Cannabis and Art; nothing new.

The history of cannabis use is long and often convoluted. Hemp use goes back thousands of years, in Japan for example it can be traced back to the Jomon Period (8000 to 300 BC) where it was used in the fabrication of clothing and more. As a psychoactive substance, cannabis use just as dated, its origin being traced to Asia first, and its use as a spiritual or shamanistic tool seemingly originating in ancient China. If cannabis has been used to conjure visions by wise leaders or spiritual figures of ancient history, perhaps this can help us understand why in more modern times cannabis has formed such a strong relationship with art, being favoured by writers, painters, sculptors, actors or musicians as a powerful inspirational tool.

This relationship is not remarkably recent. In South Africa, forensic scientists have discovered cannabis on pipes discovered in Shakespeare’s garden, suggesting the most famous poet of the English language himself indulged in pot for inspiration. While in the Netherlands, celebrated painter Adriaen Brouwer (who lived 1606-1638) was a known consumer of cannabis, or a “toeback-drinker” a then current term for spliff smoker, even depicting it in his paintings. This practise was popular among Brouwers artistic circle.

A work by 17 century Flemish painter Joos Van Craesbeeck

More modern examples of the relationship between cannabis and art are more confidently recorded. Baudelaire, the famous French writer, has written of the drug’s effect that “The most ordinary words, the simplest ideas assume a new and bizarre aspect.”

Baudelaire came in contact with cannabis, in a round about way, as a result of Napolean’s invasion of Egypt. This act of colonialism would bring the plant back to Europe from Egypt (where hashish smoking was already very popular, as a matter of act cannabis pollen was discovered on the mummy of Ramesses II) and would begin its popularization amongst European audiences throughout the 1800s. The plants use as drug seems to have become first popular in France with artists, bohemians and intellectuals. Its use is especially well recorded (by nature of the medium presumably) within Baudelaire’s literary community, having been popular with Dumas, Victor Hugo, (philosopher) Gautier, and other highly influential figures in French literature. And not just in french literature either, around the world writers seemed to grow fond of Cannabis, including the famous Irish poet Yeats and American writer Louisa May Alcott (who penned Little Women) who wrote “"Heaven bless hashish, if its dreams end like this!"

In the 20th century, cannabis use and its inspiration on radical art movements is well recorded, open knowledge. Salvador Dali may have famously said “I don’t do drugs, I am drugs.”, but the paintings of the surrealist movement he godfathered are psychedelic staples, posters of which still adorn the walls of head-shops today. In the “roaring 20’s”, weed or “tea” became a popular drug in certain circles in America. Pot became, and continues to be, a preferred drug of musicians, specifically jazz musicians. 

Louis Armstrong, relaxing.

Dr. James Munch, a pharmacologist who worked studying the effects of marijuana and a racist man who, alongside Harry Anslinger, helped kickstart its prohibition, said this of its effects “If you’re a musician, you’re going to play the thing the way it’s printed on a sheet. But if you’re using marijuana, you’re going to work in about twice as much music between the first note and the second note. That’s what made jazz musicians. The idea that they could jazz things up, liven them up, you see.” Ironically he saw this as a negative, but it’s the very reason it became so popular as an inspirational tool for “vipers”, or jazz artists who used cannabis. 

Louis Armstrong appreciated the drug for “The warmth it always brought forth from the other person. Especially the ones that lit up a good stick of that ‘shuzzit’ or gage…” And Dizzy Gillespie is quoted as saying “Jazz musicians, the old ones and the young ones, almost all of them that I knew smoked pot, but I wouldn’t call that drug abuse.” Dizzy’s observation would prove increasingly true, it’s hard to find an important musician in the 20th century who hasn’t found inspiration in the sweet smoke. Pot would find its way into all forms of music, making it hard to ignore its role in popular music, period. 

The popularity of the drug seems amongst the swarms of new artists that popped up throughout the 20th century is impossible to ignore. Through the conservative war and post war period the drugs use was necessarily behind closed doors, but in 1948 when Robert Mitchum was pulled over by highway patrol and arrested for possession of cannabis, his popularity only grew, marking a huge change of public opinion. Then in the sixties the counter culture movement exploded. In film, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda supposedly spent a large chunk of their budget for Easy Rider on pot, which features a famous scene where the characters share a joint and discuss its effects. In art, psychedelia and pop were in vogue, like in the works of Peter Max or Andy Warhol who is quoted as saying "I smoke pot because I want to go to heaven before I die". This movement is reflected in the fashion styles that became popular on the streets of London or San Francisco. A new generation helped further the destigmatization of pot, seeing cannabis for its healing powers, and its benefits as a tool for creativity. 

Gram Parsons in his Mary Jane suit.

I’ll end this brief history of cannabis here, though of course cannabis would continue, and still does, to influence art forms around the world, from hip hop to modern art. It would be a long task to trace all the influence cannabis has had on art and this article is of course neglecting so much of its history around the world, so take it as a quick exploration. Check back in on this blog in the future for more explorations on cannabis’ relationship with art’s storied history.

At High Art, we are strong believers in the power of pot as a creative tool. Our Ceci n'est pas un bong series was a (successful) attempt at collaborating with established and emerging, Montreal based painters, bringing them into the cannabis accessories world. Everyones relationship with this plant is different. For some it mellows them out and for others it’s a great stimulant, for some it makes them see clearly and for others it makes the mind race from one topic to the next. Whether a tool for introspection or performance, weed has clearly had a long and continuing effect on all our modern art forms. So pull out your pipe, or bong, or a good old fashioned joint and see if you can catch a little bit of the inspiration for yourself.

August 10, 2018 by Kristian North