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Psychedelia: The Hippie Art Legacy

All the Rage in the 1960s, It Was Both Mind-Expanding and Delusional


Hippie Market Culture - Andres G


Psychedelia, loved by hippies as an explanation and by detractors as a term of abuse, came to be a catch-all descriptor for hippie ’60s culture.

Psychedelic came from Greek words meaning psyche, or soul and to manifest. This became mind-expanding, or a way of saying ‘find yourself’, without ever having to fully explain.

Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out

US Professor, writer, futurist and advocate of the therapeutic, spiritual and emotional benefits of LSD, Timothy O’Leary, coined the phrase, ‘Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out’, which epitomised the drugs culture in the mid to late ’60s. It was often an excuse for non-conformist behaviour, which became known as the counter-culture.

A psychedelic (hallucinatory) experience is regarded as getting in touch with one’s inner mind and/or a perception of reality not shared by people who are not taking the drug, or trip. It’s popularly was supposed to be a liberating, sometimes mystical, experience.

However, for many, the trips became more of a nightmare as some experienced psychotic incidents and became drug dependent. This is a dark side of the rosy illusion that many who lived through the 1960s don’t dwell on, in their enthusiasm for the music, the clothes, the vibration, the free love of that decade.

Psychedelic Popular Culture

Antonin Artaud, theatre practitioner and poet, described his use of peyote in Journey to the Land of the Tarahumara in 1937. Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), a futuristic novel showing chemical-induced happiness, drug-ordered pain and thinking-immunity in a loveless world, also preceded the hippie era, but he is sometimes regarded as the father of psychedelia by default. However, the hippies of the ’60s were far removed from state approved drug taking.

“The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators” as the title of their 1966 album by 13th Floor Elevators really put the word into common usage. A flood of songs about and/or influenced by hallucinatory drugs followed. From 2000 Light Years From Home, Mother’s Little Helper (Rolling Stones), via Heroin, I’m Waiting for the Man (The Velvet Underground) to Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, Strawberry Fields Forever (The Beatles).

There was Time of the Season (The Zombies), Hurdy Gurdy Man (Donovan),Lucifer Sam (Pink Floyd), 8 Miles High (The Byrds) and Cloud Nine (The Temptations). Songs by the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead used drug culture as inspiration. More recent artists include Black Sabbath, Green Day, Steely Dan, Daniel Merryweather, Nirvana, Oasis, Guns ‘N Roses and Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Not all drug-inspired songs belong in the psychedelic genre. From the Haight Ashbury district of San Francisco in 1966 to the world during the Summer of Love 1967, psychedelia in music had become psychedelic rock, which in turn fed other art forms.

Kaleidoscopic Swirling Patterns

Gradually the word meant any fluorescent, technicoloured artwork, tie-dye clothing, album covers, concert posters, murals/graffiti, comics, underground publications, psychedelic light shows for concerts or actual paintings. Often reflections of swirling patterns of hallucination, some works also took on a political, anti-establishment edge.

Santana used a painting from 1961 (again, early psychedelia) called Annunciation by Mati Klarwein for the Abraxas album cover. Pink Floyd’s album A Saucerful of Secrets was also in the psychedelic mould. Many commentators see links with surrealistic art in psychedelia, and while that may be so, the rebellion/deliberate challenge to the status quo that drug-inspired arts make is an entirely separate analysis.

In 2005 Tate, Liverpool created an exhibition celebrating the flowering of psychedelia in art in the Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era. Works by artists such as Andy Warhol and Yayoi Kusama illustrate how psychedelia added to the complexities of art and culture then and, by inference, now.

First published at Suite 101, 18 March 2010.

Photo: Hippie Market Culture – Andres G.

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