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Addiction and art: Where do you think that tenth glass of whisky is leading you?

Santanu Borah dwells on a subject that has been contentious across history: do spirits and contrabands help you make that masterpiece?

Like the average individual I like to socialise. In these social events the discussion does veer towards art, though that happens rarely. A large part of socialising, often, results in mild drunken arguments. Sometimes, it can get heated, but that happens in parties when Ph.Ds in nothing seem to act like Ph.Ds in everything. A common thread in such passionate conversations seem to be that artists and addiction go hand in hand. You cannot blame anyone because, well, artists are fine examples of inebriation and addiction. Nobody ever talks about the addictions of stock brokers, doctors or priests. The reason could be that an artist driving under the influence on their canvasses do come up with rather drunken stuff, but not all of it is good. Especially their livers take a real beating.


A fine example of inebriation would be F N Souza, an artist revered by many and reviled by a few. His reputation as the enfant terrible of Indian art precedes him, but that is not because of his relationship with alcohol. That label has entirely to do with his general demeanour and rebellious attitude. Because he dared to join the Quit India Movement.

An article in the Christies website, has this to say about Souza:

By the end of the 1950s, despite great professional success, Souza had developed a reputation as a lothario and a reprobate. It was about that time, says Edwin Mullins (the art critic), that drink began to be a serious problem, too: “He took to drinking continuously almost every day, was rarely sober, and a little more drunk month by month, until his craving for alcohol became insatiable.”

Having grown bored, dissatisfied and increasingly dissolute, Souza decided to stop drinking in 1960. Although Mullins argues that sobriety did not have a ‘deep influence’ on his work, it did gain in ‘strength and vitality’: his pictures ‘show a greater freedom from the formal techniques and repetitive themes which had tended to over-stylise his work’. While there is often passion in his earlier work, Mullins adds, ‘there was seldom movement as well’.


Make what you will of this, for there are those who prefer the drunken Souza to the sober Souza. The fact remains that his productivity was far higher when he gave up his poison. It is true that his years in America were far happier and colourful. Whatever the individual view might be, the fact is that Souza decided to go cold turkey and reinvent himself. Most importantly, this decision helped him live till the relatively old age of 77. Not everyone is a Charles Bukowski. He flaunted his alcoholism and still managed to write and live till the age of 73. The writer was aptly known as the ‘laureate of American lowlife’.

Vincent van Gogh wasn’t so lucky, though he wrote to his brother that drinking alcohol and coffee was essential in getting that finest hue of yellow. He even admitted to his beloved brother that drinking might have escalated his descent into insanity. While we cannot extricate the drinking from his art, the truth is the man committed suicide at the age of 37. Today, there are sceptics who believe that he did not commit suicide but was shot after a brawl. We will never know. However, I believe that if van Gogh would have survived his own mind and the ensuing dependence on alcohol, he would have created far more complex works of art. But that is just my opinion.


It didn’t help that van Gogh’s “friend” and mentor, Paul Gauguin, was also an excellent tippler. Their drunken arguments about the right direction in art resulted in van Gogh chopping off his ear, repercussions of which can be felt even today. Especially in the meme culture. That meme of van Gogh being unable to wear a mask during the current pandemic is a classic.


Amadeo Modigliani, that beautiful man, too paid for with his life because of an exceptionally passionate affair with alcohol, hashish and absinthe. He had a propensity for stripping naked at social events after he was inebriated. Couple that with his battle with tuberculosis, and you have a recipe for disaster. He made it only till the age of 35.

The gallery of drunken galivanting includes famous names like Joan Mitchell (who got into fisticuffs after drinking), Pablo Picasso, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Frans Hals (the earliest of the lot), Jackson Pollock, Francis Bacon… well, the list is long. And if you add all the drunken artists who faded away in obscurity, you would probably have a sizeable sample to conduct a decade-long medical study. The question is, does addiction bolster creativity?

First and foremost, one needs to understand that if you are not creative in the first place, no amount of spirit or contraband will magically arouse the creative genius hiding deep within your liver. In fact, if you do not have the talent, neither will sobriety help. So, it is wise to avoid the watering hole and stay alive longer.

While mood-altering substances may loosen you up and help you do stuff without inhibitions, compulsive behaviour might become a blackhole you cannot rescue yourself from.

The truth is all classes of society get into addictions, and artists just happen to be one of them. While some may be productive under the influence, most simply wither away. Narcotics and spirits, when unregulated, saps your energy – a requisite for all work.


It is well established in psychology that addiction is a disease. It is not a wormhole that leads to creativity. David Shenk, in his book The Genius in All of Us: New Insights into Genetics, Talent and IQ, says that brilliance does not arise from risky behaviour. In fact, it cuts short great careers. He adds that extraordinary talent and achievement is “the combined consequence of early exposure, exceptional instruction, constant practice, family nurturance, and a child’s intense will to learn.”

The great writer Scott Fitzgerald had famously said, “First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.” And the drink does not always take you to a place where masterpieces are created. It is just that Modigliani could draw exceptional portraits at the age of 10 because he practiced incessantly and was prodigiously gifted. Not everyone is a Modigliani.

The thing about creative people is that they believe the usual rules of life do not define them and they must break these rules. While this may be good largely, it also allows them to rationalise less than desirable behaviour. That, in turn, can lead to self-destruction.

To conclude, go for a tipple if you must. But don’t let it tickle you so much that you forget what your true mission is. If it is to create art, first you must paint. That cold beer should be an act of relaxation, not aberration or routine. Understand your true mix. Don’t get mixed up.

Now that I am done writing this, I guess I deserve a beer.

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