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Psychedelic experiences and cultural transformation

— September 2011

Article read level: Undergraduate / student

Associated media

Ashley Bickerton, The Alley, 2009. Oil and acrylic paint on archival canvas in carved wood artist frame, inlaid coconut, mother of pearl, and coins

Are You Experienced? How Psychedelic Consciousness Transformed Modern Art

By Ken Johnson

Candidly and in personal terms, Ken Johnson addresses the role that psychotropic drugs historically played in modern American culture. He describes how mind-altering substances opened up ways in which viewers of art could move beyond cognition and aesthetic experience to engage with art on through direct experience. He takes into account a residual or looping effect, positing that many artists at work in what could be called the post-psychedelic era – Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami would be among them – continue to produce from within that tradition: their work is informed by historic psychedelic consciousness and interacts with the continuing effects of that consciousness. Even artists who might eschew such strategies – the likes of Philip Pearlstein or Rachel Whiteread, perhaps – can’t help but have their production perceived in terms permanently altered by the ’60s and ’70s, because what took place back then was, indeed, a cultural transformation (largely in the United States, but also Great Britain and other Western nations).

Johnson’s real achievement, however, is that he has presented and argued his case in a way that is disarming and often simply fun. Instead of starting with a discussion of overtly trippy art – Martin Sharp’s album cover for British rock band Cream’s Disraeli Gears album, for example, or ‘psychedelic’ prints by Peter Max – Johnson harks back to his initial encounter with Minimalism. Art that, as he endearingly recalls it, ‘seemed boring to me’.

Who but the most hardened art snob would resist an important critic’s confession of inadequacy in the face of a work by Carl Andre, creator of Equivalent VIII (1966, Tate, more popularly known as ‘the pile of bricks)? Instead of blaming the art for what might be called a failure to communicate, Johnson instead asked himself how he could come to appreciate works that ‘offered little by way of conventional aesthetic or imaginative excitement’, work that called for not only sophisticated taste but ‘a heightened, Zen-like state of attentiveness’. Then he posed a question that has been danced around for decades: ‘ what state of mind would I have to be in to enjoy those types of art? What if, for example, I were stoned?’

If Minimalism is the unexpected launching pad for Johnson’s argument, numerous other categories of work, ranging from hard-edge abstraction to video and performance, are included and addressed by way of rounding it out. Some references – the multidisciplinary artist Matthew Barney, for example – seem a bit of a stretch. But it’s a real pleasure to see familiar and unfamiliar works, alike, represented and analysed within a psychedelic frame of reference. Thus, Joe Brainard’s succinctly visualized and titled If Nancy Was an Acid Freak (1972), Judy Chicago’s Through the Flower (1973),Bruce Conner’s Psychedelicatessen Owner (1990), Bridget Riley’s dazzling Blaze 1 (1962) and Roger Brown’s City Nights: All you wanted to know or didn’t want to know and were afraid to ask – a closet painting (subtitle supplied by Barbara Bowman) (1978) are featured in company with many other vivid works of painting, sculpture and installation. For good measure, Johnson also incorporates an eye-popping poster by Victor Moscoso for the New York band, the Blues Project (1967), and makes clear the distinctions between it and fine art in the realms of Minimalism, Pop and Color Field painting—without, however, diminishing the integrity of works on either side of the high culture/low culture divide.

The book is packed with pictures of artworks, but is as concerned with the perception of art as it is with the objects and images, themselves. Its title, Are You Experienced? How Psychedelic Consciousness Transformed Modern Art, summarizes that dual focus with an apt nod to Jimi Hendrix, while its content, reflecting the verve that Johnson brings to his art criticism for The New York Times, lays out the new possibilities for seeing and enjoying art that were put into play during the late 1960s and early 1970s, and continue to operate today.

As hinted above, Are You Experienced? is a book that has begged to be written for several decades. Thankfully, the writer who brought it to fruition knows how to balance personal insight with a broad perspective, and articulates that balance with clear language.

Are You Experienced? How Psychedelic Consciousness Transformed Modern Art by Ken Johnson is published by Prestel Verlag, Munich, 2011.232 pp. 109 colour and 12 mono illus. ISBN 978-3-7913-4498-0

Media credit: © The artist


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