Is addiction good for art?

22:33, Apr 12 2012
Amy Winehouse
THE TRADE-OFF: I'd rather Amy Winehouse was happy and alive, even if it means I would never have heard her voice.

Did you have a crush on Colin Farrell ten years ago?

For a while there, Farrell was what Ryan Gosling is today - the epitome of smouldering manhood, getting women of every age hot under the collar with his brooding gaze and his husky Irish accent.

We first noticed him in 2002, when he appeared in blockbusters Minority Report and Phone Booth. The following year, he stole the spotlight from Ben Affleck as Bullseye in Daredevil, then in 2004 he played Alexander the Great opposite Angelina Jolie.

But far more interesting than his onscreen genre-hopping were his off-camera antics. The rehab stay, the sex tape, the swearing, the women (including, in a match made in tabloid heaven, Britney Spears) and, most of all, the drinking.

We all knew that Farrell was an alcoholic, but we didn't hold it against him. In fact, we loved him for it. It was all part of his bad boy charm.

After a while, Farrell dropped out of the spotlight. I didn't think much of it (I'd probably replaced my Bullseye poster with a Maroon 5 one or something by that stage), but it turns out he was quietly doing what lovable drunks often do - giving up.


This week Farrell proudly told talk show host Ellen DeGeneres that he'd been sober for seven years.

Putting down the bottle was hard, he said, and not just for the usual reasons (extreme physical addiction and so forth).

"I was terrified that whatever my capacity was as an actor beforehand, however little or large - it would completely disappear," Farrell admitted.

Judging by his hilarious turn in Horrible Bosses last year, I'd say he has nothing to worry about.

But it raised an interesting question: Can alcohol really aid creativity? And can giving up destroy it?

I wish it weren't so, but I think the answer to both questions is: Absolutely.

Any recovering addict will tell you that their substance of choice influenced every facet of their lives, from health to jobs to relationships. How could it not have a massive impact on creative output?

The experience of being enslaved to a substance, with all the despair and desperation and self-hatred that accompanies it, has made for some of the most raw, compelling art of all time.

Would Hemingway's work have been so passionate without alcohol? Would Kurt Cobain have been able to capture the essence of pain and self-hatred without heroin? I doubt it.

And, extreme addiction aside, the mere experience of having one's mind altered by a substance can trigger huge, life-long changes in perception. The Beatles' Sgt Pepper, voted the greatest album of all time by Rolling Stone, could never have existed without LSD.

But what happens when the physical and emotional strain of substance abuse becomes too much? Was Farrell right to worry that his creativity would suffer?

I think the biggest risk, in his case, was that he simply wouldn't want to act anymore. Addiction acts like a vortex, pulling everything else in the addict's life towards it.

When you kick the habit, and fulfilling that need is no longer a daily priority, everything else in your life will change too. Chances are, you'll start to care about different things.

Maybe - and this is total speculation - Farrell's work used to give him a sense of security in his otherwise turbulent life. If that was the case, then it was entirely possible that he just wouldn't need it anymore after he quit drinking.

The fact that Farrell managed to quit despite his fears is a huge testament to him. But what really impressed me was that, by giving up the drink, he was rejecting the persona (rowdy Irish lad) that he was known and loved for.

When we put celebrities on a pedestal for their addictions - not just their art - we must make it a million times harder for them to quit.

Yesterday, I saw someone wearing a T-shirt with this Hunter S. Thompson quote emblazoned on it: "I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they've always worked for me."

It's a funny quote. But it made me think - what if Thompson had wanted to give up? What if (as his eventual suicide seems to suggest) he was actually quite unhappy?

Imagine going through the living hell of recovery only to have your fan base turn against you. I don't know if I'd be strong enough to do it.

I'm a big fan of Thompson - and I'm a big fan of Cobain and of Amy Winehouse, as this gushing review attests. They've all given me a lot of pleasure. But I'd still rather they were happy, alive and addiction-free - even if it means I would never have heard their voices.