The story of psychedelic visuals did not begin in the 1960s. It is in fact an extremely long tale which stretches from mankindís prehistorical mystical visions, through the psychedelic revolution of the sixties, to modern consumerist media society and beyond. In order to understand the appeal which the psychedelic visual style holds for our postmodern culture one must get back to the roots of psychedelic aesthetics in the visionary experience.
Pre-natural light and colour are common to all visionary experiencesî wrote Aldous Huxley in his Heaven and Hell ìand along with light and colour there comes in every case, recognition of heightened significance. The self-luminous objects which we see in the mindís antipodes possess a meaning, and this meaning is, in some sort, as intense as their colour.î
Visionary experiences has many possible characteristics, but the most common of which, according to Huxley, is the experience of light: ìEverything seen by those who visit the mindís antipodes is brilliantly illuminated and seems to shine from within. All colours are intensified to a pitch far beyond anything seen in the normal state, and at the same time the mindís capacity for recognizing fine distinctions of tone and hue is notably heightened.
Huxley ís lengthy discussion about the aesthetics of the visionary and psychedelic experience in Heaven & Hell remains one the most perceptive pieces about the roots of psychedelic aesthetics. His rich background as a scholar of aesthetics, a scholar of mysticism and a pioneering practitioner of psychedelic journeys, allows him to examine the issue of the visual characteristics of psychedelia from a large historical and philosophical perspective which is essential if one is to decipher the true meaning of psychedelic aesthetics.
All psychedelic visions are unique, claimed Huxley, yet they all ìrecognizably belong to the same speciesî. What they have in common are the preternatural light, the preternatural colour and the preternatural significance, as well as more specific architectures, landscapes and patterns which tend to reoccur across psychedelic and visionary experiences. For Huxley this intense colour and light was one of the primary and most indelible characteristics of what he called the mindís antipodes, the unknown territories to which the psychedelic voyager is transported.
Looking at the traditions of various cultures, past and present, Huxley found a common ground between their accounts of the heavens or the fairylands of folklore and the lands of the antipodes. He noted the existence of Other Worlds, mythological landscapes of fantastic beauty in many of the worldís cultural traditions. In the Greco-Roman tradition there were the Garden of Hesperides, the Elysian Plain and the Fair Island of Leuke. The Celts had Avalon, while the Japanese had Horaisan and the Hindu Uttrarakuru. These other worldly paradises, noted Huxley, abound with intensely coloured and luminescent objects which bring to mind the psychedelic visionary experience. ìEvery paradise abounds in gems, or at least in gemlike objects resembling as Weir Mitchell puts it, ëtransparent fruit. Wrote Huxley. Ezikelís version of the Garden of Eden notes the many various stones in the garden, while ìThe Buddhist paradises are adorned with similar ëstones of fireíî. The New Jerusalem is constructed in glimmering buildings of shimmering stone. Platoís world of the ideals is described as a reality where ìcolours are much purer and much more brilliant than they are down hereî.
Huxley introduces many more examples of ancient cultures which establish the import and centrality of glimmering gems and precious stones in various mythologies. The implication he draws from this consistency is that the ìotherwise inexplicable passion for gems ìmust have had its roots in ìthe psychological Other World of visionary experienceî. In other words, ìprecious stones are precious because they bear a faint resemblance to the glowing marvels seen with the inner eye of the visionary.î
Moreover, Huxley notes, ìamong people who have no knowledge of precious stones or of glass, heaven is adorned not with minerals but with flowersî. Many more examples follow for the various intensely coloured, shiny and often luminescent objects in which man had sought the semblance of the Other Worlds, among them candles, works of jewellery, crowns, silks and velvets, medals, glassware, the vision inducing stained glass windows of churches and even ceramics and porcelain ware. All these, argued Huxley, act to transport human beings into higher realities: ìcontemplating them, men find themselves (as the phrase goes) transported ñcarried away toward that Other Earth of the Platonic Dialogue, that magical place where every pebble is a precious stone.î Shiny objects, argued Huxley, remind the unconscious of the mindís antipodes and so allow us to experience a taste of visionary consciousness.
