Have you noticed how the words that describe the consuming pleasures of life are always short, harsh and graceless? For instance, “food”. Is that not an ugly word? Is it really right to describe monkfish with crown prince gnocchi, mussels and black radish as “food”? Does “food” do justice to that experience? “Drink” is another one. A word that ought to feel like the slow swirl around your tongue of some Mas de Daumas Gassac that was opened three hours ago, and has now reached its perfect evening temperature, feels instead as if someone is hitting your fingertips with a wooden coat hanger. Drink. Ouch.
Surely the worst, however, the harshest, the least onomatopoeic of these pleasure-killing fly swats of Anglo-Saxon guilt vocab is “drugs”. Just saying it makes your face snarl. Somewhere up in heaven, the emaciated zombie with warts charged with coming up with these verbal smile-crushers probably lets out an evil hiss of satisfaction every time he hears his masterpiece being aired. Drugs. Why not lose the final vestiges of pretence and just call them “dregs”?
In a sharp semantic contrast, the new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection about the influence of drugs on human creativity has decided to call itself High Society — a weakish pun, but a title that will not scare anyone off, and that succeeds even in adding a drizzle of eau de princesse to the promised proceedings. High Society? Wasn’t Grace Kelly in that? Indeed she was. Alongside Frank Sinatra.
Now, I know nothing about Kelly’s drug tastes, or where they led her, but I do know she had some, because everybody does. If you’ve drunk alcohol, sipped coffee, smoked a cigarette, taken a sleeping tablet or sprinkled chilli on your curry, you have sampled “drugs”.
It’s the first point the show makes in the busy opening display, A Universal Impulse. All societies have a history of drug use, from kava to cava, khat to ketamine. Whether they admit to it or not is, of course, another matter.
The first cabinet you see is packed with extraordinary sculptural evidence of drug use through the ages — from betel-nut crushers shaped like buxom females to elaborately carved hookah pipes; from creative crack-smoking equipment made from old Coke tins to sullen pop-art ashtrays, with matching packs of fags. When it comes to ways of consuming and preparing drugs, human beings have been mightily creative through the ages. No argument there.
The situation grows more complex, however, when deciding what actually constitutes drug use. If we prefer not to classify alcohol as a drug, that is our societal prero gative. But it clearly is one. Alcohol alters moods; it’s addictive; various complex rituals have grown up around its use. It’s a drug, a particularly dangerous one. In the 1920s, when the Americans tried banning it, they succeeded only in enlarging the problem, as a telling section of the show titled A Sin, a Crime, a Vice or a Disease? makes obvious. The citizens of Chicago began to smuggle hooch in hollowed-out cigars. Al Capone came along. Good people went bad. Bad people got rich. Banning alcohol made everything worse.
High Society enjoys highlighting the close friendship between drugs and hypocrisy when it notices it. Which is often. In the 18th century, the use of opium was already illegal in China: the Chinese had spent 4,000 years witnessing the harmful effects of addiction. But the British needed a lucrative new cash crop to grow in India, so our foreign secretary, Lord Palmerston, began questioning the “illegitimate barrier to free trade” that was the Chinese opium ban, then bombed them into rescinding it. Opium-growing in India duly became one of the empire’s most lucrative trades. And we wonder why the rest of the world doesn’t vote for us at Eurovision.
As a contemporary response to the opium wars, the Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping gives us the exhibition’s biggest sculpture, a huge opium pipe not much shorter than a railway platform, at the sucking end of which lies a fallen statue of Palmerston. The statue’s pose is familiar. It’s the one adopted by fallen statues of demagogues and dictators throughout history, whether they be Lenin or Saddam Hussein, Papa Doc or Nicolae Ceausescu. Proud, regal, oblivious, the fallen statue never realises its time has passed, even when it is lying on its back in a ditch. Thus, a show I expected to be about the impact of mind-altering substances on human creativity turns out to have another agenda: to question contemporary attitudes to drugs and warn us of their consequences. Although there are plenty of actual artworks scattered throughout — paintings, photographs, film pieces — the exhib ition is best experienced as a single installation, or cabinet of curiosities, in which every displayed object has artistic potential.
Indeed, the influence of exactly this kind of display on contem porary art is one of the show’s unintended revelations. If you saw the sinister display case filled with 19th-century cough medicines based on opium and heroin at the Turner Prize, instead of here, you would surely not feel it to be out of place. Ayer’s Cherry Pectoral, Dr Seth Arnold’s Cough Killer, Glyco-Heroin for Coughs and my own favourite, Royal Infants’ Preservative — all contained enough lau danum to silence the final gasps of an expiring elephant. Yet all were advertised with cute babies, sweet swallows, pretty flowers. Drug pedlars have always been skilled at sugaring their pills.
All this is fascinating. And it all rings bells. Certainly, the large and boisterous crowd tsunami-ing through High Society when I visited knew plenty already about the use of drugs. They came in more shapes and sizes than is usually acknowledged, too, and a far wider age range. Judging by the giggles I heard emanating from a squad of visiting American grannies, there is little here that is actually a surprise. Presidents may claim never to have inhaled, but most of their modern voters obviously have.
So, as an entertaining line of dope-smoking propaganda, with useful societal accusation cut in, High Society works uncommonly well. Where it fails to soar is in the quality of the named artworks on show. Given that the whole point of drug use is to achieve a change in your state of mind, it is unfortunate that — on this evidence at least — modern art has reached so few creative highs that owe their origins to drugs.
Only two of the art pieces really lit my chillum. The first, and darkest, was a series of grainy photographs devoted to crack, taken by Keith Coventry. Crack is another of those short, sharp, terrifying words that, in this case, fully justifies its harshness. On a large white table, Coventry shows us small, grubby clusters of an indeterminate substance wrapped in clingfilm. I have never seen crack, but presume this to be it, in its quotidian state. It’s like coming across a photo of Satan in his Y-fronts: so much evil reduced to such feeble banality. Also effective was a 1966 BBC film of Alice in Wonderland, directed by Jonathan Miller. There we all were, thinking Alice’s journey down the rabbit hole was a literary fabrication for children, when all along, according to Miller, it was a vivid description of a really weird acid trip, man, taken by a spaced-out British chick.