Saturday, July 9th, 2011

Are You Experienced? Ken Johnson on Psychedelic Consciousness

Ken Johnson’s Are You Experienced? How Psychedelic Consciousness Transformed Modern Art

Inka Essenhigh, Green Goddess II, 2009.  Oil on canvas, 182-7/8 x 152-3/8 inches.  Courtesy of Victoria Miro Gallery, London, and reproduced in the volume under review
Inka Essenhigh, Green Goddess II, 2009. Oil on canvas, 182-7/8 x 152-3/8 inches. Courtesy of Victoria Miro Gallery, London, and reproduced in the volume under review

For a long time, drugs have been played a role in the social life of the art world. Charles Baudelaire wrote about them. If you do not possess a Delacroix, he said, the next best thing is to be high. But he was opposed to drug use, a weak person’s way of achieving aesthetic experience. In the 1960s, when use of marijuana and LSD became commonplace amongst the American middle-classes, drugs certainly influenced how visual art was made and seen. Many believed that getting high was the best way to see through the political subterfuges of the establishment. And yet social historians of art hesitate to introduce this history—in which many of them must, I expect, have participated—into their narratives. Thomas Crow’s great The Rise of the Sixties: American and European Art in the Era of Dissent, for instance, focuses instead on the civil rights movement, the consumer economy, and the Vietnam War. The same is true of the grand history of modernism by the writers associated with Rosalind Krauss’s October.

Are You Experienced? is a dazzling, extraordinarily radical revisionist history. For since taking drugs changes perception, they surely must affect how art is made and seen. Everyone sees that 1960s head shop art shows the direct influence of psychedelics, but what is the connection, exactly, between the promiscuous use of drugs and art world art? Ken Johnson, who came of age in this period, offers a highly personal account of it. His book is very good at explaining how drugs were linked to seductive ideals of political liberation; to contemporary films; and to a great variety of art from the past half-century. He describes how R. Crumb was inspired by his acid trips; how James Rosenquist’s F-111 deals with the endless flow of information, which especially fascinated people who were high; and he connects the writing of Robert Smithson, and the art of Chris Burden and Richard Tuttle, with the experience of being stoned. His aim, Johnson explains, is not to link individual artists or works of art with drugs, but to point to the ways that the drug culture influenced how a great deal of art was made and seen, whatever the personal concerns of the artists. In the 1960s “some kind of awakening took place in art. . . and the creative and intellectual energies that were brought to life are still feeding the imaginations of artists today” (p. 220-1).

Johnson himself certainly is not nostalgic, and has a critical perspective on the era of his youth. Being high, he rightly notes, didn’t make you a better person, or saner. Nor did it make you an original artist. But you cannot understand much recent art without knowing this history. “The psychedelic culture of the ‘6os involved most of the same aspirations that contemporary art has, and it became for me a hub where all roads intersected” (p. 225). Part of the fascination of Johnson’s account lies in its very fast movement and the variety of paintings and sculptures discussed. “If todays art is about altering consciousness and doing so broadly,” he writes, ‘what better medium to achieve that than computers and the Internet, which can reach millions?” (p. 101). When he pulls such different artists into the analysis as Ed Ruscha, Sigmar Polke, David Salle, Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine and Lucas Samaras  then we see how diverse the drug-fuelled experiences of art have been. Jeff Koons’ erotic scenes, Tino Sehgal’s performances and Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living all pose the question: “In a real, shark-infested world, can art be a means to attain broad-minded, transcendental consciousness?” (p. 199). I cannot think of a better one-sentence statement describing the present state of our art world.

After you read this book, lots of familiar art will look different—as if you, too, have momentarily become high. Strange enough to be a masterpiece, its quick movement and far reaching analysis is a reminder of how slow moving, by comparison, is almost all scholarly writing about modernism and contemporary art. We are accustomed to make a distinction between art history, which is frankly academic and art criticism, which provides a lively perspective on the immediate present. Are You Experienced? gives reason to question that distinction. Unless an artist can sketch a man throwing himself from the fourth floor before he hits the ground, Baudelaire quotes Delacroix to say, he “will never be capable of producing great machines.” Of course, Baudelaire also describes himself, for a gifted art critic, too, must be capable of responding very quickly.  Always suggestive, always readable and very often highly original, Johnson is as supple as anyone writing art history today.

Ken Johnson, Are You Experienced?: How Psychedelic Consciousness Transformed Modern Art. (Prestel, 2011, ISBN 3791344986, $49.95)

Al Held, Roberta's Trip, 1985. Acrylic on canvas, 96 x 144 inches.  Courtesy of Paul Kasmin Gallery, and reproduced in the volume under review
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