“The Barricade and the Dance Floor: Aesthetic Radicalism and the Counterculture” is republished from Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia (Walker Art Center, 2015; Andrew Blauvelt, ed.). The exhibition is on view October 24, 2015 through February 28, 2015, before traveling to the Cranbrook Art Museum and University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.
In Hjorvardur Harvard Arnason’s sweeping survey History of Modern Art, first published in 1968, a brief entry on psychedelic art completes his six-hundred-page tome. It seems a fitting way to conclude the book’s march through modernism, focusing as it does on the au courant style of the moment. As Arnason explains, “The recent appearance of psychedelic art may be accounted for in several ways: the easy availability and enormously increased use of psychedelic drugs; the mixture and confusion of appeals to several senses simultaneously in the so-called mixed media performances; the ethos of the hippies and flower-children; and the prevalent atmosphere of rebellion against ‘the establishment,’ whether in society in general or in art specifically.” Arnason does not elaborate on these causalities, which, nevertheless, are instructive in their range of positions. The use of mind-altering and consciousness-expanding drugs such as LSD, mescaline, and psilocybin on the part of artists would seem to be an expected foundational definition of a psychedelic art.
This “art under the influence” approach applied not only to some artists whose work was produced during drug-induced sessions but also for the many more who drew upon such episodes and experiences more symbolically or referentially, giving psychedelic art currency as both a form of process and representational art. Interestingly, Arnason does not parse the difference between the artist and the audience undergoing an altered state of consciousness, rendering psychedelic art also possible in the mind’s-eye of the beholder. This inclusive reading is alluded to in his second cause, the “mixed” and “confusing” sensory experiences of mixed-media performance—choreographies that often intentionally blurred the roles of audience and performer as easily as it melded the aural, visual, and tactile realms into one experiential whole. In fact, although he introduces this final section with a focus on the psychedelic artist, the trajectory of psychedelic art clearly exceeds such conventional limits and must embrace the culture and society at large. Thus, the appearance of such an art would be the consequence of its newly created audience of “hippies and flower children”—presumably as both spectators and co-creators—in a socially antiestablishment “atmosphere of rebellion.” Arnason understood that such an art is not limited to representing conditions of social rebellion “in general,” but also posed a challenge to “art specifically.”
Arnason had neither the space nor the historical distance to expand on this provocative thought, although he closes this section, and thus the book, with the following: “There could be no more striking demonstration of the variety of recent art than the contrast between the rigors and discipline of color-field, systemic, or minimal art on the one hand, and on the other hand, the surprise images of cosmic or mythic events induced by ‘mind-liberating’ drugs.” One could argue that it was precisely this contrast or difference that would dispel psychedelic art, including nearly all related forms of countercultural production, from art history proper following the waning of the movement itself.
Although Arnason concedes in his postscript to the book that the history of modern art was “primarily a revolution in perception,” albeit led by artists and followed by viewers, the drug-induced hallucinations of psychedelic art were perhaps a bridge too far. The skepticism is already in the air in his closing sentence, whereby more established 1960s art movements exhibit rigor and discipline—understood as control and definition—while psychedelia is a byproduct of serendipitous and thus uncontrollable effect. The teleology of successive artistic movements established by Arnason and repeated by others—Pop, Color Field, Minimalism, Post-Minimalism, Conceptualism—creates a powerful canonical narrative that tends to exclude anomalous episodes that clash with its storyline. By the time the revised second edition of History of Modern Art was published in 1977, the section on psychedelic art was eliminated.
It is possible, however, to understand and situate psychedelia into a continuum or continuity of art-historical thinking, as Adrian Piper, who began her artistic career in her teenage years with psychedelic paintings and drawings, relates to her own evolution: “Realism depicts the objects of ordinary conventional reality; Impressionism depicts the perceptual qualities of those objects broken up into light and color; Pointillism depicts the perceptual and formal qualities of those objects broken up even further into color and minutely small forms; Psychedelia depicts the cracking open of all of those perceptual and formal qualities; Minimalism expresses the underlying geometric essences behind those objects and their qualities; Pop Art depicts those objects shorn of the conventional conceptual schemes that give them meaning; Conceptual Art expresses the breaking up and reconstitution of those conventional conceptual schemes and the objects (and subjects) embedded in them.”
In this lineage, psychedelia follows Impressionism, not chronologically but philosophically, as the artist depicts an altered sense of reality and the objects and spaces within it. Rather than a formal reordering of perceived color and form (e.g., Pointillism), psychedelia promises something different—access to more deeply hidden truths of reality and alternate planes of lived experience. Such insight was to be gained through the use of psychedelic drugs, of course, but it could also have happened through so-called drugless trips, such as spiritual awakenings via meditation or through technologically induced or mediated experiences.
“Cracking open” ordinary reality is not unlike the preferred metaphor of the counterculture’s throwing open—following Aldous Huxley, then Jim Morrison—the “doors of perception.” In psychedelia, the role of the artist is to bear witness to or induce such revelations in others: its primary mode is depiction—re-creating the effect post-trip, reporting back one’s experience—and these representations were sufficiently discernible and unique enough to be categorized as its own aesthetic. Thus, Arnason provides a formal analysis of psychedelic art: “heavily figured,” “acid colors,” “undulating lines,” “amorphous space,” and so on. Isolating the characteristic visual language of psychedelia was tantamount to codifying its style. It is not surprising then to see psychedelia portrayed, discussed, and ultimately dismissed as a style with its resultant commodification.
Artist Jud Yalkut was already wise to the situation when he wrote in Arts magazine in 1966 that “‘Psychedelic’ symbology appears as the next reworking of our vernacular,” and warned, following the example of the rapid reabsorption of Pop art back into popular culture, “The dangerous temptation is getting ‘hung up’ by gaudy surface appearances and easy associations,” noting that “LSD Art” had already been canonized by Life magazine. While it may be possible to understand psychedelia in its historical moment as a style of the times as represented in both conventional and unconventional art forms, it was also simultaneously postulated as a timely style or fad—another marketing strategy, a “magic sales word,” as duly noted in the Wall Street Journal.