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Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments:
An Entheogen Chrestomathy
Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D. and Paula Jo Hruby, Ed.D.
Author Index | Title Index

Collecting, Codifying and Commodifying Art: Several Senses of Psychedelic Posters

Million, Carey (1997)
Philadelphia: Temple University.

ISBN: none

Description: Master's Thesis, vi + 148 pages.

Contents: Abstract, acknowledgments, 5 chapters, bibliography.

Note: Theses and dissertations are available from UMI, Inc., Ann Arbor, MI., in several sizes and bindings.

The essence of this thesis in how art is 'made', however, as the italics indicate, the scope is broadened from specific techniques of production to examine the relationship between art and social context. Specifically, the 'art' under examination is the psychedelic posters produced to advertise dance concert 'happenings' for Bill Graham Presents and The Family Dog in San Francisco between 1965 and 1971. To the 'freak', as they called themselves, subculture from which they emerged, these posters were, I argue, 'people's art' envisioning a 'new culture.' To the era's dominant culture 'hippie' posters were, at best 'disposable art.' Presently these same posters have begun to be reevaluated. As the distance from the social context of their production increases they gain status as exemplary culture, elevated within the institutions and discourses constituting the 'art world'. The reconfiguration is problematized by their mass production and the visceral nature of the visual challenges posed to commonsense culture in the U.S.

A first section reviews national social, economic and political trends forward from WW II, analyses the rise of California and San Francisco as counter-cultural sites, reconsiders the nature of 'youth alienation', and examines the rise of rock'n roll music and the posters' changing place within both the sub- and dominant cultures of the era. A second section begins with a discussion of the art world of the posters in relationship to the larger culture's conceptions of art and artists. Then, focusing on the key word psychedelic in sensorial, philosophical, and challenging senses, I deconstruct nine posters. A third section shifts the analysis to the nineties starting with a discussion of modernity and postmodernity in art, then reviews institutions and discourses conditioning art. Next, I briefly scrutinize the art world's effect on Impressionism and Pop Art, and in greater depth, upon psychedelic posters, ending the section with the analysis of four posters which highlight the conflicts and contradictions in the elite appropriation of popular art. I conclude with a refiguration of James Clifford's semiotic square which diagrams the movement of art through social institutions. (pages iii - iv)

The visual and other bodily phenomena described above correspond almost exactly to the "eidetic images" and corporal sensations occurring in the first of "sensory" level of psychedelic experience identified by researchers Robert E. L. Masters and Jean Houston. In addition to the above they note subjects' perception of an inner-outer harmony such that trees or flowers may breath in the same rhythm and depth as the subject, and a sense of seeing particles of light or energy. Their research, however, leads them to conclude that the psychedelic experience may in some cases deepen through a series of levels they call "recollective-analytic", "symbolic" and 'integral. A similar four part configuration is also indicated by the observations of approximately 2,000 patients by Stanislav Grof.

At the recollective-analytic level subjects' consciousness turns internal, "deepens" and "... concern is increasingly with self-analysis and personal problems and values." Rousting about in the attic of the unconscious subjects freely encounter experiential aspects of their life history, traumas and fantasies. The symbolic level is marked by an expansion of personal exploration into universal phenomena: "... the person experiences historical events, evolutionary processes, myths and rituals, either as spectator or as participant." Mandalas along with religious figures such as Buddha or Christ are frequently encountered at this level. The most profound level, they note, is rarely achieved and though many subjects believe they have reached a level of profound insight through their experience(s) few actually reach the integral level. "Here the ideas, images, body sensations (if any), and emotions are fused in what is felt to be an absolutely purposive process culminating in a sense of self-understanding, self-transformation, religious enlightenment, and possible mystical union." (pages 61 - 62)

The "holistic experience of the universe" often led to the path of spirituality. This was not, of course, the dominant society's Christianity which sundered, of course, Man from his environment in a sensual condom-nation while establishing his dominion over the earth. Wells ties the psychedelic philosophy, as do many other researchers, to Eastern mystical philosophies or early Christianity. He cites the 1970 Canadian Government Commission of Inquiry which observed, "A considerable degree of religiosity has pervaded the psychedelic drug movement of the 1960s, playing a major role in the function of such drugs in other cultures." Further, he goes on to identify 'hippie philosophy's' concern for the "... ontological and eschatological problems of the nature of being.", as well as their non-aggressiveness and non-acquisitiveness as primary themes of all great religions and philosophies.

