Big Picture: A window to the soul

Painting – ‘Judgement’ by Dominic Shepherd. Words by Keith Laws (University of Hertfordshire). DOWNLOAD PDF FOR POSTER

‘Take me, I am the drug; take me, I am hallucinogenic’, Salvador Dali famously said. Great artists transform our perceptions, sometimes with such immediacy and so deeply that the experience permanently alters us.

Hallucinogens, of course, are also powerful perceptual transformers, and myths about their possible role in artistic and even scientific creativity abound. Whether it is Nobel Prize winners like Kary Mullis claiming that he wouldn’t have discovered polymerase chain reaction without taking LSD (or talking to glowing raccoons in the Californian woods) or apocryphal stories of Francis Crick discovering DNA structure on LSD (or advocating directed panspermia), the notion that pharmacy aids creativity is a pervasive cultural meme.

Some argue that drugs provide a necessary biological kick. Friedrich Nietzsche said: ‘For Art to exist, for any sort of aesthetic activity to exist, a certain physiological precondition is indispensable: intoxication.’ Others recognise the clear limitations: ‘I don’t think one can sit down and say, “I want to write a magnificent poem, and so I’m going to take [LSD]” (Aldous Huxley).

From the view of science, the role of hallucinogens in creativity is currently populated largely by apocryphal anecdote, uncontrolled experimentation, nonsignificant findings and curious case studies – and we are thus left to draw our own conclusions. Whether creativity may spring magically from chemical infusions, the creative process does depend upon an altered state of mind. Perhaps alluded to by Dali, some art may act as a kind of hallucinogen-lite, drawing the drug-free, with partial insight, into unique world of artists.

This painting is titled ‘Judgement’, by Dominic Shepherd. ‘Here is a giant hallucinatory eye, a window to the soul manifest,’ Shepherd explains. ‘Within a circular frame there is no beginning or end, it is all present. Are the figures floating up or falling down? Is it night or day? Where does this painting reality exist, in your mind or on the painted surface? The trip is something that takes you to meet your God, good or bad… your soul is left bare.

‘The hallucinatory, through counterculture, mystical and occult thought, is a tool of liberation from the compromises of the mass perceived. The vision, both utopian and dystopian, becomes, through figures such as Blake, Crowley or Lennon, a form of both personal and political change. Much contemporary radicalism was formed out of beliefs created during a psychedelic epiphany.’

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber