Psychedelic-Visionary Art: Possible Kitch Incursions?

Antar Mikosz PhD


Added on January 30, 2021

All art is quite useless”

Oscar Wilde

Art isn’t utilitarian, and if it is, perhaps it isn’t art. Art serves a non-practical role in our lives, but that does not mean that it is not vital or necessary. One’s individual identity and our collective identity as a culture have no clear serviceability, but they are critical to our ability to function as a society.

White, 2004, p. 45

This paper aims to make a brief reflection on kitsch and psychedelic-visionary artistic production. The words psychedelic-visionary here are being used together representing the same concept.

The differences, etymologies and history of each term will not be treated here, only their common aspects like visions, imaginary, often associated with a particular spiritual realm, etc.

If we make a simplified section of the history of Western painting since the Middle Ages, we will see that the focus of the paintings has been replaced with time. During Gothic (12th century), Renaissance (14th century), Baroque (16th century) and Romanticism (late 18th century), religious and mythological themes were common. With Realism (late 19th century), the themes were related to social issues, to the everyday world and “no more angels were painted”. Art would have gotten rid of one of its oldest associations since rock art: representing themes inspired by spiritual realms. With the event of abstractionism, painting also ceases to copy the outside world and seeks to be self-sufficient, it is the work itself, not a copy. Put that way, it may seem that a figurative painting would be conceptually “inferior” to an abstract painting. Arriving in the middle of the 20th century, Abstract Expressionism, well represented by Jackson Pollack, defended by the critic and art theorist Clement Greenberg, could indicate the end of painting, nothing more could be original in this language. However, Pop Art came, Hyper-realism, and painting “returned” to intensely copy the world, perhaps not in the same way or with the same intentions of the past. We can include here that the association of the artistic object with the beauty was another issue in the evolution of the concepts and theories of art. Obviously, there is no space here for all this discussion. The intention is to show the conceptual intricacies and discourses that surround the theme when visual representations seek elements that go beyond the material world.

Some Concepts

Contemporary art should not have a utilitarian character, be some form of entertainment, serve as an object of decoration, seek explicitly to move, be a window to the outside or inside world. These characteristics, among others, can be considered kitsch, we started from this to investigate where the psychedelic-visionary poetics fits or not within this particular aesthetic in some of its works.

In the book 101 Things to Learn in Art School, Kit White brings this Oscar Wilde’s sentence: “All art is quite useless”. People not linked to these studies may be surprised by this statement, however, the fact is that, currently: “Art can be anything” It is not defined by medium or the means of its production, but by a collective sense that it belongs to a category of experience we have come to know as “art” (White, 2004, p.13). Artistic criteria are dated historically, change over time and are subject to creative modalities in constant renewal. Herculean task for philosophers and art theorists to account for a concept that meets all Western and Eastern production and in all times from the past to the present and still project that same concept to what art may be in the future… With recent examples, we can witness this difficulty. Perhaps just a little more than a decade ago, thinking of Graffiti as a legitimate form of art and it would be exhibited at the Tate Modern in London would be unimaginable. However, Os Gêmeos, Brazilian artists, were invited in 2008 to painting Graffiti on the walls of the facade of Tate Modern in London. Popular video games with art status? The 2012 MoMA (Museum of Modern Art of New York) acquired 14 games that were elevated to this category as the famous PacMan (https://moma.org/explore/inside_out/2012/11/29/video-games-14-in-the-collection-for-starters/). MoMA also started to collect modern photography in 1930 (http://www.moma.org/explore/collection/departments/photography). In February 2011 this museum showed the film “All the wrong Art” about “lowbrown”, that is, pop surrealism, (https://www.moma.org/calendar/film/1127) showing the opening that this institution has in relation to what contemporary art production is.

