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Are You Experienced? How Psychedelic Consciousness Transformed Modern Art

by Ken Johnson
Prestel, Munich, London, and New York, 2011
232 pp., illus. 150 col., 10 b/w. $US49.95, GBP 35.00
ISBN: 978-3-7913-4498-0.

Reviewed by Nicolas Langlitz
The New School for Social Research


langlitn@newschool.edu

When I was administered psilocybin in a neuroscientific experiment in 2005, I felt annoyed by the colorful geometric patterns and spinning fractals that came to surround me as the drug began to work. It seemed as if my brain could not do any better than imitate the gaudy aesthetics prevailing in psychedelic art. Since I found hallucinogenic drugs interesting enough to write a book about their scientific investigation [1], but never acquired a taste for the artistic tradition associated with them since the 1960s, I have been looking out for attempts to derive alternative aesthetic forms from experimentation with hallucinogenic substances.

To my great delight, art critic Ken Johnson's new book Are You Experienced? How Psychedelic Consciousness Transformed Modern Art provides just that: a broad range of artwork not usually considered psychedelic is presented as a product of psychedelic consciousness. Johnson tries to capture a sensibility underlying contemporary art "in almost all of its various stylistic manifestations" (p. 10), from minimalism to op art and from feminist positions to Matthew Barney's Cremaster Cycle films. Drawing from personal acquaintance and interviews with many of the discussed artists, he shows how hallucinogen experiences inspired contemporary work in the tradition of abstract expressionism emphasizing the materiality of paint over illusionistic visual languages or how conceptual artist Adrian Piper relates her work on racism and xenophobia to her LSD-induced insights into "how much of 'ordinary' reality is nothing more than a subjective mental construct (pp. 22-24, p. 138). The thesis of Johnson's book is that, since the mass consumption of lysergic acid diethylamide in the mid 1960s, hallucinogenic drugs have altered the minds of so many people that practically all contemporary art has come to conform with a "psychedelic paradigm" (p. 218).

However, Johnson does not claim that all artists presented in his book have actually taken psychedelic drugs. Most of the time it is not the artists but the art critic who ties their work to mind-altering substances by describing a work of pop artist Ed Ruscha as appearing "funny-strange the way it can seem to stoned consciousness," imagining the paintings of Neo Rauch "as hallucinations of a dour Communist-era East German apparatchik," or by speculating about whether Takashi Murakami's sculptures of Mr. DOB might have anything to do with Alexander Shulgin's synthetic drug of the same acronym (pp. 127, 146, 201). But, ultimately, whether it has doesn't matter. Johnson argues that psychedelic experiences diffused from those who really had them into those who did not: "You may never have taken LSD, but America has" (p. 11).

The problem haunting every page of Are You Experienced? is the fact that it puts so much weight on totalizing concepts such as "America" or Thomas Kuhn's notion of paradigms. Given that the existence of such all-encompassing and mutually incommensurable epistemic frameworks has been called into question in the history of science itself [2], it might not be wise to now import this idea into art history—as if art was a more unified field than science.

The book does not provide conclusive evidence for its claim that psychedelic consciousness transformed the whole of modern art because, apart from Rauch, Murakami, and a few others, the large majority of the artists discussed are American. In Europe, however, psychedelic drugs played a much smaller and also a different role during the 1960s. Embracing Marxist materialism, many students rejected the mysticism of Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary so popular among US hippies as yet another "opium of the people" and used hallucinogenic drugs for hedonistic rather than spiritual purposes [3]. And Japan might still be a very different story. Moreover, America was divided, not just between the so-called establishment and the counterculture, but even the counterculture itself split up into different factions, not all of which aspired to "turn on, tune in, and drop out."

Johnson's spiral expansion of the genre boundaries recalls how the field was constituted when Robert Masters and Jean Houston first published their book Psychedelic Art in 1968 [4]. In an interview, Abdul Mati Klarwein, one of the artists they took to represent the movement, later on remembered how he and others had come to be included: "They asked me, 'What kind of psychedelics do you take when you're painting?' And I said, 'I don't take anything when I'm painting. When I take psychedelics I get very horny, and I start going out to nightclubs and cruising.' (laughter) So they said, ‘Well, we can't put you in the book.' I freaked out, because I wasn't in any book yet (laughter), and I said, 'But I get my ideas when I'm high.' And they said, 'Alright, we'll put you in the book.' Next they asked me for the names of other psychedelic painters, and I gave them a whole list [...]. I called them all up right away, and I told them, 'Tell them that you're taking psychedelics!' And they all got in the book." [5] But, if the category of psychedelic art grew out of short-lived incentives of both the art and the book market of the 1960s, it might not be the best road to uncovering a unified sensibility allegedly underlying modern art for the past 50 years.

The contention of Ken Johnson's Are You Experienced? might be better supported by his material had he argued for a profound transformation (but no "paradigm shift") of modern art by the countercultural upheavals instead of squeezing too many discrepant artistic positions into American psychedelia. But his pioneering effort to trace the impact of hallucinogenic substances beyond album covers of the sixties and Alex Grey's contemporary rearticulation of visionary art [6] opens up a whole new field of research that will hopefully be explored further by scholars following in Johnson's footsteps.

References:

[1] N. Langlitz, Neuropsychedelia: The Revival of Hallucinogen Research since the Decade of the Brain (Berkeley: University of California Press, forthcoming).

[2] P. Galison, Peter, “Trading Zone. Coordinating Action and Belief” in M. Biagioli (ed.), The Science Studies Reader (New York: Routledge, 1999), pp. 137-160.

[3] G. Amendt, Die Legende vom LSD (Frankfurt/M.: Zweitausendeins, 2008).

[4] R. E. L. Masters and J. Houston, Psychedelic Art (New York: Grove Press, 1968).

[5] M. Klarwein, “A Thousand Windows [interview by David Jay Brown],” http://www.mavericksofthemind.com/mati.htm (retrieved on 6 April 2012), 1992.

[6] A. Grey, The Mission of Art (Boston: Shambhala, 2001).

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