Psychedelic Art & Kitsch: A Case Study

Silvia Sorbelli

Between the mid-1960’s and early 1970’s, a small phenomenon known as psychedelia dominated much of the period’s counter culture.  The psychedelic culture that emerged during that time, which, with its intent to discover a new realm of freedom and liberate peoples’ minds, is seen today as a mere blip in the history of art.  Psychedelia gave rise to an aesthetic culture that has been consciously dismissed and neglected from art historical curiosity, and is at times placed in line with a kitsch aesthetic.

In order to sort through this grave neglect and condemnation of psychedelic culture, it will be necessary to place its main manifestations within the culture of the time, specifically the psychedelic poster aesthetic as well as artistic production and certain fads. It is also relevant to put psychedelia in line with the primary notions of kitsch, as proposed by its main theorists, namely Clement Greenberg and Theodor Adorno and Max Horkeimer, to define and explain the psychedelic movement in art.   Psychedelia was present in almost all aspects of society from the mid-1960’s to the early 70’s, with aesthetic manifestations in music, film, fashion, interior and graphic design, as well as in the artistic production of the time. It is well known that psychedelia was advocated through the use of mind altering drugs. Although this notion was intrinsic to the mentality of that period, it should not be considered the primary source of inspiration from which the psychedelic aesthetic emerged.  The light shows, acid tests, Grateful Dead, Merry Pranksters, Velvet Underground, and Family Dog Productions are just some of the areas ingrained with psychedelic inspiration.  However, the “marmalade skies” were not always blue for psychedelia because before it could even make its attempt at mind liberation and spiritual discovery, it died a quiet and invisible death.  We have all seen remnants of psychedelic culture in the form of tie dye shirts, lava lamps, and contemporary artists such as Bruce Pearson who have ventured into the aesthetic characteristic of the Haight-Ashbury posters [1]. Over time, psychedelia simply became known as kitsch.  Often considered “bad art” or solely through its “suspicious proximity to popular culture”, psychedelic culture emerged from the underground traditions that transpired during the “hippie days” rather than from the mass produced, pre chewed lifestyle offered by the “big businesses” [2]. As we will see further on, its sources for inspiration were not the products of the “culture industry”, as was the focus of Pop Art.  Rather, psychedelic culture emerged from the subculture and counterculture, which ran rampant at the time.

The most apparent manifestations of the psychedelic aesthetic can be found in the Haight-Ashbury posters of San Francisco.  Although many talented artists in the U.K and New York were producing psychedelic posters, the Haight-Ashbury aesthetic was born in San Francisco, fostered by presence of the two major dancehalls of the period, namely the Avalon Ballroom, whose shows were put on by Family Dog productions and Chet Helms, and the Fillmore auditorium, headed by Bill Graham [3]. The first artist employed by Bill Graham was Wes Wilson, who in addition to Stanley “Mouse” Miller and Alton Kelley (of Mouse Studios) and Victor Moscoso, gave way to an entirely new aesthetic medium saturated with psychedelic designs and motifs.  It is through the rock shows put on at these dance halls that the psychedelic aesthetic was born.

Before the advent of psychedelia, rock posters were purely informative and with no artistic value: they included the name of the artist in bold black lettering and the opening act in smaller font at the bottom, all on a white background. The abrupt emergence of the new psychedelic aesthetic carried poster design to another level, one saturated with artistic value.  It is believed that George Hunter and Michael Ferguson, the members of a band named The Charlatans, produced the poster that initiated interest in a new visual language for the Red Dog Saloon, Nevada, in 1965.  Because of this it is no surprise that this piece is referred to as “The Seed” of Rock Art posters. One of the most surprising features of psychedelic posters is their relatively small size as few were larger than twenty inches in length.  This size would seem inappropriate for advertisements, however, one must consider that Haight-Ashbury posters were illicit forms of advertisement meant for urban surfaces that would have stipulated that one: “POST NO BILLS” [4].  Formally, they engage a specific audience.  Due to the vibrant colours, formless swirls, and blobby lettering, which were inspired by the sleeve lettering on the Beatles‟ album “Rubber Soul” and first used by Wes Wilson, they required a slower mode of reading. This unhurried and deliberate reading was often made easier through the use of mind altering drugs [5].  (These formal characteristics concentrated on empathy and love for the intricate and detailed exploration of the surface, rather than on the clear and decipherable qualities essential to billboard advertisements.