Anyway, returning to the beginning of the 20th century, Duchamp brought the ready-mades, industrial objects that, removed from their utilitarian condition, gained the possibility of being thought aesthetically (nobody would think today “what a bad taste this urinal on the table”). These are brilliant pursuits for creativity and innovation that are not always understood immediately. According to Danto. “what separates artistic and non-artistic works is the sociological context. Everything that is presented within an institutional structure as art, be it a museum, a gallery or, less tangibly, the community who call themselves artists, critics and art historians – will be treated as art” (2006, p. 43).

This institution, art, will use several criteria, not always easy to discern, not always universal, to evaluate what is or is not art, what is good or bad work, regardless of the intention and motivation of the one who produced it. For example: the works of Bispo do Rosário (1909? -1989) represented Brazil at the 1995 Venice Biennale, did he, when imprisoned in a living asylum cell because of his schizophrenia, worry about it? An institution called art? As an example, we can examine some authors who seek to conceptualize and give characteristics of what art is. Calabrese makes a concept that seems sufficiently comprehensive,

“Intrinsic quality of certain works produced by human intelligence, that is, constituted in general only by visual materials, which has an aesthetic effect, leads to a judgment of value on the works themselves or on their sets or on their authors, and that depends on specific techniques or production methods of the works themselves” (1986, p.8).

Denis Dantton presents seven universal characteristics of art:

  • Skill or virtuosity. Technical artistic skills are cultivated, recognized and admired.
  • Non-utilitarian pleasure. People appreciate art for art’s sake and do not require them to keep them warm or to put food on the table.
  • Style. Objects and representations satisfy rules of composition that place them in a recognizable style.
  • Criticism. People insist on judging, evaluating and interpreting works of art.
  • Imitation. With some important exceptions such as music and abstract painting, works of art simulate world experiences.
  • Special focus. Art is distinguished from ordinary life and gives a dramatic focus to the experience.
  • Imagination. Artists and their audiences imagine hypothetical worlds in the theatre of imagination.

Ellen Dissanayake presents twelve:

  • The manifestation of some special ability;
  • The artificial creation of something by man;
  • The triggering of some kind of response in the human being, such as the sense of pleasure or beauty;
  • The presentation of some kind of order, pattern or harmony;
  • The transmission of a sense of novelty and originality;
  • The expression of the creator’s inner reality;
  • The communication of something in the form of a special language;
  • The notion of value and importance;
  • The excitement of imagination and fantasy;
  • The induction or communication of a peak experience;
  • Things that have a recognizable meaning;
  • Things that give an answer to a given problem.

The last two quotes above were chosen because they were used by evolutionary psychologist Steve Pinker, who criticizes:

The psychological roots of these activities [art] have recently become the subject of research and debate. Some researchers, like academic Ellen Dissanayake, believe that art is an evolutionary adaptation, like the emotion of fear and the ability to see in depth. Others, like me, believe that art (except narrative) is a by-product of three other adaptations: the craving for status, the aesthetic pleasure of experiencing adaptive objects and environments, and the ability to craft artifacts to achieve the desired ends. From this perspective, art is a technology of pleasure, like drugs, eroticism and refined cuisine – a way of purifying and concentrating pleasurable stimuli and sending them to our senses (2004, p.547).

It is an interesting provocation from the Harvard evolutionary psychologist. The two quotes may show some characteristics present in art, but they do not end the question: art is constantly reinventing itself. You can even think of it as a therapeutic form. Lygia Clark (1920-1988) went in this direction in her trajectory: “Between 1970 and 1975, in the collective activities proposed by Lygia Clark at the Faculté d’Arts Plastiques St. Charles, at Sorbonne, artistic practice was understood as a definitive creation, in transition to therapy” (Itaú Cultural, 2016). According to Henry Matisse (1869-1954), “I dream of an art of balance, purity and serenity, devoid of disturbing or depressing themes, an art that can be for every mental worker, whether entrepreneur or writer, as if it were a calming influence, a mental sedative, something like a good chair where you can rest from physical tiredness” (Read, 1980, p.44).

