Artists Are Drug-Taking Heroes. Athletes Inspire with Sobriety.

Why does our belief in the ability of drugs to enhance the achievements of artists stop with artists? Isn't reaching new physical heights just as inspiring as a lyric that tells us some truth creatively?

As someone who dabbles in the arts myself, I find it disheartening each time the media glorify a famous artist who's gone off the rails due to drugs and alcohol. The most recent example that comes to mind is Amy Winehouse, though that probably marks me a little behind the times (sorry, grad school happened). As the sad joke goes, the sale price of an artist's work jumps as soon as he or she passes on. And when that demise is a result of substance abuse, a famous artist becomes legendary.


When famous athletes like Lance Armstrong use drugs, on the other hand, they are sued endlessly by tournaments and competitions who want to recoup millions of dollars in prize winnings. So why does our belief in the ability of drugs to enhance the achievements of artists stop with artists? There is apparently some barrier in the mind that is transcended when an artist takes drugs, so why don't we allow athletes to transcend their physical limitations? Isn't reaching new physical heights just as inspiring (at least for some) as a lyric that tells us some truth creatively?

Anke Snoek, who studies the ways that drug addiction affects our moral self-valuations, argues that a society always needs heroes, but different kinds of heroes for different occasions. She explains the difference between the artist and athlete drug binge over at Oxford University's Practical Ethics:

In a sportsperson, we admire discipline, and very controlled behavior — 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 behavior, independence from societal norms, and originality.

Snoek argues that doping in the arts isn't considered doping because, ultimately, it doesn't really help. Artists who begin abusing drugs and alcohol, rather than using them to self-medicate, typically meet unfortunate ends. We treat the body and the mind differently, says Snoek, and the self-medicating of artists doesn't help one run faster or jump higher — just get higher.

In his Big Think interview, American novelist and National Book Award-winning author Robert Stone explains why literature itself functions like a drug, altering our state of consciousness, letting in the artist who shares his or her altered state with us (whether it's drug-inspired or not).

Read more at Practical Ethics.

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