Psychedelic as Counter Culture

The famous phrase "turn on, tune in and drop out" coined by Timothy Leary can be seen as emblematic of the dual modes of identification involving youth culture. For mainstream society, with its righteous post-depression, won the war, work ethic self-perception, this motto was seen as simply a rationale for mindless drug and sex orgies by lazy-spoiled, reckless youth. In contrast, Leary's The Politics of Ecstasy presents a positive and active picture. Its central theme is identifying ways of working to develop an awareness of one's own mental processes and their effect on the structure of social relations. More specifically it advocated for people to stop playing the power, status and wealth games to which society is addicted; to perceive the ways in which our own and others' identities are submerged by the roles we enact or respond to; and ultimately to escape the filtering and restricting processes of mental habits and templates. (pages 64 - 65)

Another large-scale survey of research to date by David Watts compares psychedelic experience to descriptions of mystical experiences in various predominately Eastern religious traditions including Christianity, Hinduism, Tibetan and Zen Buddhism. Finding a great deal of correspondence, e.g., experiences of "universal core" and "universal self", "blessedness and peace", "ineffability" and "transcendence of space and time", he suggests mysticism is perceived in the West as "esoteric, 'weird' and unscientific", and "socially deviant" thereby activating social controls which identify such states as either mental illness or, when sought after in the form of plants or drugs, illegal. (page 67)

Several researchers indicate a significant difference in attitude towards hallucinogenic drugs when compared to other mind alterants including the dominant culture's legal favorite -- alcohol. For instance, Patricia Cleckner finds that among the young urban black males, "hustlers", she studied, LSD is the least popular of drugs. Users find that one is "unable to go about one's business"; "Subjectively the acid experience is antithetical to control and external orientation and thus for life in the street." In a study of Jamaican users of either cannabis, a euphoriant and mild hallucinogenic, or alcohol, a sedative, Michael Beaubrun correlates "extroversion", aggressiveness and the "cyclothymic personalities who are successful in Western cultures" with alcohol while cannabis users are correlated with introversion, are "seekers after meaning", and are generally less interested in material accomplishment. (page 68)

A comparative drug study in Canada which focuses primarily on alcohol and cannabis use leads the authors to the conclusion, "... [individuals] choice of drugs may have more to do with their value systems than with the pharmacological properties of the drugs." In fact, as Watts indicated above, it is when 'their value systems' are taken into account that a third level of the significance of the word psychedelic is revealed. William McGlothlin purports LSD's effects, "... deactivation of perceptual filters, loosening of constancy's, breaking down of ego boundaries, dehabituation and deautomatization ... do not necessarily produce attitude and belief changes, but it can act as a catalyst, permitting rapid changes under favorable conditions" When the 'belief and attitude changes' facilitated by a drug bring the user into accordance with those of a subculture, or perhaps subcultures, at odds with those of the dominant culture, a 'counterculture', the drug is perceived as a potential threat to dominant cultural beliefs and social institutions. As Watts observes, "Since it is unrelated to the present institutional structure, mysticism is ignored or rejected as a real symbolic universe." Psychedelic posters are significantly marked for this very reason. They fix and reali-ize mystical 'reality'. (page 69)

Second, the early psychedelic experience was very different than the later one, with the divide falling sometime around the mass mediated 'summer of love' in 1967. Harding and Zinberg's research notes users who began in the "mid-sixties" point to personal growth, i.e., learning more about themselves, intellectual growth, transcending perceptual boundaries, while users starting in the early seventies frequently cite recreational goals. Finally, the continued escalation of the Vietnam war, Nixon's election and the combined frontal assault of he and then California governor Reagan on the counterculture, the assassinations of prominent left and black power movement figures, and the subsequent urban riots, radically transformed the movement into one more forcefully counter dominant culture. Interestingly, while the values and beliefs initially generated or associated with psychedelic experience became politicized and radicalized, the use of psychedelic drugs became more of an entertainment or escape; they became yet another drug, though rather than the dulling escape of alcohol, the 'diversion' sought was the rather postmodern 'intensification of the present'.

