Sex, Drugs, and Other Artist Coping Mechanisms
Written by L.A. Vandyke
Therapy is not only essential to survival for a large portion of artists, but the process of therapy can become an art itself. Because artists are often sensitive people, the coping methods we rely on will usually have some effect on the choices we make with our work. Those coping methods can either block our practice or help our practice. Sometimes one method simultaneously helps and blocks. Contradictions in our experience should be embraced, because when we accept the fact that two opposite ideas can be true simultaneously, we come closer to truth in our understanding of ourselves. As artists, we are often both so lazy and so passionate. So egotistical yet so insecure. If you limit yourself to one or the other, you surpass the totality of your experience. I think any therapy program for artists has to embrace paradox, suspend judgement, and explore boundaries. Oftentimes traditional talk therapy isn’t enough for creative people. We are lucky that we can use our art practice to heal our emotional body and we should take advantage of that. I believe frequent self-reflection and high self-esteem correspond to art practices that are authentic and intentional. In a lot of ways, art and state of mind are mirrors of each other, like when in Gustave Flaubert’s modernist classic Madame Bovary, the character’s subjective psychological states creates the narrative and forms the artwork. That sort of direct interaction between our attitudes and our beliefs and our artwork could be an interesting space for finding inspiration and actualizing ourselves via our artwork.
Making art your vice
There are so many things available to distract artists. As sensitive people, we may turn toward substances or sensations as respite from hypersensitivity. Vices can work in different ways for different creative people.
For those of us with unhealthy relationships with our vices, we can try and replace unhealthy and self-sabotaging behaviors with art practice. One way to do this could be to identify what triggers us to reach for the vice (be it drugs, alcohol, or anything else) and turn towards creating when those triggers come up. Sometimes I’ll only let myself smoke weed on the condition that I’ll write for the first half hour that I’m high, and I’ve come to associate smoking with creating instead of with leisure. For some of us, creating may be just as effective as the substance in relieving our stress. Over time, we may form a psychological association with our art practice and that feeling of relief. Think Pavlov’s dog but with art and stress relief instead of bells and salivating. That way, our art practice can become a way to relax instead of revolving around deadlines and pressure. Another potential tool for creative people struggling with their vices is to explore their behaviors in an honest and direct way through art. Writing poetry or painting or choreographing a dance about our addictions and self-sabotaging behaviors could be a very effective way to identify the subconscious source of our distress and address the negative effects our vices have on our quality of life. If we force ourselves to interact with our behaviors and desires in this way, things we were not previously aware of may become clear to us. Art is not only a way by which we communicate ourselves to others, but also a beautiful tool for reflexive communication. If we use our art as a mirror for our psychological states, we will come to see ourselves more clearly.
Because every person is different, I think it is also worth addressing how those of us with healthy relationships with our vices may merge that with our art practice. Though vices traditionally have a negative connotation, there are many of us who benefit from the safe use of drugs and alcohol, for example. The other night, my friend and I were tipsy and energetic and decided to go around Chinatown and make rubbings of different raised surfaces. Being drunk made us more spontaneous and made me more open to helping him look for material for his work. Being drunk made me more curious about his art practice than I would’ve been, and it was intimate and funny seeing him sloppy and creative. This process was therapeutic for us both. It was therapeutic for our friendship for us to be creative together and it was therapeutic that our drunkenness made us curious about the city and our practice in a new way. Done safely, psychedelics and other substances can be used as a way to become more curious about ourselves and the world. It is a slippery slope, but I do believe there is therapeutic potential in substances and that those of us who are safely using drugs anyway can embrace the ways in which drugs positively influence our creativity. So much research is being done on the therapeutic effects of safe drug use and because artists are often drawn to alternative lifestyles, we may be more open to those methods than others.
Teaching Philosophy to artists
There are so many ways in which creative people can benefit from non-art disciplines. A dancer can learn biology to become closer to their body and physics to better understand movement. A painter could study the science of light and reflection to refine their artistic precision. Philosophy as therapy is not a new nor original concept. The process of evaluating our beliefs and the nature of reality in an analytical and logical way is one of self-reflection and investigation. The connection between this process and art seems intuitive. We may study ethics to explore our basic moral beliefs and identify ways in which our art practice aligns with or betrays our moral values. Some exploration in the philosophy of aesthetics may transform an artist’s tastes and their aesthetic virtues. In philosophical reasoning we often bring to light things that we intuitively or intellectually know to be true, and a lot of the time those things are not explicitly clear until they are presented in a way that logically connects premises and conclusions. This may bring you closer to understanding what you believe and help you find a conceptual agenda to work within. The concepts behind our art gives us a launching point for conversation and critique, and allows our work to exist beyond its physical form.
