The term psychedelics is used to describe psychoactive substances that distort mood and perception by affecting numerous cognitive processes. Generally, they are non-addictive and are considered physiologically safe. The term was coined in 1957 by the psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond and has been a common colloquialism for more than sixty years. However, it was and remained scorned by the scientific community. Thus, it is no wonder that a new term emerged. In 1979 a group of ethnobotanists coined the term entheogen to describe the personal growth and spiritual aspects of the psychedelic experience. It is defined as “a neologism to designate psychoactive substances employed in culturally sanctioned visionary experiences in rituals and religious contexts” (Ruck, 2019).
This change in vocabulary marks a significant attempt at reframing hallucinogenic substances from reckless party enhancers to instruments for personal and spiritual development. It is essential to highlight that today’s new wave of psychedelic authors prefers the term entheogens, which offers an insight into their perspective. The main text I have used for this research is The New Psychedelic Revolution: The Genesis of the Visionary Age (2018) by James Oroc. This text offers an interesting perspective on the history of visionary art from its roots in pre-history, Ernst Fuchs and the Vienna School of Fantastic Realism, and contemporary psychedelic art. He, himself describes the book as, “one of the first major attempts to document and provide a timeline for the emergence of contemporary visionary culture […] which I have been a privileged witness over the past fifteen years” (Oroc, 2018, p. 5). In addition to this, Oroc’s book proposes that a ‘second psychedelic revolution’ has arisen from the embers of the original 1960s LSD revolution.
Recent years have shown a shift in perspectives on the role of illegal psychedelic substances. This is evident by the numerous research studies currently active in universities and research labs; for example, Dr Martin William, the executive director of psychedelic research is co-leading a trial at St. Vincent’s hospital in Melbourne, Australia. His study examines how effective psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy is in treating anxiety disorders in terminally ill patients. Likewise, similar trials are exploring how psychedelic substances can help with a large number of ailments including: depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, alcoholism and nicotine addiction, cluster headaches, autism, cognitive functioning, creativity, post-traumatic stress disorder, glaucoma, tissue regeneration, improving immune response, and cell differentiation and growth (Nichols, 2016). In addition, multiple organisations fund and promote psychedelic research, such as the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), the Beckley Foundation and the Mind Foundation.
On a similar note, hundreds, maybe thousands of websites actively promote psychedelic culture. This enhanced digital connectivity has played a significant role in the dramatic rise and popularity of electronic dance music – the first prominent music genre to revere and popularise psychedelics since the 1960s. According to Oroc, the success of this global music scene has contributed significantly to ‘transformational festivals’ and the corresponding visionary art culture. Transformational festivals include events such as Burning Man in the United States and the BOOM! Festival in Europe – these events are counter-culture festivals that promote a community-building ethic and a value system that celebrates life, personal growth, social responsibility, healthy living, and creative expression. In addition to all of this, there are consistently new publications on the topic and the largest number of synthetic and natural psychedelic substances that have ever been available to any society in history.
It is for these reasons that Oroc believes that “the psychedelic revolution within western culture is […] entering a second renaissance” (Oroc, 2018). He explains that this second revolution has arrived at a critical time in human history. He writes, “an entheogenic society is a critical piece of the new paradigm required for humanity to survive its rapidly worsening modern dilemma” (ibid). This grandiose claim relies on ethnomycologists’ and historians’ speculative research, suggesting that ‘psychedelic transformations’ have occurred numerous times throughout history and may have been crucial for the development of modern man’s consciousness. For example, the ethnomycologist Richard Wasson, and the amateur mycologist Terence Mckenna both proposed that the accidental consumption of psychedelic psilocybin mushrooms may have been ‘spark’ that encouraged early human to first conceive of language and God (Mckenna, 1992; Wasson, 1980). However, this stance is argued by many such as the anthropologist Andy Letcher who argues:
Aficionados claim that magic mushrooms are not just another drug but are psycho-spiritual tools that bring a greater understanding of the self, of our place in the world and of some essential ‘truth’. Mainstream society, they maintain, is blinkered by the ‘war on drugs’ and is unfairly prejudiced against this most benign and illuminating of the naturally occurring hallucinogens […] I would suggest that enthusiasts’ time would be better spent arguing the case for mushrooms in terms of the culturally sanctioned criteria of our time, that is, on health and medical grounds than on the grounds of some fantastical history, dreamed up on the basis of wishful thinking and overworked evidence (Letcher, 2006)
In Oroc’s view, the most significant development of the second psychedelic revolution is the domination of psychedelic art, now known as visionary art. The visionary artists have propelled this second wave, in contrast to the psychedelic revolution of the 1960s, which was mainly influenced by writers such as Aldous Huxley, Alan Watts, and Timothy Leary. In addition, contemporary visionary artists have provided psychedelic imagery for the worldwide electronic music scene that supports it. And, thanks to the internet it has become the most recognisable and arguably the most influential element of contemporary psychedelic culture. Oroc states:
I have come to understand both the technical difference between the term’s visionary art and psychedelic art, while practically I have come to recognise how these differences may not even effectively matter anymore, since in the twenty-first century, the two terms have now merged as One (ibid).