It is perhaps in this sense that Rozak's complaint is warranted. Rather than seeing LSD as an aid to humans desiring and working to transform their own consciousness, as "counterfeit infinity" psychedelic drugs could be reified as consciousness transformed and appropriated to dominant uses. They could then become the 'soma' of a Brave new World. Alternately, it could be demonized as the cause of revolt:
... it may be the psychedelics have suffered because of their association with troublesome youngsters. Unwilling to blame themselves for the alienation of their children, mother and father [along with the media and the state] have decided to blame the drugs. (Rozak, 1995, p. 172)
Unfortunately, as my space is limited, I have chosen a strategy which focuses upon what I feel to be a key to understanding a particular consciousness in reaction to another. This resulted in a semi-permanent visual record [posters] whose creation was tied to sensorial, powerfully visual experiences. Separating and sequentializing a multitude of interconnected complimentary and contradictory forces, particularly those of chapter one, in addition to isolating and highlighting the most controversial, I risk legitimating psychedelic experience, and especially drugs, as the causal factor. Clearly it was not 'the' sole reason a counterculture formed when and where it did. (pages 71 - 72)

The search for external, 'objective' truths, the realm of expertise and control, goes on heavily supported by the United States while the exploration for inner truths were ignored or censored. Although not without it dangers, as Leonard Wolfe indicates, "To disorder the mind as a means of ordering the spirit appears to be a venture that is paradoxical and dangerous," were not the perceptions of a reality other than logical, ordered and fixed important as well? Certainly one must consider the possibility that a pill or a plant was no substitute for spiritual discipline. As Charles Perry points out, "Throughout the ages mystics have warned that visionary states are only acts of divine grace or stages of spiritual growth..." However, the exploration of subjective experience or deviation from narrowly defined mental and social norms seemed to be left to sideshows and sensationalism rather than being given serious consideration by 'mainstream' U.S. culture. It is from these dominant cultural categorizations [that] 'hippies' as well as the psychedelic posters attempted to escape. (pages 72 - 73)

So museums, along with important institutions of the dominant culture such as the media, construct 'the hippie' as an unintelligent, non-threatening, feminized, but morally disruptive force. Indeed their representative artform, the psychedelic poster, which was not treated properly as Art, being simply tacked and taped up in inappropriate locales, must be rescued from its own subculture, who did not in fact appreciate its 'true' formal artistic merit. The images in posters must be disciplined to suggest nothing more powerful than a short playtime recess from the 'productive' use of human energies as determined by the market rather than reordering social priorities. This is why the construction of yuppies as hippies who 'sold out' their hippie values for a material orgy is so important; in fact they can now reclaim their old treasures for inflated prices at Sotheby's. The market must be repeatedly reinforced as irresistible, with Godlike omnipotence. This construction, however, does or can initiate curiosity; what values had they sold? (page 132)

These events have produced music which has suffered intensive commodification or "institutionalization" like rock did, however, it has not produced imagery in the form of 'people's art'. The significance of the psychedelic posters in all of this is not only did they provide directions to "where it takes place" but, in addition, they advertise(d) visible, palpable maps of the "autonomous space of subculture". In the case of the sixties 'freaks' this space envisioned in their art, was formed on the basis of new values, beliefs and behaviors, a new culture, founded within the old.

Art, as I have demonstrated, is a particular category of meaning made not by individuals but by cultures as a whole. Things placed in this category take on an elevated sense of importance. Their significance as a condensation of a culture presenting itself to its members through a shared set of symbols, is an important arena for self understanding, or in the current pop-academic jargon, identity formation. It tells the culture who they are, what they know, how they experience 'reality'. Visual symbols outside the word, especially the written word, are very complex signifiers, often multi-intentional, layered with meaning. Thus art can also, often does, invert these assertions questioning our culturally mutable self constructions. In this manner it re-presents us. Empowered as a collective sense of self, representation is an important force whose meaning can be and is manipulated by various social agents in order to control and direct its influence. Over the last 25-30 years these posters have been referred to as many things: "Coolest Things" (Newsweek, 3/6/67), "Nouveau Frisco" (Time, 4/7/67), "Disposable Art" (Life, 9/67), "Art Eureka" (1968), "people's art" (Morgan, 1991). But to be held in high esteem in museums, they will need considerably more disciplining and distance from the social context out of which they arose. (page 141)

Compilation copyright © 1995 – 2001 CSP

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