The human urge to be transported into the numinous realm has found its expression in mythologies and religion, but also in art. Huxley notes a number of artists who used colours in transporting ways such as Caravaggio, Geroges de Latour, and Rembrandt. Indeed, he notes:
ìPlato and, during a later flowering of religious art, St. Thomas Aquinas maintained that pure bright colors were of the very essence of artistic beauty
Although Huxley argues that this categorical equation of beauty with bright colors leads to absurdity, he also finds this doctrine to be not altogether devoid of truth. ìBright pure colors are the essence, not of beauty in general, but only of a special kind of beautyî: the beauty of works of art which can transport the beholderís mind in the direction of its antipodes.
Modern taste is often reserved about using intensely bright colors, and prefers the more restrained and undemonstrative palette of minimalism and modernist design. The reason, argued Huxley, is that ìwe have become too familiar with bright pure pigments to be greatly moved by themî. In the past, pigments and colors were costly and rare. The richly colored velvet and brocades of princely wardrobes, and the painted hangings of medieval and early modern houses were a rarity reserved for a privileged minority, while the majority of the population lived a drab and colorless existence. This all changed with the modern chemical industry and its endless variety of dyes and colors. ìIn our modern world there is enough bright color to guarantee the production of billions of flags, and comic strips, millions of stop signs and taillights, fire engines and Coca-Cola containersî, and all those objects which in the past might have possessed a transporting numinous quality were reduced by the new industrial consumer market into ordinary banality.
The evolution of psychedelic aesthetics in modern times.
The potential of psychedelics to act as powerful catalysts for creativity in general and for visual artists specifically was noted by researchers of psychedelics already in the 1950s. Oscar Janiger who administered psychedelics to artists was immediately flooded with artists enthusiastic to explore their creativity through the use of psychedelics. ìNinety-nine precent expressed the notion that this was an extraordinary, valuable tool for learning about artî. Ron Sandison noted a patient whose style changed completely after a psychedelic experience ìand she began to paint in the style she wanted to, which was imaginativeî.
Many more anecdotal accounts of the artistic merit of psychedelics appear during these years. However, the great aesthetic shift ushered by psychedelics would only come as a result of their popularization in the mid-1960s. The psychedelic revolution has brought the visionary aesthetic which stood at the center of many works of art and religion back to the foreground of western culture, but now through the prism of the emerging pop culture of the 1960s.
San Francisco psychedelic poster artists such as Rick Griffin, Victor Moscoso, Wes Wilson, Stanely Mouse & Alton Kelley redefined the boundaries of numinous aesthetics by integrating it into commercial psychedelic posters which advertised bands and rock concert.
These psychedelic artist, who experimented with colors and forms were inspired to a great extent by the Art Nouveau movement of early 20th century and itís emphasis on organic forms and lines, as well as in the idea of life as art. The aesthetic of these posters would define a new artistic style that would be widely distributed and collected. Meanwhile, psychedelic art flourished outside the poster genre. Visual artists such as Mati Klarwein, Robert Fraser and Milton Glaser designed psychedelic album covers for the likes of Miles Davis, the Beatles and Bob Dylan.
Other forms of psychedelic aesthetics have emerged in various cultural domains. Psychedelic fashion was popularized by rock artists and countercultural figures and even introduced into couture by designers such as Emilio Pucci, Paco Rabanne and Pierre Cardin. Psychedelic light shows by psychedelic light show artists and groups such as Marc Boyle, Mike Leonard and The brotherhood of light became a popular trend in music concerts. (Here one should also note an extremely popular form of psychedelic aesthetics, which is the luminescent culture of Burning Man Festival, whose fascination with glowing colors have turned it over the years into a distinct form of light-worship, a spiritual fest ordered around the heavenly glow Huxley referred to in his work). Psychedelic architectural and inner designs flourished in the communes and were experimented with by a variety of architects and designers as thoroughly documented in the book ìSpaced Outî.
What these various genres of psychedelic aesthetics had in common was the use of intensive coloring, extensive use of natural lines, extensive use of op-art as well as of elaborate patterns and designs that sought to transport the viewer into a different state of consciousness. Like the other forms of psychedelic culture, psychedelic aesthetic was a new artistic genre which was rooted in the psychedelic experience and at the same time a cultural artifact which attempted to recreate some of the elements of the psychedelic experiences within the domain of culture.
Yet, by the late sixties psychedelic aesthetics have already left the realms of the counterculture, and started being absorbed by the larger culture, as their commercial potential began being tapped into by various enterprises from Pepsi and McDonalds to Campbell and General Electric so that by the mid-1970s, the psychedelic visual style had been largely absorbed into the mainstream consumer culture which the hippies sought to change.