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Notes on Altered States

The movie Altered States circulated a meme connoting extremes of psychedelic experience. It affirmed the notion that states of consciousness altered by drugs, sensory deprivation, sweat lodges, and other methods might tune people in to otherwise hidden truths of the universe. Mind would be the final frontier.

Portrait of Ken Johnson. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Especially since the 1960s, supposedly normal consciousness came to be viewed as conformity to prevailing social agreements about the nature of reality, blinding us to more expansive possibilities of psychological experience. All states of consciousness are altered states. If you have read this far, you have had your consciousness altered.

Consciousness is always in flux; the question is, what are the boundaries keeping it from wandering too far from its conventionally approved of grooves? Should we try to overleap those boundaries?

All works of art also involve altered states. A lump of charcoal in the hand becomes a line on a cave wall. Paint in a tube becomes color on a flat surface; color on a flat surface becomes illusory space. Electrical patterns in a computer’s circuitry become images on a glowing screen.

If only slightly, all artworks induce altered states in viewers. To go from the pedestrian distraction of the city outdoors to the contemplative space of the gallery is to pass from one state of consciousness to another. Like software, art reprograms your brain at least temporarily.

The experience of art may precipitate various states of mind: perceptual, philosophical, ideological, and otherwise. The effects can be hypnotic, fun, confusing, sensually arousing, frightening, and appalling. Rarely, however, does a work of art alone trigger states of mind as different from normal as those induced by psychotropic substances. Art is not a drug, but at times it can make especially receptive viewers feel excited to the point of intoxication.

Normal consciousness, however defined, is not a bad thing. It might be boring, but it helps us navigate the empirical world. But what is normal in some societies is far from normal in others. In making art or seeing art, we may become acquainted with and vicariously experience other possible states, states that local norms may dismiss and devalue but that might be useful therapeutically and spiritually. Maybe art has a teleologically transformative effect like an infectious spiritual virus. Maybe it alters us in such a way as to bring us closer to God or the functional equivalent thereof. That would be my own ultimate criteria for making critical judgments about art: How much closer to God does it get us?


Ken Johnson


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2012

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