Since the past, various artistic movements have appeared in opposition to established ones, offering other forms of interpretation, ideas, visions and innovative direction. The names of many of these movements were given in a derogatory way: Mannerism, artists who did “the way/manner” of the Renaissance artists, in the sense of “not being as good as”; the Baroque, synonymous of coarse; the term Impressionism arose from the ironic commentary of the painter and writer Louis Leroy over Monet’s Impression of the Sunrise; Fovismo, “the beasts”, as the critic Louis Vauxcelles exclaimed, due to the violent chromatic expression of the paintings. These baptisms explained prejudices and little credibility in the future of the works involved, but they stayed.

“Impression of the Sunrise” – oil on canvas – Monet, 1837.

An interesting case is described by Tomaz Kulka. If we believe that to evaluate a work of art we can use some basic requirements such as: Unity, Complexity and Intensity, Kulka brings us a historical example of the relativity of such criteria. Innovative work receives heavy criticism for not being able to meet the three basic requirements described above, according to John Goldind, “This is an unsatisfactory painting in many ways. To begin with it has an inconsistent style. Even a quick look is enough to realize that “so-and-so” changed his mind several times while he was working; even he considered it unfinished” (Kulka, 2002, p.48).

Matisse criticized the work and the author saying that he tried, with this work, to ridicule the modern art movement. The artist was very depressed and the work was rolled up and hidden for years. The picture depicted is Les Demoiseles D’Avignon by Pablo Picasso. These are just some examples of the fragility of concepts and the search for innovations that do not stop in Western art.

Les Demoiselles D’Avignon By Pablo Picasso

What art is looking for?

We can observe that since the cave paintings the human being sought to represent his experience of the material world and also of the imaginary, his myths, visions and fantasies. The imitation of the world, the mimesis, was strong in Ancient Greece and later in the Renaissance. It was linked to beauty and artists were valued for their special skill and virtuosity. As we have seen, with the event of abstractionism, art lost its function of copying or interpreting the world, becoming a self-sufficient image.

Creating spiritual representations is not necessarily a function of art. I am referring here that the explicit creation of spiritual representations, for example, an angel or a Buddha, someone in a meditative posture, does not necessarily make a spiritual work. Kandinski, Malevich, Mondrian, were painters who had strong connections with the esoterism and spirituality of mystics and thinkers like Helena Blavatski, Ouspenski and Gurdieff, they did it through abstract forms that, in this point of view, were more appropriate than figurative art or copies of material world.

The Birth of Venus – Oil on Canvas – Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889), 1863.

It is precisely at this point that the reflection of this chapter appears: the kitsch. Finding a “definitive” concept of kitsch is as complex as defining art.

Possibly the term appeared in Germany between 1860 and 1870, a jargon used by painters and art sellers in Munich and used to designate cheap artistic objects (Calinescu, 1987, p.234). However, there are several theories and etymological studies that could not be discussed here in full. Thinking of kitsch as a synonym for bad taste or “tacky” or “corny” would be far from the truth and, finally, how to define “bad taste”? How many times has this changed over time? Nor does it refer to any type of bad art, who knows, perhaps, more to a type of pseudo or false art. The boundaries are not clear, “Even if we accept Clement Greenberg’s view that avant-gard is radically opposed to kitsch, we must realize that these two extremes are strongly attracted and what separates them is much less impressive than what unites them” (Calinescu, 1987, p.254).

Basically, when we talk about kitsch, the image of a porcelain penguin on top of a refrigerator comes to mind. Why does it represents something kitsch? It is this association, simulation, this displacement represented by the cold generated by the refrigerator with the miniature reproduction of an animal that lives in icy regions. As kitschy as the combination of a plastic pineapple juice jar. They do not play the role of symbols, they are in a forced and vulgar literality, although, if not taken so seriously, what harm do they represent? The same concept can apply to reproductions such as framed prints of famous works such as the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, or facade of houses with reproductions of miniature Greek columns next to the entrance door. All the simulations and movements of the genre that infest society consumption, mistaken attempts to imitate the status quo. Wide discussion in this direction can be read in the book The Kitsch – The Art of Happiness by Abraham Moles

Representations of spirituality in a painting, for example, a guardian angel protecting children crossing a bridge, can be seen in the same way. We do not dwell here on what faith and religiosity would be or not, we are thinking about the aesthetics of the resulting images.

