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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.” […]