Philosophy can be a great inspiration in life and work by helping to validate or transform our point of view. For me, philosophy has been one of the most essential tools to my creativity. Reading and interacting with The Genealogy of Morals by Friedrich Nietzsche helped me understand the origins and presuppositions of conventional moral beliefs and forced me to embrace the moral rules which I believed in and abandon those which I abided by but did not agree with. This process revealed so much about my actual beliefs that I didn’t know before, and in turn my artwork more genuinely reflects my values. One artist whose work is fueled by their philosophical beliefs is the late Genesis P-Orridge. From music to performance to visual art, P-orridge’s transgressive philosophical point of view can be seen throughout their body of work. Transgressive philosophy supports subversive imagery and unconventional lifestyles, and maintaining this conceptual link between artworks gives a certain staying power to P-orridge’s body of work and point of view. Every interview and article about them addresses either rule-breaking, transgressing, or counter-culture, making their artwork part of a larger philosophical movement and allowing the artwork to survive outside of itself. The connection between our philosophy and our art practice relates to survival in such an important way. The survival of our ideas and point of view often depends on an awareness of what we believe and why we believe it. Philosophy can provide integrity and passion to our work, helping our beliefs survive through our work and our work survive through our beliefs.
Art + sex
Creativity is sexy. I know people who have become artists or and musicians just because they thought it would get them laid. I’m oftentimes attracted to people only because of their artwork, and I believe putting our extra sexual energy into making art can be a great way to attract other creative people into our lives. Our art practices are often intimate anyway, so let it be a fun and private space for you to explore sex and taboo. Love and sex are not only sources of inspiration for us; experimenting with gender and exploring our sexual potential can also be a method of self-discovery for creative people. Our relationship to ourselves and to those we love will always influence our art practice and the link between sexuality and identity is undeniable. The cultural pattern of shame and stigma surrounding sex and sexuality is often challenged by artists and creative people. This is important because fear of exploring gender and sex topics can hinder the genuine understanding of ourselves.
Those of us with creative blocks linked to self-esteem and sexual frustration may find that masturbation helps us become more comfortable with our body and feel closer to ourselves. Masturbation can also be used as an opportunity to exercise our imagination and innovation. When I masturbate without porn, I often conjure beautiful and vivid imagery in my head and use that as inspiration in my writing. Creative couples can become closer to each other through writing erotica or painting each other nude. Sexting can become poetry and sex can become dance.
For me, the link between gender and art is inextricable. Finding art made by women is not as difficult as creating and finding art that comes from a female point of view. I think that this is because there is significant social resistance against the female point of view. This resistance is maintained by both men and women, as we all perpetuate the masculine rules which govern our art practices. The homogeneity of canonical art and literature subconsciously influences all of us toward a monolithic perspective. A lot of the rules which dictate the ways that we write or draw are based on a masculine point of view that privileges rigidity, structure, and logic. These traits are useful and can be great for a variety of disciplines but can also be limiting and unexpressive. Everyone could benefit from stepping back from our masculine inclinations in search of something softer, mis-matched, emotional, irrepressible, paradoxical, sometimes erratic or desperate. I’ve personally felt so pressured to mitigate the traditionally feminine aspects of my personality in order to fit into academic artistic spaces. I’ve felt pressure to speak and write in a certain way in order to fit into certain guidelines that feel, to me, outdated. I’ve struggled to find authors who speak like me, or speak freely, or jump from idea to idea like the way thoughts jump in and out of my head, or write sentences that are too long without breaking them up into sentences that are more easily consumable; sometimes you just have to trust that when the right person comes across your work they will understand it because it is written in their language. You don’t have to be a woman or a feminine person to search for the parts of yourself which are sensual, gentle, motherly, emotional, sensitive, empathic… You don’t have to be female or feminine in order to make art from a place of vulnerability. As artists and creative people who have the opportunity to shape the influence our art will have on the future, it’s important that we make space for new kinds of styles and reject masculine uniformity. What makes Nina Simone’s performance irresistible to me is that she laughs and speaks and breaths and changes her pitch between notes. Her vulnerability and unpredictability taught me about being a woman in a way art rarely does. We should all be more open to expressing ourselves in the full spectrum of gender identity and self-exploration, so that every kind of person can find an art language they can speak and understand. In many cultures, LGBTQ+ individuals have turned to art as a means of identity-survival because they are socially and politically restricted in their self-expression. Using art practice as a way to cope and rebel against our cultural frameworks and explore our sexuality could be an amazing therapeutic tool.
Therapy is about being curious about oneself and using what is found to improve one’s life. Art is many things, one of them being transforming curiosity about our perceived self into an externalization of our inner self. Curiosity is essential to the survival of artists and creativity. These therapy proposals represent ways in which I would like to integrate art into my mundane life experience just as much as they represent ways in which all artists can support their practice. To me, art can and should be used as a means of survival for everyone. Ideas such as cross-disciplinary studies involving art and involving art into one’s sex life are practical and exciting processes that anyone can use as a means of self-exploration. Artists survive through their art just as well as art depends on the survival of the artist. Everything we do can be more spontaneous, more influential, and more interesting if we approach them with more creative intent.