Kitsch is also associated with forms of emotional manipulation, cheesy, “cheap emotion”, as described by Kundera (1985, p.253):

Of course, the feelings raised by kitsch can be shared by as many people as possible. Therefore, kitsch is not interested in the unusual, it speaks of key images, deeply rooted in the memory of men: the ungrateful daughter, the abandoned father, the boys running in the grass, the betrayed homeland, the memory of first love.

Kitsch causes two tears of emotion, one after the other. The first tear says: what a beautiful child runs on the lawn! The second tear says: how beautiful it is to be moved, together with all humanity, in front of children running on the lawn! Only that second tear makes kitsch the kitsch.

These emotional manipulations are present in images, films, soap operas, in reports, in advertisements, on television, in everyday life. The expression “Mexican soap opera” here makes perfect sense. Many religious images seek to provoke similar emotions in the observer as well as the famous images of clowns or children with tears in their eyes. However, the reflection sought here seems to move more towards what the Norwegian painter Odd Nerdrum (1944-) approaches. Defender of kitsch aesthetics, he reports how he positioned himself in relation to this concept:

I was at a party. We were sitting around a big table drinking. Next to me sat an African American curator from the modernist wing of the Metropolitan Museum (New York). We talked about art and aesthetics, it was really cool. I asked her, “What’s missing from Modern Art? That is, what has been left out?” “Well”, she said, “maybe something, but I like Modern Art. What do you think is missing?” Her look looked anxious, she couldn’t wait for my answer. “Well”, I said, “What about an infinite sunset?” She shook her head. “This is far from being Art”. “Warm, wonderful skin and a sensitive face with captivating eyes”. “Oh! Too sentimental”, she said. “Perfect finish? What’s more, a poetic finish?” “What?”, she asked in surprise. “A loving couple sitting on a bench?” “Inconceivable”, she exclaimed. “A naked and beautiful woman. Her eyes saying: come my love”. She laughed … “But this is Kitsch!”
From that I understood what I really was. (Nerdrum, 2011, p.7)

And we continue to Fish – Tempera – Nicholas Roerich Museum, New York, USA – Nicholas Roerich, 1922.

The painting of a sunset can be considered kitsch. A photograph of the same theme does not: “nature itself cannot be considered kitsch, only its representations can” (Kulka, 2002, p.90). In the same way, the other images described above by Nerdrum and so many similar ones, may belong to kitsch aesthetics, however, they are part of our lifes, but “we should not make pictorial representations of them”.

Regarding the production of paintings, Nerdrum (2014, p.7) exposes some characteristics of kitsch aesthetics:

  • The kitsch painter should not be judged on national, racial or religious grounds in his representations of life – but on the basis of timeless qualities.
  • The kitsch painter is not protected by the time in which he lives. He strives to represent the most sublime qualities in history and must be judged according to them.
  • A kitsch work is good or bad, a good kitsch should not qualify as art. This would be an error of judgment. Kitsch is not art. Kitsch refers to the sensual and the timeless.
  • The kitsch painter is committed to the eternal: Love, death and the sunrise.
  • Innovation is neither important nor originality. Going deep is the goal, because in the representation of nature itself, individual expression is found.
Maenads – Oil on canvas, 190,5 x 269 cm – Odd Nerdrum, 2014.

