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Why do we like our artist on drugs, but not our sportspeople?

inspiration-is-for-amateursThe internet and print media are happy to herald that movie director Lars Von Trier can’t work without alcohol. He reports that he tried to be sober and went to AA meetings for half a year, but has now started drinking again in order to be able to work. This is a victory for those who believe that artists are more creative on drugs. As Von Trier himself ranted late last year, before going in rehab, he thinks that going clean will probably mean the end of his career. He probably won’t be able to make movies at all, and what he will produce, will be ‘shitty’. ‘There is no creative expression of artistic value that has ever been produced by ex-drunkards and ex-drug-addicts. Who the hell would bother with a Rolling Stones without booze or with a Jimi Hendrix without heroin?’ He states that he wrote the screenplay for Dogville during a 12-day drug binge, but working on the screenplay for Nymphomaniac, while sober, took him 18 months.Yet, when we look closer at the interview he has given now that he started drinking again, it shows a way more nuanced picture. First, he doesn’t claim that he is back to full-blown addiction, but only that he started to drink a little bit. Secondly, while he claimed before that drinking a bottle of vodka daily helped him enter a “parallel world” necessary for creation, he doesn’t now emphasise a relationship between drinking and creativity. His drinking has another function for him, it is not a shortcut to creativity (as other drugs are for him), but a way to handle his anxiety issues. ‘I have this theory: scientists say that 80% of our mental work is to stop the senses. So we have filters to block useless information. But if you are sensitive, then it means these filters are a bit broken.’ In order to focus on the mental work required to make a movie, he needs to block his senses. Being an anxious person, he needs help to block his senses, and alcohol (along with meditation and medication) does this for him and makes him able to perform mental work. Drinking doesn’t make him more creative, but more focused. That also explains why he went to the AA, and used all his strength to get sober. Too much drinking probably wasn’t beneficial anymore for his mental work. He explains that making movies on drugs was ‘kind of the way I worked’, but when reading the interview it seems like he is looking for other ways to work. Currently, he works with only a little bit of alcohol, just to overcome that last bit of anxiety he can’t tackle otherwise.

When Von Trier states: ‘I believe that if you are an artist and you’re drunk (laughing), you’re more sensitive’, most people read it as an affirmation that drinking makes you more sensitive, and this sensitivity is needed to make beautiful movies. But rather, what Von Trier states if you read further, is that he believes that if you are an artist, and you are drunk, it probably means that you have the same anxiety issues as he has, and you need the drink in order to block your sensitivity to be able to perform mentally. The reasons Von Trier names for his drinking have little to do with his amazing creativity. Instead, he drinks for self-medication, and it seems to be a blunt weapon considering that he thought it necessary to enter rehab while also thinking that sobriety would be the end of his career.
So, why does everyone like the myth of the substance-using artist so much while despising substance-using sportspeople? We need heroes in our lives, but sportspeople and artists are different kind of heroes. In a sportsperson, we admire discipline, and very controlled behaviour we like them to excel within a certain set of rules. In an artist, we admire someone who makes new rules, we are excited by erratic behaviour, independence from societal norms, and originality. But as Von Trier reports, his amazing movies happen due to very hard work, to perform mentally at his best, rather than being a drug-abusing creative. As artist Chuck Close describes it: ‘inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us just show up and get to work’. But maybe that is not the hero we need in our lives. We like our artists being possessed with this amazing inspiration, perhaps induced by substances, rather than hard workers.
So is using drugs in the arts doping or not? When reading Von Triers interview one can wonder if he is really enhanced by his substance use, and if the negative effects outweighs the positive effects. Using substances in art is not considered doping, because it is not really helpful. Many artists die due to their substance use, or suffer burnout like Lars von Trier. Sure, the right amount of the right substance can be very helpful, either to be creative, or to just be able to show up at work, but if the balance is lost, you risk losing everything.

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9 Comment on this post

  1. Nice article and well targeted .
    As psychoanalysis demonstrates , the “I” functions as a kind of orthopedic brace that holds the uncontrollable, fragmented drives into a coherent whole and as a protection against the impulses arising from these drives, which never “go away”.
    Arts, poetry, visual arts etc.. are manifestations of unconscious drives.
    Some artists needs external triggers (like alcohol , drugs, meditation, psychotherapy ..) to loosen up the “ I” so these suggestions demonstrate itself.
    One of the best piano concerto (Rachmaninov piano concerto 2) , was written by Rachmaninov while he was under psychotherapy).
    But some artists can loosen up the brace of the “I” without any triggers and produce amazing work of arts.

    On the other hand, sports are a conscientious , social activity, it is not a manifestation of drives! it enforce the “I” and does not need it to be loosen up..

  2. Anders Sandberg

    I think this illuminates one of the important aspects of the enhancer debate: different domains have different implicit rules for what the proper way of doing them are, and how much the result matters over the way it is achieved.

    In both sport and art we care about how the result is achieved. In art results achieved from unconventional or dramatic means rather than a 9-to-5 work schedule are valued highly. In sport people care about the discipline, “spirit of sport” and various purity ideals. The eventual result in sport is of secondary or instrumental importance (it is just there as a goal to create dramatic tension) while in art the result may have value in itself. Cognitive enhancement of research mathematicians seems far less problematic than enhancement of students, since we more care for the results the researchers than the answers to the exam questions – in the student case we want them to achieve good results as a consequence of ability gained through the right kind of training. And so on.

