The use of drugs in works of art has always been a controversial idea. Most famously, perhaps, the Young British Artist Damien Hirst filled cabinets with pharmaceuticals in his work entitled Medicine Cabinets. Hirst believes that art and drugs can both heal, but that the latter can also warp or damage the way we think; resulting in very unusual methods of creating artwork.
The cabinets, recently shown in Hirst’s mid-career retrospective at the Tate Modern, encompass the artist’s major themes of life and death. Pharmaceuticals temporarily keep the inevitability of illness or death at a safe distance and preserve life. Hirst lined up the drugs in a particular order to look aesthetically pleasing, and gave each cabinet a name from the tracks on the Sex Pistols 1977 debut album. The random titles only added to the curiosity of the whole piece.
Hirst is all too familiar with the power drugs hold over the human body. He often became a “babbling wreck” after consuming copious amounts of cocaine and alcohol during his days as Brit-Art’s raucous working-class lad from Leeds. The cabinets were personal and illustrated how the chaos of Hirst’s intoxicated mind could be controlled. Many critics dislike his crude and gruesome works, but for many, Hirst represented a new kind of art in Britain.
It was during the 90s when Hirst ascended to become the most famous and richest artist in the world. The last decade of the twentieth century saw new wealth, and a society wishing to break from old traditions. The Young British Artists, a group in which Hirst belonged, created modern consumer art for the new consumer society. People were shocked by his dead shark and baffled by the dot paintings, but he began to represent the “cultural consciousness of our times”. Arguably, his art became the drug which the rich and rebellious became addicted to.
Other artists have taken it further. For example Bryan Lewis Saunders created a series of self-portraits, drawing each one whilst taking different legal and illegal substances. The result was a wide range of incredibly vivid and often disturbing paintings. Saunders believes the drugs allow for creative stimulation and reduce self awareness. But he wasn’t proud of the experiment, claiming that he thought drugs made him look “ugly”. He was actually hospitalised with brain damage at one point; and all in the name of art.