Although in the psychedelic-visionary art the material world is not so important, as it is more focused on an inner universe often linked to the spiritual, looking for the unusual that, for Kundera, is not the goal of kitsch. The interest of the psychedelic and visionary is in the unconscious and irrational world, in the archetypal, in the non-ordinary states of consciousness (NOSC). Visions of fantastic landscapes are recurrent. However, figurative representations are present in the same way that has already been widely explored by artists of Symbolism and Decadentism. Psychedelic-visionary art is not easy to label. As in art in general, it can be anything, as long as it deals with visions, that is:

Visionary Art can be understood as an artistic activity where production is conditioned to experiences arising from non-ordinary states of consciousness.

[…] Visionary Art today does not advocate a new specific style, it is possible to find visionary artists without academic training, such as naïfs, or very technical and of great dexterity and virtuosity similar to hyper-realists. It can use conventional painting and drawing materials, or all kinds of technological innovations in photography, cinema and computing. Although predominantly figurative, there are artists who work with abstract forms or a mixture of both (Mikosz, 2009, p.114).

Schmürz, the incognito monster

In the preface to Lucienne Peiry’s “Art Brut”, Michel Thévoz describes the story of a monster, a mutant being, who was born and raised in an apartment of a bourgeois family who deliberately ignores him and goes on with their lifes as if the monster has not been there. Thévoz refers to the raw art born in the middle of the established artistic scene (Peiry, 2006, p.07). It is art that does not seek fashion, the artist who does not necessarily have artistic training, who does not seek to imitate the art of his time, who seeks his own sources, his own inventions, impulses and humor, without worrying about current rules (Peiry, 2006, p.11). In the city of Baltimore, USA, there is the AVAM (American Visionary Art Museum) Founded by Rebecca Hoffberger and kinetic sculptor Hobart Brown in 1989, a museum that seeks to welcome works by visionary and popular artists, very close to the concept of Brute Art by Jean Dubuffet . In the museum catalog there is the following quote:

Visionary art as defined for the purposes of the American Visionary Art Museum refers to art produced by self-taught individuals, usually without formal training, whose works arise from an innate personal vision that is most important in the creative act itself memo. In short, visionary art begins by listening to the inner voices of the soul and often cannot even be thought of as “art” by its creator. The most common theme of visionary artists around the world is the recreation of some Eden in the yard – a personal and private utopia. (Avam, 2011, p.9)

The museum is one of the few of its kind in the world, but we can see the presence of this incognito monster increasing, making a parallel to the psychedelic-visionary, in several parts of the world, just to name a few examples, as at the University of Greenwich in England with the biennial event Breaking Convention – International Conference on Psychedelic Consciousness, with scientific discussions and exhibitions of visual arts and music; in New York, the annual Horizons – Perspective on Psychedelics event; the creation in 2012 of the Viennese Academy of Visionary Art; the Wasiwaska Institute in Brazil; more recently the University of Amsterdam, through professors Woulter Hanegraaff and Peter Forshaw, opens a line of research in Western Esoterism and Non-Ordinary States of Consciousness, in addition to receiving in the same year 2016 the Interdisciplinary Conference on Psychedelics Research. As an example in official art shows, at the Curitiba International Biennial in 2015, at MuMA (Curitiba Municipal Museum of Art), there were more than 30 artists linked, in one way or another, to produce or record spiritual and religious manifestations such as in the photographs by Orlando Azevedo, Lina Faria and Mauro Restiffe, Tunga’s drawings, Cleverson de Oliveira’s “MerzBauSubtropical Experience”, works by Mestre Didi, Carybé and Rubem Valentim with the influence of Afro-Brazilian religions. The presence of works by Bispo do Rosário, the symbolic imagery of Stephan Doitschinoff, and the exhibition of the film Ayahuasca by the artists Sara Bonfim and Rafael Bertelli. More recently Marina Abramovich, one of the most important performers of our time, has been in Brazil seeking healing and inspiration for her artistic works, going through several religions including those that share with ayahuasca psychoactive tea, according to her, one of the most difficult experiences of her life. Her searches resulted in the movie Espaço Além – Marina Abramivic and Brazil, directed by Marco Del Fiol.