    The problem is that in many domains we are not very clear in our understanding of the implict rules. That makes the benefits or harms of enhancers to activity in the domain hard to discuss. Making the rules clearer both allows us to analyse enhancers better, and may allow us to challenge some of the more stupid rules.

  3. We like our artists being possessed with this amazing inspiration, perhaps induced by substances, rather than hard workers.

    There is possibly a romantic concept of the artist that goes in that direction. But this is a completely trivial point. What is important is whether we should tolerate using substances in the arts but not in the sports.

    To tolerate is to pass a judgement on whether something should be accepted even though they are genuine reasons against it. This entails that the reasons for, from the point of view of the agent, defeat the reasons against. While both in the arts and in the sports does health constitute a strong reason against the use of substances, in the sports there has an extra strong reason against, namely fair competition (I notice that two defeaters reinforce one another since putting everybody on drugs always would run the risk of damaging their health).

    Now fair competition is not a strong against agaisnt the use of substances in the arts for even though artists might be said to compete for attention or other social goods, what is primarily the subject of the competition are the artworks themselves, not the artists. Insofar as the competition does not extend over the making-of process of the works all the way back to the artist’s actions, there is little reason to regard fair competition as a reason against drugs. This contrasts with the competition in the sports, where the activity of doing the sport here and now in a competitive setup is obviously in the scope of the competition, hence of the fairness idea.

    Furthermore, there is a reason specific to the arts in favour of substances: the creative process artists go through might be emotionnally demanding. One the one hand, creativity requires used of imagination, and imagination is a reliable trigger of emotions; on the other hand, creativity requires a certain level of courage and boldness which substances might help artists with. Reasonable use of substances might help artists have enough emotions to get starting, but not enough to lose control. Substances thus might be key for emotional control. This contrasts with the sports, where emotional control seems either irrelevant or to fall within the scope of the competition itself.

  4. Art is concerned with creating something, a work of art. A work of art is more important than the way it is created this means the artist is secondary to her creation. The fact an artist uses drugs is of secondary importance. Perhaps it wouldn’t even matter if a genuine work of art was produced by a robot. The same is not true of sport. Sportsmen are every bit as important, if not more important, than their achievements. A robot achieving a world record would be meaningless. Sport matters because sport allows sportsmen to demonstrate particular virtues. If this was not so disabled sport would be second rate and the para-Olympic games pointless. It might be objected that sportsmen create something, create records. But this creation is not like creating a work of art. Once created a work of art continues to have value. A sporting record loses its value once it is broken. I deal with sportsmen and drug enhancement in my posting of 28/02/12 in wooler.scottus.

  5. Art is not a game. Art is about creating something You don’t say, Pablo Picasso beat Rembrandt by 27 points. Contests have rules of fair play. Making cool stuff does not.

    1. Matheus De Pietro

      Replying to both Ralf’s and John’s posts.

      What kind of art are we talking about? Throughout Antiquity and way into the 18th century art was, to a great extent, a competition with acknowledged winners and losers. One example is the public competition between Parrhasius and Zeuxis, but it is also easy to find examples of this at any point of the Renaissance.

      It’s obvious, however, that the Anke is referring to contemporary conceptions of art and sportsmanship. The point stands, though. Instead of “competition”, a better approach for the argument might be that sports are considered a sort of science, while art is not. In sports, just like we do in a lab, results are expected to have some form of homogeneity and reproducibility, e.g. “if twelve people of the same gender, weight, and constitution compete by running against each other, in twelve tracks with the exact length and texture, the result is that /this/ one is the best runner”. That is, if all are put under the same conditions, you can determine which one is the best.

      That reasoning complements Sandberg’s, I think. Cognitive enhancement of students is problematic because we expect the class to be under somewhat homogeneous factors (for various reasons: some grading systems are not absolute but proportional to the rest of the class; or the student’s final grade can be publicly consulted by an employer and thus compared to the others’, and so on), which could be the same reason why enhancement in sports is seen as outrageous. That might not be case of artists. The problem, as always, is making the conventions explicit – or else, I think, public opinion will tend to overlap and confuse one with the other, putting everything in the same umbrella and hindering the debate on every sort of enhancement.

  6. The problem, as always, is making the conventions explicit – or else, I think, public opinion will tend to overlap and confuse one with the other, putting everything in the same umbrella and hindering the debate on every sort of enhancement.

    Not the least bit. No matter which conventions people adopt or how explicit they make them, certain types of situations will still be assessable for fairness and some others won’t. If fairness matters for competition (a fact about what we value, and not about what we agree to value) and if use of substances undermine fairness in situations of competition (a fact about how what we value bears to what we do, still no a fact about what we agree to recognize as the relation that our values bear to our activities), then there is a prima facie reason not to accept substances in these situations.

    Talk of convention stems from conflating values with conventions constitutive of social situations which bear those values.

    1. Matheus De Pietro

      I believe we are saying something similar. You mention “in these situations” and that is what I mean. An issue occurs when the criteria used to oppose enhancement in sports are applied to, say, science and the military, or any other field where uniformity of competition does not play a significant role.

      To put it simply: it is self-evident that an Olympic athlete should be considered a cheater when he uses enhancers to win a medal. But is it cheating to use enhancers to make scientific progress? The answer to that question does not come as quickly since the conventions of the field are not as evident.

  7. We are not saying something similar insofar as I am not conflating values with conventions nor values with bearers of values. But for the rest, maybe, who knows.

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