With the death of the wonderful Amy Winehouse over the weekend, I am not alone in writing about addiction and the battle of the artistic mind to find its ‘flow’. Creative sensibility combined with addictive substances has extinguished many a talent. The work survives and is often glorified more when the star that produced it fades out. We are not invincible, nor do we use only 20% of our brains, but in our attempts to heighten an experience, life itself is often the sacrifice.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi founded this idea of ‘flow’: “an automatic, effortless, yet highly focused state of consciousness,” from which great art is produced. He hypothesised that these moments of flow occur because we’re simply activating too many neurological functions. We no longer have the capacity to be aware of which functions we’re engaging in. The ‘conscious me’ part of the brain shuts down, awareness slips away and one just does. The adage “learn the theory, forget it and then create” can be applied to most great works of art. Michelangelo is said to have painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel until his boots had to be cut off his rotting feet. This is extreme, but you can’t get into any type of ‘flow’ if you’re thinking too much about the end product, the way you look or anything that your mind is trying to tell you.
There is a certain type of energy behind good art that makes it hit the mainstream without a zillion dollar backing and a store full of abstracted products. It separated Amy Winehouse from the X Factor winners, and the original trio of The Sugar Babes with what they are today. Over-conscious work is often contrived and ineffectual. But to tap into or maintain ‘flow’ can be a mind-altering experiment into obscurity.
Amy Winehouse’s album Back to Black, among many other great albums, was inspired and written in a burst of energy over heartbreak. The creative process is painful. But pain initiates the necessity to create. I doubt Tracy Emin’s recent show All You Need Is Love would have been made — let alone praised — if she was a happily married, clean living East ender.
The danger can be in association and habit. Schiller, on a less destructive trip, kept rotting apples beneath the lid of his desk when he was composing poetry. But if your breakthrough album was born from crippling heartache, then does some other catastrophe have to push you to the edge before another great song can be written? When there is none, how do you break the ennui and agitation of every-day life to access pure, energised inspiration?
An essential part of dancing is improvisation. Instinctive movements are as important as learning any routine; the two must marry for a great performance. The same goes for writing and painting. Off-loading your consciousness onto a scrap of paper before you start the opening paragraph can help focus the mind on the task literally at hand. The phrase “being at one with things’ is a metaphor of Csikszentmihalyi’s flow concept. Practitioners of the varied schools of Zen Buddhism apply similar concepts to aid their mastery of art forms. In yogic traditions, reference is made to a state of ‘flow’ as a way to access concentration.
Yet some of the greatest art has been produced in the meditative or lucid state brought about from substances. One of the most famous is Samuel Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, written after he had fallen asleep on a dose of laudanum. Considered as a fragment of a dream by many (as he only had time to write the first 50 lines of the 250 that originally came to him before being disturbed), it is also a poem about the fragility of inspiration:
“A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail…”
Changing our consciousness with drugs has a history as old as human kind itself. It seems we are always trying to heighten our experiences in the name of experimentation, inspiration or as a means to toughen a sensitive disposition. This of course can lead to addiction and disaster, tragically with those that now live on in the ’27 club’ (Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Amy Winehouse) or to more thankful losses explained away by those that survive, like Noel Gallagher: “We lost the album down the drug dealer’s”.