Addendum: Notes on Psychedelic Art

A possible through line of the LES shows that I didn't mention in my previous review was the psychedelic. Well, maybe it's a bit of a stretch, but it crossed my mind. It might just be I've been listening to too much Grateful Dead. The term conjures tie dye and visualizers, but rather than the trappings of those specific signifiers my interest lies in the psychedelic as the experience of a phenomenon that led to the invention of tie dye, an experience of the universal, loss of subjectivity, etc. Each one of the shows put forth a refusal of conventional artistic individuality: Soskolne painted found imagery as an attempt to subvert the art world's insistence on artists having a consistent, identifiable style (not to mention the fractal paintings), McArthur appropriated objects and imagery from mundane household items, abstracting the association of her possessions with herself rather than reifying that connection, and the Reena show negated the subjectivity of the artists on display by crowding them in so densely that their perspectives piled on top of each other instead of attempting to make them harmonize, so that whatever intent each artist may have had with their work was smothered. The artists stand at a remove from the work, they are disaffiliated, there is no self-expression involved. But to be honest, the shows themselves aren't important. They're not what I want to talk about, these are just some ideas that I thought of the day I went to these galleries.

The art world has an identity problem. The particularly self-obsessed trend of appropriating pop culture based on one's subjective sentimentality seems to have fallen out of fashion, but what remains firmly entrenched is the myth of the artist as a discrete, unique subject, which may be less flagrantly narcissistic but is no less malignant. Successful artists, somewhat understandably, call any less successful artists that bear any resemblance to them imitators. But, contrary to popular belief, the fact of the matter is that the contemporary moment is not composed of infinite possibilities because everyone is a slave to their sociocultural context. As in the case of multiple people inventing the light bulb at the same time, each one realizing a new technological development made possible by other new technological developments, every time period is limited to a discrete set of possibilities of what can be done successfully. We are just as incapable of writing an Elizabethan drama as Shakespeare was of being a net artist. What is cool or relevant in one year is an objective fact, whether or not it is explicitly articulated. Artists have only two options: acting in tandem with the current trend or working in opposition to it, the latter of which leads either to irrelevance or setting the next trend.* This next trend comes along and the same choice must be made, ad infinitum. This cycle and its rapidity is its own set of problems, but for our purposes it serves to prove art is never an unbounded field, nor by extension is the artist an unbounded subject. The idea of the artist asserting their uniqueness becomes increasingly ludicrous the more it is emphasized: as in the trope of "body poetry," women affirming their unique physical radiance, each one of them invariably writing exactly the same sexual cliches, or the aforementioned appropriation trend where artists recycle cartoon characters from their childhood in their art, as if Alex Da Corte thinks his relationship to Donald Duck is unique and not just what happens to every child that watches television. The regime of self-expression only serves to underscore how little self there is to express. Art itself is unconcerned with the artist. Painting is concerned with paint, writing with language, music with sound, etc., and a good artist is capable of making those materials function. The ideas within the work may be tied to the autobiographical facts of the artist, but knowledge of such facts is simply trivia; what matters is the quality of the work itself. A story about death can be devastating and written by an author who has experienced little grief in their life, just as an author who has experienced real loss can write an ineffectual tragedy. The problem is that, in a contemporary context where a criterion of quality has essentially ceased to exist, many take recourse to these identitarian formats like novelty (i.e. branding), autobiography, or political activism as a means of affecting significance.**

The psychedelic experience is, popularly, an apprehension of the cosmic, a sense of oneness with the universe, a liberation from subjectivity. There are variations: the ego trip that inflates the subjective, the ironic "laughing at how weird advertisements are" trip that derealizes the subject's relationship to the world, the bad trip that often consists of an inflation of the sense of the world's severity (or just confusion), but fundamentally the experience adjusts one's sense of self. Applied to art, this scrambling of the artistic subject's relation to the art object provides a gap that could provide some relief to the navel-gazing void that is contemporary art. At the very least, it can induce enough self-reflection to trigger a recognition of how stiflingly pointless art has become, and the apparent inextricability of that condition. Which is not to say, however, that I advocate the dosing of artists as a way to free the art world's mind. I seriously suspect that psychedelic drugs lose most of their ability to meaningfully impact one's ego by the time your prefrontal cortex has fully developed (c.f. tech CEOs tripping at Burning Man), and besides, as Robert Christgau notes in his review of the Grateful Dead's 1987 album In The Dark, "One problem with the cosmic is it doesn't last forever." Those epiphanies aren't sustainable, one ends up back on solid ground one way or another with just a dim memory of the realizations they once had. Another problem with the cosmic is it ricochets from desubjectivity into a redoubled subjectivity, "I have experienced oneness with the universe, a total ego death, so I am the unique individualized subject," hence the classic acid trip where someone decides they're the second coming of Jesus Christ, and the narcissistic entitlement of the Baby Boomers. This is because the opposite of the subjective is not the universal, just another singularity, but the multiple, the intersubjective, the collective. Culture, in a word.

Our conundrum is that we have a culture, but that culture is individualism, which negates the purpose of culture. A culture is an inherited framework of sensibility where similarities in taste between individuals are accepted as the result of a shared context. The inheritance of a context frees the artist from the burden of coming up with a personal signature, allowing them to simply refine their technique which will yield an actual individuality through the inherent subtleties of the practice of making. Take, for instance, the differences between Titian and Veronese, or between rappers who were popular in the same year. Rap is probably the only currently thriving artistic culture, but even then rap only manages to thrive through the mild contradiction of a culture focused entirely upon self-aggrandizement. That mindset creates a fickle environment in constant flux where an emergent rapper is lucky to hold on to their fame for more than a year, making it nearly impossible to refine and develop a style with depth. Rap's compulsion to self-affirmation is symptomatic of the wider issue of our cultural fragmentation: our inability to have faith in anything. The sufficiently sociopathic can manage some faith in themselves, most are simply depressed. Having deconstructed the former sources of faith that had been accepted as objective truths but were in fact simply bigoted, such as religion or nationalism, we're left with the contradiction of yearning for the solidity of belief while simultaneously recognizing that truth is contingent and therefore incompatible with belief. It's a difficult situation without any clear answers, and I certainly don't have any. I'm not that far into Adorno's Negative Dialectics right now but it seems pretty relevant. I guess this didn't end up being much about the psychedelic, but oh well. If you want me to stay on topic maybe try paying me!

*Outsider artists unaware of trends are the most subject to the heteronomy of their influences. Ignorance may be bliss, but it is not freedom.
**This is not to say that novelty, autobiography, or political activism are inherently bad, of course, just that a work being new, personal, or political does not guarantee it is good. This should be obvious but apparently isn't in a disturbing number of arts contexts, some very prominent. Contemporary art museums, for instance.