Does all this point in a new direction? Or just one of the characteristics initiated with postmodern thinking to encompass various trends, varied niches that are not hegemonic, there is no aesthetic totalitarianism of a supposed artistic elite, but possibilities for thoughts and reflections due to various biases, fleeing creative sterility in this beginning of the millennium?

From the above, it is clear that kitsch aesthetics, whether due to its inheritance of romanticism, because, according to Calinescu (1987, p.237): “even though we find some formal relations between kitsch and mannerism and the baroque, kitsch seems being, historically, the result of romanticism”. May be present in contemporary psychedelic and visionary works, however, with three implications: 1. Not all works will have kitsch elements. Many are geometric compositions, incursions into abstractionism, mandala works, etc., running away from the most obvious kitsch; 2. Some artists will work with kitsch unconsciously. They will produce spontaneously, very close to the influence of the environment, society and culture, with cliché themes such as death, sensuality, love, emotional manipulations and attempts to reproduce the beautiful as a “magnificent sunset”, etc.; 3. Its use may have the same bias sought and defended by Odd Nerdrum and other artists and researchers, where themes like the kitsch clichés can be considered as an advantage and freedom, consciously used as something that is more than art. We venture to say here that it remains art, just another bias of it, not art for art’s sake or also the art of ideas (conceptual art) as developed during the 20th century, but art beyond art that is timeless. Its origin is at the beginning of human history, at the same time that it mysteriously developed its consciousness and began to produce images.


References

CALABRESE, Omar. A Linguagem da Arte. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Globo, 2002.

CALINESCU, Matei. Five Faces of Modernity – Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism. Indiana: Duke University Press, 1987.

CHITI, Jorge Fernández. Diccionario de Estética de las Artes Pláticas. Buenos Aires: Ediciones Condorhuasi, 2003.

DANTO, Arthur C. A Transfiguração do Lugar Comum. São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2006.

DISSANAYAKE, Ellen. Homo aestheticus: Where art comes from and why. New York: Free Press, 1992.

KULKA, Tomas. Kitsch and Art. Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002.

KUNDERA, Milan. A Insustentável Leveza do Ser. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Nova Fronteira, 1985.

MOLES, Abraham. O Kitsch – A Arte da Felicidade. São Paulo: Editora Perspectiva, 2001.

NERDRUM, Odd. ET AL. On Kitsch. N Press, 2014.

__________. ET AL. Kitsch More than Art. Oslo: Schibsted Forlag, 2011.

PINKER, Steve. A Tábula Rasa: A Negação Contemporânea da Natureza Humana. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2004.

READ, Herbert. História da Pintura Moderna. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar Editores, 1980.

VASARI, Giorgio. Vidas dos Artistas. São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 2011.

WHITE, Kit. 101 Things to Learn in Art School. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2011.

WOLFE, Tom. A Palavra Pintada. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Rocco, 2009.

Online:

Itaú Cultural. Enciclopédia Itaú Cultural: Lygia Clark. Available: http://enciclopedia.itaucultural.org.br/pessoa1694/lygia-clark

Catalog:

AVAM. American Visionary Art Museum. Baltimore, 2011.

José Eliézer Mikosz (Antar) - Transmedia artist, researcher in visionary art and psychedelic culture. Associate Professor at UNESPAR Campus Curitiba. Editor of the International Interdisciplinary Journal Art&Sensorium. Post Doc at FBUL (Lisbon). PhD from PPGICH-UFSC. Member of CIEBA-FBAUL (Center for Research in Fine Arts, Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Lisbon). Member of CHAM (FSCH Universidade Nova de Lisboa). Member of the Advisory Board of the Research Center for the Study of Psycointegrator Plants, Visionary Art and Consciousness (WASIWASKA). Associated with the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies on Psychoactives (NEIP). Member of the Rose-Croix International University (URCI-AMORC).

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