BY SARAH ROSENTHAL
Why boredom and cynicism are preferable to drugs.
In high school I — a student as enthusiastic about those four years as Daria Morgendorffer — gave tours as a Student Ambassador. I remember one tour when an enthusiastic parent, noticing the AP Art class’s work in the hallway, stated about one particularly colorful piece, “Wow, he must have been on some kind of drugs to think of that.” It was infuriating.
I hear frequently about the association between art and drugs, and I’m tired of it. Because the connection between the two surpasses mere explorations of the “doors of perception” and the outer limits of the human mind, and it warrants more serious conversations about recreational drug usage in the arts. Though I know little about why Philip Seymour Hoffman, Heath Ledger, Amy Winehouse, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jimi Hendrix, and numerous others each got into drugs, I feel confident saying that we shouldn’t dismiss their drug use as necessary to their creative processes. Perhaps they had spelled out justifications to themselves, and acknowledged risks, and saw the potential spiritual and artistic benefits as aspects of life that one shouldn’t miss. This may be so, but to push the devastation of addiction and death aside in the name of art and even, in my opinion, “transcendent” experiences is, in fact, pitiful.
But my purpose here is not to re-hash a Requiem for a Dream vision of the horrors of drugs and to restate dangers we have all either acknowledged or chosen to ignore (perhaps with a sad shrug when a drug-related death occurs). And I know that many people understand that different drugs carry widely-varying risks of harm and addiction, but that is not really the point here. Believe it or not, even those who consciously know the risks are susceptible to bad one-time decisions with long-lasting negative effects. And it may be especially true for those whose professions or statuses automatically place them in the often inappropriately celebrated pairing of “artists and drugs.” For this reason, I here refer to “drugs” in general, knowing entirely that the same drugs associated with enhanced creativity are not necessarily those most likely to kill. At this moment, I am more concerned with the concept of drugs and how they relate to the concept of art.
So instead of repeating warnings or words of regret, let’s think about how an outright rejection of drugs benefits art. I don’t mean to consider it as a life passively free of drugs and still productive. Rather, a life in which you actively deny them to yourself, as though they are constantly in your pocket and you chose never to ingest them. Not for ethical reasons or the avoidance of risk, but for certain benefits. It is obviously unrealistic to think that people will stop using drugs altogether and that such a method of abstinence is the correct way to eliminate the diverse losses and conflicts brought about drug use. But with frequent praise of drugs’ ability to enhance creativity circulating the internet, a disgustingly seductive media outlet, a conversation about the creative benefits of sobriety — even in sobriety’s darkest corners — can broaden the way we consider our relationships to drugs.
First, pushing aside the mental, physical, and legal dangers of drugs for a moment, let’s think about what life is like without chemical and conceptual drugs. It can be painfully boring. Maybe it perpetuates cynicism, showing the intelligent how disgusting life can be and giving little escape from the horrors humanity brings upon itself. Maybe it is mentally unadventurous, and maybe it prevents certain challenges that, once overcome, leave an individual more fulfilled. Maybe it is a life that can neither experience the highest peaks of happiness nor create the most horrifyingly, unbelievably beautiful products of human effort.
To put it simply, the highest forms of sobriety are boredom and cynicism. And in my opinion, these are the characteristics that make art intelligent, far-reaching, and fundamentally human. They are the parents of observation and critical thought. Boredom and cynicism give us the moments when we present honesty. They force individuals to confront truth and to think about the place of negativity in our lives. They are useful for the very fact of their sobriety and discomfort. Because they are necessarily situations that make us reevaluate who we are, what we value, the reality we are upset with, and the ways we wish things were. Moments of boredom are entirely personal; they remind us of how slowly time can go by and how many sounds are constantly in the air around us. Boredom is the form of annoyance that occurs merely due to an absence of anything else to occupy the mind.
The fascinating thing about the banal is the fact that its banality itself becomes beautiful when confronted head on. It can be a difficult idea to accept, but having spent a long time now considering my relationship to the banal, the ultimate in the non-remarkable, I can confidently say that it is fascinating. We are surrounded by objects whose materials, which may have traveled immense distances, arrived here as a result of complex political relationships between nations. Consider the chairs arranged neatly around the tables in your dining hall. Their components have been ripped from their origins and manipulated into unrecognizable forms, or else were born out of humanity’s tendency to play God. They have designs that supposedly cater to psychological and physical comfort. They were easily reproducible and in theory are entirely the same as one another, but each has an entirely different history, with different stains and strains. They occupy such specific locations in space, and move forward and backward repeatedly in a frenetic dance. And most interestingly, we sit on them daily and are entirely bored by them. They are so boring that you would have to be thoroughly bored yourself to find beauty and value in them without prompting.
Cynicism works similarly. It accompanies critical thought and arises out of efforts to approach ideas from varying angles. Contrary to simplified understandings, cynicism is not about rejecting those things that make others feel comfortable for the sake of being contrary. Rather, the goal is to reject the affectations, corruption, and complacencies that riddle society and lead to make it possible to identify significant beauty. Much of the 20th century art that examines the human condition along entirely new — if frequently hermetic — terms stems from knowledge of the devastation that occurred after World War II and the understanding that complacency is no longer an option. As Theodor Adorno stated, “To make poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Seeing the world through brutally honest, cynical lenses calls for a re-evaluation of beauty itself. And the ability to discern and define beauty according to new terms, tuned to the utter destruction humanity often brings upon itself, results in art that is aware of our humanity in its boring, hideous glory. Because when it comes down to it, the ugliness of human atrocities makes the “ugly” of traditional aesthetic terms into nothing less pleasant than the acquired taste of anchovies.
Of course, the world is never going to replace its drug use with an appreciation for the beauty of the boring. And drugs will continue to play a devastating effect on many people for many reasons while bringing some enjoyment to others. When all is said and done, though, our society could do with a re-evaluation of art and drugs as a pair. But that’s just the cynic in me talking.
Sarah Rosenthal ’15 ([email protected]) is deeply sad at the loss of another great performer.