Boundaries in Question:
Examining "Visionary Art"
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To better understand the Erowid Visionary Art Vaults, we asked its curator, Christopher Barnaby, about his understanding of the bounds of visionary art. His response led us to dig deeper, and the ensuing discussions yielded an unanticipated pretzel of definitions.
From just a few moments of searching on Google, it is evident that the term Visionary Art is used for a wide variety of genres, and there are largely two definitions of the term. The first is represented in the Mission Statement of the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, MD:
"Visionary Art (...) refers to art produced by self-taught individuals, usually without formal training, whose works arise from an innate personal vision that revels foremost in the creative act itself."1
In this context, the definition of Visionary Art is similar to Outsider Art, but without the specificity of that term. Sometimes it also includes tribal art and folk art traditions.2
A second definition, perhaps more familiar to some visitors of the Erowid Vaults, is described in the First Draft of a Manifesto of Visionary Art, by Laurence Caruana, an artist who studied with Ernst Fuchs:
"The Visionary Artist uses all means at his disposal - even at great risk to himself - to access different states of consciousness and expose the resulting vision. Art of the Visionary attempts to show what lies beyond the boundary of our sight. Through dream, trance, or other altered states, the artist attempts to see the unseen - attaining a visionary state that transcends our regular modes of perception."3
The first definition focuses on the work of artists outside of the traditional fine art system. The second definition emphasizes the exploration and depiction of other realities that are accessed in non-ordinary states of consciousness. The Art Vault may represent the vesica pisces of these two directions of Visionary Art - a place where these definitions overlap and inform each other. It includes the work of unschooled as well as formally trained artists, and largely features imagery that has been inspired by deliberately modified awareness.
By Erik Davis
The term Visionary Art could be said to define artworks that are directly inspired by non-ordinary states of visual consciousness, or that depict a world of such expanded or intensified imagination that the only comparison that can be made is to such states of consciousness. The earliest Visionary Art may have been imprinted onto the rock surface of cave walls. In the 15th century, Hieronymus Bosch painted fabulous and terrifying otherworlds; his Garden of Earthly Delights is unquestionably Visionary Art. The 19th-century poet William Blake, who regularly experienced spontaneous and powerful mystical visions, also created Visionary Art. What produces the state of consciousness that precedes the creation of Visionary Art is less important than the freshness and air of authenticity that can allow visionary works to transcend the fantastic or merely weird.
Accessing Hidden Realms
By C.J. Barnaby
Visionary Artworks intimately relate to altered states of consciousness brought about by mind-expanding materials or spiritually-enhancing life experiences. This seems inevitable considering that the visionary trance state draws its energies from the deepest recesses of the subconscious mind. In Hawaiian Huna practice the subconscious is believed to be the direct link to the higher self, which is linked again to infinite consciousness.
Within this definition, Visionary Art would include a few big name artists, but it would also include some Outsider Art, some fantasy illustration and comic book stuff, as well as the so-called "psychedelic" art. One source for such art, Erowid's Visionary Art Vault seems to focus specifically on the last category. We don't know for certain, but we can assume that many if not most contributing artists have been inspired by personal experiences brought on by the use of psychoactive drugs. In that sense, these works are the visual equivalent of "trip" experience reports. They are valuable not only for their aesthetic power (which varies considerably), but also as an anthropological record of subjective experience. Like trip reports, they represent both information and creative revision - as well as the occasional tendency to drift into clichéd and derivative forms. The grand tradition of Visionary Art - and Erowid's more humble visual record of psychoactive experiences - are both of crucial importance, because our own visionary experience is "seeded" by our exposure to powerful imagery. This visual feedback loop can be good or bad - it can help amplify and clarify the resonance of psychedelic trips or afternoon reveries, or it can thrust you into the cheesiest romper rooms of the "cartoon continuum". In either case, it's best to keep your eyes open.
Curator of the Collection de l'Art Brut in Lausanne
On Outsider Art
"Outsider art consists of works produced by people who for various reasons have not been culturally indoctrinated or socially conditioned. They are all kinds of dwellers on the fringes of society. Working outside the fine art "system" (schools, galleries, museums and so on), these people have produced, from the depths of their own personalities and for themselves and no one else, works of outstanding originality in concept, subject and techniques. They are works which owe nothing to tradition or fashion."
On Psychedelic Art
By Jon Hanna
The term Visionary Art can refer to a large number of sub-genres: the works of the mentally ill, Outsider Art, Folk Art, Fantastic Realism, new age, sacred geometry, and many others, including psychedelic art. Similarly, psychedelic art itself can be broken into various categories. It is no longer reasonable to pigeonhole this art into a particular style that first emerged in the late 1960s, evident in the work of artists such as Peter Max, Rick Griffin, and Stanley Mouse. Contemporary psychedelic art sometimes pays homage to these roots, by using barely legible text, bright colors, and complex patterns. But these aspects can also be seen as inspired by the psychedelic experience itself, rather than merely being derivative of work from previous decades.
Innovations evolved from the increasing availability of a wider variety of art mediums, popular culture surrounding developing music styles, and even newer psychedelic compounds themselves, have made their marks on contemporary psychedelic art. Such influences keep the visions fresh, moving them in different directions. Today's psychedelic artists can even use computers to create their art while on drugs, due to the rapid results possible with this technology. Relegating psychedelic art to a style of graphic design born of a specific era is not a valid approach. It is constantly evolving, reinventing itself, and expanding.
Visionary or psychedelic experiences touch on our personal relationship with the transcendent "other". Visionary Art bridges a perceived - yet illusionary - gap between ourselves and this "other". Its purpose is to heal this perception and to allow others access to this point of attention. Visionary Art inspires a mind toward the dissolution of boundaries and an expansion toward the infinite self, in the same way that a psychedelic or visionary substance itself can allow for penetration into occult/hidden realms.
Artworks that can facilitate a dialogue between ourselves and these spaces or have been inspired by a dialogue or personal experience of these spaces are most often visionary. They open doors of the subconscious mind, allowing others a taste of the infinite by dissolving boundaries between various states of being.
I personally believe that Visionary Art is a purest source projection of self into a creative endeavor. This is part intellectual and part trance. I feel that the Visionary Artworks that I have done were channeled through me. I become the vessel for the creation of the work. I am most happy when I feel this pulse of creation beating through me. Many times I enter trance states and will work for hours without food or water in frenzied excitement, as if possessed by the act of creation. This is an undeniable altered state of consciousness, a state of alignment with the source.
1. "What is Visionary Art?" American Visionary Art Museum.
2. "What is Outsider Art?"
Raw Vision. http://www.rawvision.com/outsiderart/whatisoa.html
3. Caruana, L. "First Draft of a Manifesto of Visionary Art." 2001. Visionary Revue.