by Patricia B. Santora, Margaret L. Dowell, Jack E. Henningfield (Editors)
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010
Review by Christian Perring on Feb 28th 2012
This collection of about 60 works of art has the ultimate aim to help in the treatment and prevention of addiction, which is a tall order. On the other hand, it might be as effective as most other attempted interventions, because it is so difficult to find any way to stop substance abuse. Since the problem is so high in human costs, and financially in health care treatment and loss of human resources, it is worth trying something new in case it can help some people. Even if these images don't stop people from self-destructive behavior, they may still have aesthetic value, and it may inspire future work which is helpful.
While it is impossible to tell whether this collection does have practical use, it has inspired other work. The website Addiction and Art has a list of recent and ongoing projects that were inspired by the book. The website has a lot of art on it: much more than the book. But the experiences of looking at the site and the book are quite different. Probably many more people will see the site than the book, but they both have provocative and striking art.
What is clear from the work in the book is that it comes out of great pain. Nearly every image is agonized, full of the pain of addicts and the people they have hurt or let down, and the loss caused by the self-destructive behavior of addicts. Most of them have dramatic or self-explanatory titles, such as "Now That You're Gone, I Can't Apologize," "What is a Poison? What is a Remedy? Marijuana," "Get Humble Now," and "I'm Dying for a Smoke." Each image has a short explanation of the context or meaning of the work. Most of the artists are addicts, but some are family members or treatment providers, and their messages are close to the surface.
The art here may be direct, but much of it is also complex and sophisticated with additional layers of meaning. It takes some determination to get to the complexity, since the first impression with nearly every piece is primary in its feeling, and after seeing a few, one feels a need to take a break. The small number of more muted pieces come as a relief, although often once one works out what they are about, they still pack a considerable punch.
This book will be mainly of interest to those who are deeply invested in the recovery process and in finding ways to work through the emotional turmoil that addiction brings. Reading through it is hard work, but it is worth the effort.
© 2012 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York