For as long as we have been human, human beings have had visionary experiences, and created art in response to those experiences. Many of these experiences were facilitated through the ingestion of entheogenic plants, agreed upon across every ancient culture to be one of the most expedient routes to a taste of divinity. Today, the burgeoning Visionary Art community embraces our rich heritage of means to transcendent experience – making it their mission to provide the world with a beautiful, often daunting look through the doors of perception. Visionary Art has found a home within the worldwide music and arts festival circuit, and a vehicle for its growth through the internet (itself a powerfully psychedelic initiation into what religious scholar Henry Corbin called “the imaginal realms”). While the Visionary Art movement thrives on the margins of society, it is already helping usher in a new era of social consciousness.
Spiritual connections to a space outside of conventional reality can be found in an array of classical artwork, from William Blake to Max Ernst, Gustav Moreau to Salvador Dali. There is a vast heritage of surrealist dreamers, medieval religious image-makers and psychedelic artists whom today’s Visionary artists regard as predecessors and peers. In a world of classifications and genres, Visionary Art today is more of a community of artists bound less by style than their common drive to share resonant spiritual experiences through art.
In his piece, “The New Eye: Visionary Art and Tradition,” culture critic Erik Davis explains that, “When contemporary Visionary artists appropriate and sample aspects of these different cultural traditions, these different domains begin to appear.” These domains have been described as a transpersonal dimension, a cosmic plane. American-based Visionary artist Alex Grey, and Vienna-based Visionary artist Laurence Caruana have both written seminal texts detailing the exploration of those realms by artists throughout human history. More and more, we find visual artists using various digital and physical media to convey their interpretation of the inner workings of the self and the world.
“Watching artists collaborate and improvise on murals while surrounded by dancers, hoopers and live music nurtured an experience of feeling connected within the cosmic soup of creation. It was visual jazz, musicians do it all the time but we rarely share that experience with painters,” Jacob Devaney said in his Huffington Post piece “Visionary Art, You’re Painted into the Picture,” describing his experience at The Symbiosis Gathering in Oakdale, CA. Each summer, dozens of “transformational” festivals and gatherings (not to be confused with commercial juggernauts like Electric Daisy Carnival or Ultra Music Festival), events focused on the co-creation of art and music and the celebration of new thinking, are held around the world and in particular, on the North American West Coast. It is no longer just an experimental shot in the dark, like much of the counterculture gatherings of the 1960s. Instead, these “neotribal” gatherings are, as Davis says, “recreating and reinventing patterns of organic culture that are inspired by the premodern past but designed for a high-tech planet hurtling through a period of unprecedented global change.” More and more, Visionary artist’s names are just as large as the popular bands and DJs billed on these events. In his book, The Mission of Art, Grey describes the translation of art in a communal gathering:
“The group soul of art beyond time comes into time by projecting symbols through the artists imagination. God’s radiant grace fills the heart and mind with these gifts of Vision. The artist honors the vision gifts by weaving them into works of art and sharing them with the community. The community uses them as wings to soar to the same shining vistas and beyond.”
The impact that Visionary Art as a popular movement has made within the live-music and festival scene is both communal and economical. At one of these events, you can peer over the shoulder of a Visionary artist as they create a piece live alongside musical acts, or purchase one of their images from them face to face in an open market. Within the context of the perpetual discussion of “bubbles” in an art market, where Francis Bacon’s triptych “Three Studies of Lucien Freud” sold at Christie’s for $142.4 million dollars, Visionary Art emphasizes the creative process as a means to insight and spiritual wealth above all else. Like the early graffiti movement, their community chooses to create and share as an end unto itself. “In much of the ‘fortunate’ west, people are spiritually starving for something meaningful in their lives, the core values of patience, compassion, beauty, truth and humility are so deeply buried under the facades of our plastic mass-produced nothingness,” said Kuba Ambrose, a lecturer at the Vienna Academy of Visionary Art and creator of the piece of art at the top of this page.
So why should we bet on the shelf life of the Visionary Art community? Won’t its pure intentions eventually become subject to the whims of neo-liberal capitalist society? In an interview with SolPurpose.com (which includes a Visionary Artist Index), Caruana explains why it won’t:
“It really comes down to a paradigm shift – to momentarily experience oneness, and so change your own inner perspective from a personal to a trans-personal view of things – a planet-based perspective rather than an ego-based one.”
Their work goes beyond providing some abstract eye candy or even making a political statement. There is a foreshadowing in the work of today’s Visionary artists in how they often blend ancient spiritual concepts with futurism through technology. Visionary artists like Android Jones , Randal Roberts and Amanda Sage often utilize new discoveries in science, such as genetics and metaphysics, as themes in their artwork. At the same time, sacred geometry and images from nature are just as pervasive.
And in fact, Visionary Art has always been, as it is called by Europeans, a kind of “Fantastic Realism.” However fanciful they may appear, these are valid attempts at describing numinous non-ordinary states of consciousness by a global faction of pioneering scientific illustrators. However strange we may find the landscapes of Hieronymous Bosch or the hyperspace architecture of Paul Laffoley, they are the inheritants of a tradition stretching back to the cave paintings of Altamira and Lascaux and serve a similar purpose of ritual initiation into esoteric mystery.
Timothy Leary, the catalyst of the psychedelic culture, is said to have exclaimed that, ”The internet is the LSD of the nineties.” The hyper-communication of the internet allows these artists the opportunity to couple their consciousness-expanding message along with their art – but more, their art provides useful metaphors to our species in an accelerating era that challenges our concepts of space and time and redefines the boundary between self and other. By sharing their message in online videos and in podcasts, Visionary artists act as more than just image-makers and can connect to mutually inspire each other in ways unimaginable to generations past. New forms of collaborative live painting have emerged – forms alluding to the new emphasis on co-creation and improvisation emerging through our hyper-connected digital society. In a Huffington Post interview with Evolver.net co-founder Jonathan Talat Phillips, Grey said, “My art has always been in response to visions. Rather than confine my subject to representations of the outer worlds, I include portrayals of the multi-dimensional imaginal realms that pull us toward consciousness evolution.” The art that the Visionary artists are making has a mission: to propel our society safely through an evolution in our thought and selfhood. What is consciousness-expansion – whether through Visionary art or a ayahuasca trip – but an internal revolution? And if there is one thing that people in all corners of society can agree on, it’s that we’re living in an age of revolution.
If you ever feel a sudden yearning to experience personal transcendence, go and dance near the live painters at a transformational festival. If you’d like to glimpse the visual expression of the collective spirit, visit the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors in upstate New York. As noted by cultural historian William Irwin Thompson, the shape of a new age appears first through the insane, then the artists, before it becomes mundane. That glimmer of change on the horizon has always been first evident in the creations of the marginal free-thinkers of the day…but in times when the fringes are everywhere and the center nowhere, previously marginalized visionaries are coming to the fore as our navigators for an increasingly psychedelic world. The Visionary Art community may very well be the entheogenic enzyme for a stronger community and a brighter tomorrow.
Written with assistance from Michael Garfield | Featured art by Kuba Ambrose