The psychedelic aesthetic did not develop in a void, as it is often believed.  It was not solely through the use of mind altering drugs that this culture and its visual language came into being.  It is when it is considered merely as a by-product of the sensory disruption and hallucinations brought about by LSD, that it is criticized as being “flamboyantly, decoratively banal, or…utterly literal” [6]. Some of the more lenient critics acknowledge that the style found inspiration from art historical sources. Major influences to the psychedelic poster aesthetic were the swirling graphics of the Art Nouveau movement, in particular the work of Alfonso Mucha and Alfred Roller.  An example of this is Stanley Mouse’s “Big Brother and the Holding Company” poster from 1966 for the Avalon Ballroom and Family Dog, which draws on Mucha‟s “Job” from 1896 (Fig.1).   A great number of artists were influenced by the contemporaneous Op Art movement, as its retinal abstractions and illusions were perfect illustrations of the psychedelic consciousness.  Wes Wilson employs this visual language in his poster for Bill Graham and the Fillmore in 1966 by quoting design characteristics from Victor Vasarely’s aesthetic (Fig.2). Other influences ranged from Indian mandalas and photographs from vernacular sources such as Wild West style posters and even food packaging.  Stanley Mouse was known to look through art books and literary works for inspiration. In fact, while rummaging through the Rubáiyát, he fell upon the Edmund J. Sullivan illustration of a skeleton which eventually became the design for the Grateful Dead logo.

These influences and the incorporation of art historical sources elevate the psychedelic rock posters beyond mere representations of hallucinogenic experiences. They align it with an avant-garde aesthetic, regardless of the fact that their creators were “blissfully ignorant of… [that] rhetoric” [7]. Some of the psychedelic artists of the time, such as Abdul Mati Klarwein and Isaac Abrams, drew from similar sources, namely Art Nouveau, Op Art, and Indian and Tibetan art, as well as from popular culture.  Psychedelic works that appropriate such sources are criticized as being mere attempts at recreating and conveying the sensual and visual experiences encountered while hallucinating on LSD. In fact, and this will become relevant when looking at kitsch, one so often speaks of it as an ersatz culture or as an artificial art because it is used to replace the experience itself.  At the time when Mati painted his Grain of Sand (1963-5), he was not experimenting with hallucinogens; rather he was drawing on the tremendously detailed imagery of Hieronymous Bosch, who, it can be presumed, used drugs while making his work [8]. However, psychedelic artists were not only recorders of hallucinogenic experiences. Their works were seen as “sensual catalysts” that could evoke the mind-expanding and mystical visions that in turn could stimulate creativity [9].  The drugs functioned as powerful stimulants and the art embodies this drug culture and, by extension, makes it available to all.

Psychedelic culture should be recognized for its pioneering intersection into other mediums. Psychedelic light shows, film and video installations, which are now recognized only in strict association with psychedelic rock, emerged as a synaesthetic art form in their own right.  Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground with their Exploding Plastic Inevitable (1966) and Yayoi Kusama’s Self-Obliteration (1968) are only two instances in the myriad of mind and body liberating multi-media shows.  They did not simply mimic or attempt to transfer the flickering delusions and waves of abnormal body sensations to those present, but rather presented people with a way of expressing freedom and formlessness as a way “towards liberating entropy” [10]. Even fashion veered in the direction of the psychedelic aesthetic with designs like crushed velvet pants, silk puffy shirts, chiffon scarves, and of course the infamous bell bottom pants, which were seen as particularly liberating and formless.  “Formless” is word that embodies much of the ideals of the time and can be found in music, poetry and literature.  It functioned as a medium for stating individuality against conformity and because of this it had the ultimate potential for destabilizing social order and resisting the constraints of authority [11].

In short, the entire synaesthetic environment of the time, as manifested in the graphic design of posters, the art, the music, and the light shows, emerged as a type of anti-authoritarian, utopian, spiritual and mystical flavour which was aimed at abolishing bourgeois convention and the remnants of the art historical hierarchy [12]. The “tune in, turn on, drop out” mentality advocated by Timothy Leary, a counter culture and LSD guru, surely exemplifies this search for spiritual discovery and fundamental changes in consciousness, which were seen as the only true means for radical change [13]. The most immediate way of obtaining this level of consciousness was by taking a “pinch of psychedelic” [14]. There was an obvious appropriation of earlier artistic vocabularies, which were subsumed and transformed by the underground culture of the time, not merely to emphasize the liberating potential of their drug experiences, but to create a visual language that would ultimately reflect this counter-culture and blur the distinction between high and low brow. However, its inherent affinity with mind altering drugs and its formless aesthetic place it in line with a rebellious sub culture and provide it with the potential to undermine social and artistic order.

