In November last year Lars Von Trier said that he was in treatment for drug and alcohol addiction and that he did not think he was able to make good films anymore.
He said “There is no creative expression of artistic value that has ever been produced by ex-drunkards and ex-drug-addicts”.
In a recent interview he announced his relapse, blaming it on the need to work.
There is a public fascination for the image of the self-destructive creative genius who is also an addict. Musicians like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, writers like Ernest Hemingway or actors like Richard Burton are just some examples.
The legendary artist also carries a few well known labels: unhappy, self-destructive and addicted.
Is this a stereotype or is substance abuse essential to creativity?
Better, Sharper, Sober
David Bowie released his legendary Berlin trilogy of albums after kicking his cocaine addiction and moving to Berlin. There he recorded the albums “Low” and “Heroes” which are often cited as his most accomplished and mature works.
In a recently uncovered interview from 1966, Bob Dylan talks about recovering from a heroin addiction. It was after kicking his addiction that Dylan released singles like Like A Rolling Stone and albums like Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. The list of musicians goes on and on, with the likes of Alice Cooper or rappers like Eminem and Macklemore.
Actors like Anthony Hopkins and Drew Barrymore reinvented themselves after years of battling alcohol and drug addiction respectively. And poets like Raymond Carver and Jim Carrol have chronicled their addiction and written some of their best work upon reaching sobriety.
Fear Is the Fuel for Addiction
But where does this supposed link between addiction and creativity come from? Why are creative types drawn towards alcohol and drug abuse?
Castle Craig therapist Chris Burn says it is not the need for creativity that leads to addiction but the fear of losing it.
He said that “many creatively talented people have a fear of losing their talent and this leads them into addiction. Certainly some of the sedative drugs like alcohol or heroin initially loosen up the inhibitions which may enhance the creative process, but later they have a deadening effect”.
Recovery through Creativity
Creativity can be what drives people away from addiction.
American screenwriter Aaron Sorkin talked about his fear of losing creativity after getting sober. Nowadays it’s his craft that keeps him sober. “Opportunity and free time are the biggest temptations,” he says.
After checking out of rehab, a sober and enthusiastic Sorkin turned his career around. He wrote the multi Emmy award-winning drama The West Wing and the successful films The Social Network and Moneyball.
Recovery is what can ignite or re-ignite creativity in both creative and non-creative types alike. Christopher Burn believes that recovery “opens up the mind to new ideas and helps changing from a passive to a proactive attitude.”
“Good recovery, which implies a sense of well being, gratitude for a second chance at life and general enthusiasm with one’s very existence should, in my view provide the right conditions for considerable creativity”.
Great art did come from those who kicked their addiction and it still does. We can see that recovery is friend and muse to creativity, not foe and grim reaper. As far as Von Trier’s dread of losing his touch, it is that dread itself that got him drinking again. We might never know if his creativity would have resurged in recovery.
Photo: Ernest Hemingway
Page last reviewed and medically fact-checked | April 24, 2015