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Art and Alcohol
As a high school art teacher, one of the things that always tended to disgust me was the cynicism with which students equated artists with drug use. There was also a similar equation involving artists and sexual promiscuity, but one scandal at a time. In effect, the recurring image amongst teenagers was that all artists were drugged-out sex maniacs. As an educator, it was, of course, my job to counter this impression, which I did willingly. I pointed out that flying in the face of this is the starving artist syndrome. I pointed out that a starving artist cannot afford drugs; and promiscuity, likewise, demands certain financial resources as well. I didnít go so far as to mention that it's possible for an artist to be starving because of drugs and some might argue that being poor, an artist could afford little diversion other than freewheeling sex. Of course we all know the dangers of flirting with stereotypes, most of which are blatantly false.

But recently, I have encountered evidence that drug use may, in fact, be highly coincidental with art and creative expression. There certainly are biographical instances to support the theory, especially in the music business and the performing arts. And, I suppose, there are plenty of drugs in art too. However insofar as painters are concerned, the drug of choice inevitably seems to be alcohol! The so-called New York School is an interesting case in point. Elaine de Kooning, wife of Willem, and something of a painter herself, spoke about the Artists' Club in New York City on East 39th Street. There, during the 1940s and 50s, artists and intellectuals mixed conversation and drinks. She recalls they drank as much as they talked. "What happened is that we turned into alcoholics." Robert Motherwell called the club the "de Kooning Party Headquarters." Mark Rothko was a victim of this environment, his alcoholism ending in slashed veins without even so much as a suicide note.

Jackson Pollock chose the much more working class Cedar Tavern for his alcoholic binges. There he was joined by Franz Kline and occasionally Andy Warhol, though Warhol confessed more of an addiction to cake and candy. Pollock, on the other hand, would get "hideously drunk," jump from cars and play Russian roulette in midtown Manhattan rush hour traffic, ending up at the Cedar Tavern drowning himself in more whiskey and self-pity. The photographer, Hans Namuth (who often filmed Pollock at work) recalls that for two blessed years Pollock's doctor put him on tranquillisers to cure his manic-depressive tendencies and that during this time Pollock remained cold sober. They were some of the most productive years of his life. Namuth recalls also the violence that went with Pollock's falling "off the wagon" about 1950--upending tables, punching out windows--and eventually, in 1956, his violent death in a drunken, high-speed, auto crash. Of course this is episodic rather than empirical evidence, but I'm not sure if today, I could dispel students' artist stereotypes with the same confidence I once did.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
10 December 1998

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