Opinionista Andrew Miller 28 February 2013

Time for Drinking 101

Every year our minister of finance announces an increase in the sin tax. And then we promptly, and repeatedly, tell our youth that they shouldn't sin. As if the tax applies to another species. We would do more for our emerging generations by actually discussing the sins with them.

It’s common to hear an artist talk about how they discovered God, and how immediately after the discovery their career took off. It’s far less common to hear the same artist admit that they stopped drinking because their new religion forbids it – and that they consequently became more productive, and more generally responsible in their professional lives. Our churches, it seems, are able to seriously (if somewhat tangentially) address subjects like booze and getting high. Our colleges and training organisations, on the other hand, appear completely stricken by the idea.

Our young creatives can benefit a lot – in strict career terms – from knowing how to drink. When to drink. Where to drink. They can also gain a great deal from discussions on the true relationship between weed and creativity and productivity. These are not, however, subjects we address formally. We prefer the easy (for the moment, anyway) route. Students are simply told not to drink at formal functions. They are told to live responsibly. They are given lifestyle and sexual health workshops.

But in taking this path of least resistance are we (the older ones, the educators and mentors) denying our artists important skills? By choosing never to drink with our young talent, are we ducking our own educational responsibility?

Take, for example, the commercial dynamics of the exhibition launch. Much arts business takes place on the Thursday night launch circuit. This is where the industry figures – the buyers, the policy makers, the teachers, the students and the journalists – are reliably found. And what’s true in the real world is true in the arts; often the most fruitful business conversations are the ones where you and your subject are a little bit tipsy. If you have the right kind of sales skills and public persona, a plethora of workday follow-up calls and emails can be put in place on Thursday nights. Alternatively, though, if you end up vomiting on someone important’s shoes in the parking lot you could put your career back by years, decades even.

Knowing how and why to drink on Thursdays is, for young artists, a very important skill. But we don’t teach it. Thus, on the younger side of the city arts scene, Thursday nights are frequently simply free booze nights – a way to socialise and get smashed without any fiscal damage. Precious opportunities to build a career and establish important relationships are left for others.

There have been attempts to deal with the sins and the arts, but they haven’t been very successful. Perhaps most notably, several years ago Hugh Masekela launched an NGO aimed at educating artists about drink, drugs and the realities of living a life amongst flighty entertainment types. He did the PR rounds, offering fascinating insights into his own professional life and the ubiquity of joints, coke, booze and more. The talk show hosts lapped it up, the newspapers ran features and then the whole thing disappeared as fast as it arrived. Why? Well, maybe Bra Hugh’s stories were just too much fun. Intentionally or not, at times his PR looked like it was reinforcing the essential notion that getting drunk and high is a standard part of playing the trumpet, or acting, or painting.

And maybe it actually is. The evidence certainly points in that direction.

Today we take it for granted that the message to our youth should be ‘Don’t do drugs, don’t drink, don’t have wild young adult sex. Be responsible.’ And so this is the kind of thing we roll out – if we roll anything out at all – when lightly skipping over the subject at schools, universities and colleges.

And yet, undeniably, many real-world professionals – the same people teaching our creative youth how to draw and do business and so on – are drinking and smoking and pill popping. We know it, and our students know it. There’s what we teach, and then there’s what we do. Ne?

So kids get high before class, the teachers drink a lot after class, and on we go. Many of our government ministers and commercial heavy hitters drink for death while plucking sushi off naked bellies. Equally, many of our journalists are permanently semi-pickled – it’s how they survive – and many of our professional creatives (singers, DJs, actors, copywriters etc.) live their working lives in the world of clubs, pubs, beers, skunk, pills and bellyaches.

Preaching the morality and general life benefits of abstinence is very, very hard in this context – a context where we tacitly, through our actions, admit a conceptual double play. This troublesome irony is why Hugh Masekela tried to get a conversation going that might help youngsters negotiate the duplicity. It’s also, surely, why his venture failed.

Of course it’s a big mistake to assume every young artist is smoking weed or drinking before class. In any tertiary year you’ll get a pretty even split between the religious, the traditionalists and the party people. To assume that every student is fuzzy-eyed because they’ve been hitting the bottle all night, rather than the Bible, is short sighted. The landscape is complex, and so is the conversation. There cannot, surely, be a one-size-fits-all approach to the hows and whys of drinking, smoking, living and business.

I’ve seen many young creative bucks do sterling work within the white walls of the Goodman or MOMO, glass of cheap red/white in hand. These people seem to understand instinctively that it can help to drink, in order to get things moving, but that one must not drink too much – that retaining control is a professional imperative. If anyone taught them this it was probably their parents. I have certainly never seen a ‘one glass at openings’ module covered in college.

I have, of course, also seen swathes of very talented young creatives fall into the bottom of the bottle, never to return. The stories are ubiquitous across our industry, and are shared by all involved – teachers, seasoned pros and students. And yet, despite all the quiet chatter, talking openly about the reality of booze and drugs is an organisational anathema.

Key among the many pitfalls is the challenge of creating an environment where young people can talk freely about what actually happens in their lives – as opposed to what is supposed to happen, according to social dogma. In my view, the generic workshop is probably the worst place to attempt a drink, drugs or sex discussion. A group morality is imposed within a workshop that is perfect for ‘outing’. A lot of people have been honest in a workshop and suffered for it because they have suddenly identified themselves, in public, as one who ‘does this’ or ‘does that’. Facilitators and teachers will obviously talk about how the workshop is designed to be inclusive and non-judgmental and all of that, but the reality is that workshops are formal institutional processes, and their content therefore becomes part of the organisational record – like it or not.

My belief is that possibly a tactical approach would be easier. Could something as simple as posters on the pinboard succeed where workshops fail?

Here’s my suggestion for a three-point arts college poster:

1. A joint in the morning does not settle you down or make you creative. It slows you down and makes the easy things hard.

2. One glass of wine at an exhibition opening is good business. Three glasses is professional trouble.

3. Pain pills are drugs too.

My thinking is that simple, tactical content like this could spark informal, cross-generational conversations within communities and organisations. My own experience says that these conversations could be very important behaviour modifiers. They could succeed (maybe) exactly where formal interventions fail.

Now this might sound like very simplistic stuff, but if you’ve spent any time with young artists, you’ll know that many of them – based on the evidence they see in their daily lives, of course – really do believe that a little puff in the morning is essential to set you on your way. Some of the most important business conversations I have had with young artists revolve around understanding that there is a strong commercial rationale behind keeping ‘the stuff’ to after hours. Just this one adjustment can change a life, and a career, forever. Church visits are not necessarily required.

My experience is that many artists take much of their early adult life to realise the power of tactical lifestyle thinking. To realise that the seeming release of booze or weed can actually be anything but. To realise that a quick beer on a Tuesday morning isn’t actually helping. To know that snorting that line in your second week at a new ad agency is actually – despite all appearances and subliminal industry  messaging – not a great long-term career move.

I think it’s time for tactical Drinking 101 interventions at tertiary organisations. They might scare the bejeesus out of the teachers, but they can only help the students. DM

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