Skyscraper Magazine » Are You Experienced?
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Ken Johnson
Prestel Publishing
Format: Hardcover
Release Date: June 1, 2011
By Dave Cantor August 24, 2011

Art history books pretty frequently come off as pedantic screeds with the aim of raising up its author to new heights of authority on any given topic. Well, those are the bad ones. Enjoyable rants about the trajectory of art exist, but usually the good ones dispense with ridiculous high-mindedness and revel in what unifies all of humanity. Ken Johnson, art critic for The New York Times, rejects wading around solely in tangible modernity, instead turning to his enjoyment of recreational drug use and how the practice has wafted into art practices.

Regrettable title aside, Are You Experienced?: How Psychedelic Consciousness Transformed Modern Art explores how getting wasted has come to bear on what one might encounter in a gallery. Johnson almost immediately differentiates between getting stoned on either acid or weed and getting blind drunk. He doesn’t dismiss the later, but explains how smoking a joint, in some cases, enables artist-types to attain a sort of self-reckoning unavailable to Hemingway’s descendants. The one misstep Johnson makes in framing the whole of his book is that he sees the 1960s as instrumental in creating a milieu affording culture makers the opportunity to get high and paint. Or sculpt. Or shoot film and stills. He’s not wrong, but the French fin de siècle birthed works from Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud, neither unfamiliar to writing under the influence of various psychedelics. And booze. Then there’s Alfred Jarry. Apart from his miscalculation, Johnson writes up a pretty convincing catalog of modern and contemporary art with unflinching ties to drug-culture, or at least the deadened counter-culture.

Saving Are You Experienced? from being just another chronology of seemingly related works are the personal stories Johnson offers. He recalls smoking pot for the first time, later realizing the 1960s styled psych-dungeons he frequented probably count as installation art, and eating acid. Using his past, none of which he’s apologetic for, Johnson contrives a set of markers that prove an artwork’s relation to getting stoned. In contrast to a healthy selection of art criticism, instead of proclaiming certain works psychedelic, Johnson instead figures the works included here – everyone from the Chicago Imagists to Wallace Berman, Barbra Kruger, Bruce Conner, and countless others – to be tied together by the influenced of drugs and its attendant culture. Not defined by it.

Film, sculpture, prose, and any manner of popular culture gets worked in wherever Johnson sees the right angle. Ken Kesey and the Trips Festival finds mention, mainly for its relation to LSD being spread around the country, but also for the playfulness Kesey’s Pranksters exhibited. It’s a key element to Johnson’s argument. Heavy stuff can be discussed and examined while still coming off as humorous or amusing. What’s actually funny, though, is that Are You Experienced? really feels like a bunch of stuff Johnson likes and wants to show readers. That’s a supreme tenet of getting high.

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