However, he also acknowledges that “not all visionary art is psychedelic, nor is all psychedelic art necessarily visionary” (ibid. 195). Thus, the author recognises that entheogens may not be the one-way ticket to creating visionary works, nor is it the only path. This observation is crucial as it leaves room for further consideration and interpretation.
Oroc, amongst others, states that the artist Alex Grey (b. 1953) is the forerunner of the contemporary visionary art movement (Oroc, 2018; Wilber, 1990). His role in triggering this movement’s development began with the publication of his art book Sacred Mirrors: The Visionary Art of Alex Grey (1990). Grey is a New York-based and psychedelically inspired artist who was encouraged by his publisher Ehud Sperling to use the term ‘visionary art’ in the subtitle of his book. The term was taken from the great poet and painter William Blake (1757-1827), who often used the word to describe himself and his imaginative experiences. For example, he once wrote, “the nature of my work is visionary or imaginative; it is an endeavour to restore (what the ancients called) the Golden Age” (Blake, 1988, p. 555).
Likewise, while concluding a letter dated 1800, he wrote, “[from your] enthusiastic, hope-fostered visionary, William Blake” (Bloom & Erdman, 1988). Blake often referred to himself as a visionary because of the visions he was often subject to; for example, it is noted that at the age of four, he had a frightening vision of God peering through his window. In addition, he often had visions of angels, kings, and monsters, which inspired him to create unique and inspiring imagery and poetry. It is interesting to note that, during his time, the term ‘visionary’ was defined as “affected by phantoms; disposed to receive impressions on the imagination.”
Over the last two decades, Alex Grey and his wife, Allyson, have nurtured a whole new generation of exceptionally talented visionary artists, who have now taken responsibility for teaching the next generation. The visionary artists often work alongside stage, lighting, and sound engineers to create a psychedelic environment of considerable sophistication at remote transformational festivals and other events around the globe. A new and exciting example can be found at Meow Wolf in Las Vegas. This exhibition space is working on creating a massive immersive environment using projections and animation of visionary paintings. The visionary artists involved in this project include Alex Grey, Allyson Grey, Luke Brown, and Amanda Sage. Even though Alex Grey has enjoyed tremendous success, Oroc states that Grey is still not recognised or accepted by the mainstream art world. Despite this, he appears to be one of the most famous artists in America today.
According to both Oroc and Grey, visionary art has the potential to change the world. As noted in Oroc’s text, Grey is fond of saying, “visionary art could be the new religion […] with psychedelics recognised again as sacraments” (Oroc, 2018). In their view, a psychedelic-mystical response to art, music, and dance is one of the few effective methodologies that can combat the programming of modern existence and help alleviate our shared existential suffering (ibid).
Do you think art has the potential to transform our culture, potentially saving the future from our current destructive path? Let me know what you think in the comments.
Blake, W., 1988. A Vision of the Last Judgement. In: The Complete Poetry and Prose of WIlliam Blake. USA: Anchor Books, pp. 554-566.
Bloom, H. & Erdman, D., 1988. The Complete Poetry and Prose of WIlliam Blake. USA: Anchor Books.
Letcher, A., 2006. Shrrom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom. London: Faber and Faber Limited.
Mckenna, T., 1992. The Archaic Revival: Speculations on Psychedelic Mushrooms, the Amazon, Virtual Reality, UFOs, Evolution, Shamanism, the Rebirth of the Goddess, and the End of History. USA: HarperSanFrancisco.
Oroc, J., 2018. The New Psychedelic Revolution: The Genesis of the Visionary Age. 1st Ed. ed. Vermont: Park Street Press.
Ruck, C., 2019. Entheogens in Ancient Times: Wine and the Ritual of Dionysus. In: Toxicology in Antiquity (2nd. edition). USA: Academic Press, pp. 343-352.
Wasson, R. G., 1980. The Wondrous Mushroom: Mycolatry in Mesoamerica. New York : Mc Graw-Hill Book Company.
Wilber, K., 1990. In the Eye of the Artist: Art and Perennial Philosophy. In: Sacred Mirrors: The Visionary Art of Alex Grey. Vermont: Inner Traditions International, pp. 1-10.