Psychedelic culture has suffered the harsh criticism of theorists for decades. For example, Dave Hickey has classified psychedelia as “anti-academic”, yet within this criticism lies the inherent truth of psychedelic visual culture [15]. In its apparent frivolity, its affinity with a low grade culture, exaggerated forms and “formal entropy” [16], psychedelic art and culture has been consciously dismissed and disqualified by the art institution along with other movements such as Rococo, Art Nouveau and Pop, all of which, coincidently, have been placed in line with a kitsch aesthetic.  The de-facto elitist, Clement Greenberg, in his essay “The Avant-garde and Kitsch” states that kitsch is an ersatz culture, in that the new urban masses set up a pressure on society to provide them with a kind of culture fit for their own consumption.  It is a product of the Industrial Revolution, which urbanized the masses of Western Europe and America and established what is called a universal literacy, because what was being offered to them were reproductions and imitative objects.  Additionally, Greenberg states that “kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money, not even their time” [17]. However, the indecipherability of psychedelic posters required the viewers’ time as well as a certain affinity and attraction to that particular aesthetic.  Whatever the circumstances may be, psychedelic work cannot be considered passively, because it involves the viewers’ engagement with the imagery in order to make sense of what is being communicated.

In their essay “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception”, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer discuss kitsch in its non-relation to society and political issues.  They suggest that kitsch is “a non-art all together” or “a non-art of bad taste.”  The phenomenon of kitsch, or sugary trash, is the beautiful minus its ugly counterpart, the ugly part being the engagement within society by undermining it through a critique of its major faults. Consequently, kitsch is considered non-dialectical, as it communicates nothing to its possessors [18]. Adorno and Horkheimer also emphasize that art cannot remain outside culture. Art is always assumed by culture and once this occurs, an artwork can no longer be critical of something of which it is a part.

Greenberg, Adorno and Horkheimer were right after all.  The big businesses recognized the ultimate money making potential behind the psychedelic and hippie culture, and appropriated it, subsequently selling it to disillusioned youths in the form of readily available commodity items.

Psychedelic culture did not begin as kitsch.  It ultimately became controlled and formulated by the market and the people consumed it, rendering it a part of mass culture.  Once it became part of that rigid and oppressive cultural industry, there was no leeway for rebellion.  In other words, it was made to suite the taste of the masses and in doing so, it assumed a kitsch appearance. I will venture and suggest that psychedelic culture ultimately breaks the dichotomy between high and low art.  High art, such as Modernism, strives for self-referentiality and low-art, such as kitsch, is ultimately apolitical.  Psychedelic art, in its specific effort towards the formation of an upfront rebellion and search for a deeper truth, emphasized through its formlessness, has a unique revolutionary potential. This potential is supplied through psychedelia‟s inherent formal properties as well as through the consumption of drugs, rather than through some sort of political ideology [19]. Hence, psychedelic art is undermining culture and the rigidity of society, which is deeper than culture itself since it involves a realm where few have ventured. Large businesses capitalized on the subversive allure of the subculture of the psychedelic era, however, in its formlessness, the art of the psychedelic era was not a mere attempt at commenting on popular culture.  Even though it was assumed into the popular culture industry in the end, it was not born as such, and therefore the condemnation of the style as kitsch is simply an attempt at undermining a culture with the potential for disrupting social and artistic boundaries.

Endnotes
1. David Clarkson, “When Words Fail the Psychedelic Solution of Bruce Pearson”, BOMB, 1998.
2. Chris Grunenberg, “The Politics of Ecstasy: Art for the Mind and Body.” Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era (London: Tate Gallery, 2005), p. 13.
3. Barry Miles, Hippie (New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., 2004), p. 121.
4. Jean-Pierre Criqui, “High Art Jean-Pierre Criqui on Psychedelic Posters,” Artforum International Jan. 2005, p. 54.
5. Ibid.
6. David Barrett, “Summer of Love,” ArtMonthly (Jul.-Aug. 2005). p. 27.
7. Criqui, p. 53.
8. Grunenberg, p. 18.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid., p. 36.
11. Ibid., p. 38
12. Criqui, p. 54.
13. Miles, p. 351.
14. Grunenberg, p. 11.
15. Ibid., p. 13.
16. Ibid.
17. Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” Art and Culture: Critical Essays (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), p. 10.
18. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, “The Culture Industry,” The Cultural Studies Reader, (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 37.
19. Grunenberg, p.38.