic] compounds. That didn’t work,” Griffiths says.
It may even have backfired: other research on addictions shows that coercion, humiliation and other attempts to produce a sense of “powerlessness,” tend to increase relapse and treatment dropout, not recovery. (And the notorious naked LSD encounter sessions conducted with psychopaths made them worse, too.)
Griffiths is currently seeking patients with terminal cancer to participate in his next set of experiments (for more information on these studies, click here); because psychedelics often produce a feeling of going beyond life and death, they are thought to be especially likely to help those facing the end of life. Griffiths is also studying whether psilocybin can help smokers quit.
Griffiths and other researchers like him are hoping to bring the study of psychedelics into the future. They want to build on the promise that some of the early research showed, while avoiding the bad rep and exaggerated claims — for example, that LSD was harmless and could usher in world peace — that became associated with the drugs when people started using them recreationally in the 1960s. The resulting negative publicity helped shut down the burgeoning research.
This time around, caution may be paying off. Dr. Jerome Jaffe, America’s first drug czar, who was not involved with the research, said in a statement, “The Hopkins psilocybin studies clearly demonstrate that this route to the mystical is not to be walked alone. But they have also demonstrated significant and lasting benefits. That raises two questions: could psilocybin-occasioned experiences prove therapeutically useful, for example in dealing with the psychological distress experienced by some terminal patients?
“And should properly-informed citizens, not in distress, be allowed to receive psilocybin for its possible spiritual benefits, as we now allow them to pursue other possibly risky activities such as cosmetic surgery and mountain-climbing?”
The family of a US intelligence agent that mysteriously died in 1953 has filed a lawsuit that accuses the CIA of committing murder.
The sons of deceased CIA officer Frank Olson allege in a lawsuit this week that their father was killed on the job nearly 60 years ago, despite the Central Intelligence Agency’s lost-standing claim that the death was a suicide.
Frank Olson was found dead outside the New York City Statler Hotel after what was originally described as a jump from the thirteenth floor carried out by his own accord. In 1975, a government report was made public that revealed Olson had been given LSD by his employers as part of a top-secret behavioral engineering project dubbed MKULTRA beforehand, and the drug has since been blamed for his alleged suicide. In the decades since, however, the case has been called into question due to a number of peculiarities, including how closely the alleged cover-up in the years since has come eerily close to the agency’s own policies.
“The circumstances surrounding the death mirrored those detailed in an assassination manual that, upon information and belief, the CIA had drafted that same year,” Scott Gilbert, a lawyer for the Olsons, writes in the complaint filed this week.
CIA spokesperson Preston Golson tells Bloomberg News that he cannot comment on a pending court case specifically, but suggests that the agency stands by their explanation.
“CIA activities related to MK-ULTRA have been thoroughly investigated over the years, and the agency cooperated with each of those investigations,” Golson said. “In addition, tens of thousands of pages related to the program have been declassified and released to the public.”
According to the complaint filed by sons Eric and Nils Olson, though, there is more to the story — just days before Frank Olson’s death, he allegedly informed a colleague that he had ethical concerns regarding the agency’s conduct and had planned to resign. That colleague, Vincent Ruwet, then accompanied the agent along with a CIA scientist to New York City so that Olson could see a doctor. There an allergist prescribed him sedatives and the alleged suicide occurred shortly thereafter.
When Olson was discovered dead, either Ruwet or the CIA scientist responsible for giving him LSD, Robert Lashbrook, made a phone call to an agency higher-up to inform them of the death.
“Well, he’s gone,” one person allegedly told the other in a phone call conversation included in the complaint.
“That’s too bad’,” the other responded.
According to a report this week published by Bloomberg, Eric and Nils Olson believe their father’s closed-casket funeral further covered-up the fact that Frank Olson had been bludgeoned by CIA agents before being tossed from the window. A 1994 investigation later all but confirmed that allegation, the complaint reads.
The New York District Attorney’s Office reclassified the cause of Olson’s death from “suicide” to “unknown” during the late 1990s. Now once again his sons are demanding they be told the truth.