Are you Experienced? How Psychedelic Consciousness Transformed Modern Art by Ken Johnson

Originally published in 2011 ‘Are You Experienced? How Psychedelic Consciousness Transformed Modern Art’ by Ken Johnson is an examination of art since the 1960s. Complete with images and discussion, the book attempts to identify a psychedelic dimension in certain artists and art movements that have arisen since the heyday of popular psychedelic use. Ken Johnson is a critic for the New York Times.

Are You Experienced? How Psychedelic Consciousness Transformed Modern Art is a fascinating blend of artist interviews, art critique and theoretical structuring that creates a seamless narrative. The question of a psychedelic aesthetic or, indeed, a theory of psychedelic aesthetics, lies at the heart of Ken Johnson’s book and its beautiful array of imagery compliments the thread of his explanation throughout. The so-called ‘psychedelic consciousness’ is not purely based on the experiences of artists with hallucinogens. Of the artists he interviews, some drew directly from their personal experiences, some believed they had an impact on their art and others not, while still others had never experienced the effects of these drugs. The aesthetic dimension that Johnson alludes to is bound to a cultural explosion that he pins down to beginning in 1965.

“That art changed in a big way in the 1960s is inarguable: No longer was art something just to appreciate for its aesthetic qualities. Traditional connoisseurship was out; consciousness-altering experience was in. Boundaries between conventional media such as painting and sculpture became fluid and porous. Hierarchical distinctions between high and low culture were rendered irrelevant. Weird news forms proliferated” (Johnson 2011, 10).

Some of the more obvious psychedelic, or visionary, art quite literally appears to have the psychedelic dimension included. Alex Grey’s Theologue: The Union of Human and Divine Consciousness Weaving the Fabric of Space and Time in which the Self and Its Surroundings Are Embedded (1986), for example; with its energy emanating from the mind and chakras of the body, transposed against a grid the hovers throughout a rocky landscape. The dimension transcends the archetypal individual and their environment. Yet, the question arises, what is the nature of the aesthetic that is culturally binding these other artists within a psychedelic construct? It is, for Johnson, a postmodern approach. When an artist like Philip Guston was responding to the changing socio-cultural climate by doubting his own “typically modernist concentration on the fundamental formal and material properties of painting” (Johnson 2011, 71), he was challenging his self and his environment; the very dimensionality one can see depicted by Grey. The psychedelic aesthetic, in this sense, is transformative.

The traditional constraints of high and low culture and typical fine art forms became not the categories by which to adhere but, rather, the tools by which to explore and create anew. This is most notably explored by Johnson in the chapter From Expanded Cinema to Cyber-Psychedelia that examines how film took a role in generating a wider aesthetic approach. From Easy Rider (1969), to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s film The Holy Mountain (1973), to Matthew Barney’s first solo exhibition at the Gladstone Gallery in Soho, New York, in 1991. Barney’s main feature was a video of him climbing around walls almost totally naked, while a blackened figure wearing a sports shirt looked on; conflating art and sports. The mashing of ideas, mixing of art forms and genre-bending was the many-faceted approach that left formal modernism behind.

“I think of the terms postmodern and psychedelic as heuristic devices: lenses through which we may discover a pattern we’d otherwise have missed, an underlying, comprehensive mythology that makes sense of the polyglot babble of contemporary art. But while postmodern implies that we’re talking about something that comes after the scattered remnants of modernism, psychedelic has a beginning, a big bang that has continued to resonate for decades throughout Western culture” (Johnson 2011, 11).

One of the important aspects of this resonation through Western culture was the reinterpretation of other cultures within the new postmodern form and its psychedelic aesthetic took wings from the diversity of plant use by indigenous populations. The artist Sigmar Polke – “Ever the anti-transcendentalist” – had a mission “to free the mind from fixed meanings, conventions, and expectations and deliver it unto the flux of being” (Johnson 2011, 143). An untitled (1975) picture by Polke is included (pp.143) that depicts figures around a large Fly Agaric mushroom. The disjointed animism, coupled with the over-arching size of the mushroom compared with the people, gives the impression of other cultural forms becoming immanent and prescient; but at the same time it eludes to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, with its size-shifting protagonist. Interpretation becomes something of a web of connections that allows the viewer to play their own games with the image; a psychedelic ride on a postmodern rollercoaster.

Ken Johnson’s Are You Experienced? Is many things; it is a visual delight that one can flip through with happy abandon, the images tantalizing and well chosen; it is the views of an art critic being formalised into a revealing narrative that brings a new understanding to art in the late twentieth century; and it is an excellent addition to the theories of a psychedelic aesthetic. The question that arises revolves around the impact and influence of psychedelics, partially or otherwise, to a postmodern way of thinking. The dimensionality with which the psy-aesthetic is eluded to across art forms sits very easily within the postmodern framework, and must surely be a bridge with which to understand the impact of psychedelic drugs on the artistic mind of the West.

Via the House

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