Before World War II, the center was Paris. After it, New York set the global standards for design, fashion, and the avant-garde. In the 1940s and ’50s, Abstract Expressionist painting (otherwise known as the New York School) synthesized several preceding trends into an internationally dominant style. This paradigm invested the modern artist with hermetic power to tap into pure energies, drawing a clear demarcation between fine and commercial art idioms.
In direct response, the 1960s ushered in Pop Art’s wryly mercenary take-over. Andy Warhol left a successful commercial-illustration career behind to reinvent himself as a producer of groundbreaking objet d’art. He and other Pop artists took contemporary commercial art and simply re-presented it, changing scale (bigger was better), medium (the mechanical redone by hand), and context (from the marketplace to the museum).
Much is made of the Art Nouveau, Jugendstil, and other turn-of-the-century references in the psychedelic posters. These are certainly to be found in abundance, but they may make for some of the least favorable comparisons: the psychedelic imitations rarely surpass the originals. Looking across the period’s total spectrum, however, one sees ready references to nearly every other previous and contemporaneous art style, period, genre, and type, many often folded together in a single poster. Classicism, Realism, Romanticism, Expressionism, Surrealism, Futurism, Deco, Op, Pop, Mod, or sci-fi: name a style and it’s in there, somewhere. Psychedelia is properly defined by its contumacious heterogeneity. Artists developed individual styles, of course, but they often pushed beyond them and played off each other to expand the field again and again. There is a kind of unsustainable intensity to it all: both the art and the period generally.
My book, Dreams Unreal: The Genesis of the Psychedelic Rock Poster, was released in January of this year, published by UNM Press. The idea began as merely a catalog to accompany an exhibition I was curating at my then museum job. Circumstances allowed the project to expand, and resulted in a stand-alone, 400 page, hardback, five-pound coffee table behemoth. As I proceeded to single-handedly get this project through to production, I learned that dozens of other attempts had been made to create something along these lines, but due mainly to complex copyright issues, they’d all failed. Somehow, the project was blessed, and squeaked through. I think it is near selling out what I hope is only the first printing. I tried to not only provide an overview of the art that would satisfy neophytes and aficionados alike, but appreciatively tell the story of the period this art encapsulated and illustrates. This introduction was the last thing I wrote. In it, I wanted to also clearly underscore the ambivalence the era should evoke for us, looking back. Usually this material gets the full nostalgia treatment, with boomers waxing rhapsodic about their trips, the sex, and all the groovy vibes. I think they also unleashed much of the hell that currently threatens to unravel our entire civilization.
Colloquially, the word “Zen” today is shorthand for a sort of hip stoicism; for being “in the moment,” in a non-discursive flow state. You can be Zen, have Zen, lose your Zen, and get your Zen on. But few people have any meaningful grasp of where the term originated, or what it actually means. It’s a useful cipher, like karma; a vaguely “Oriental” synonym for something calmly capable. That’s one hell of a brand, as countless corporate uses of the word demonstrate. That an actual religion properly owns it you’d think would indicate a higher than average propensity for its adherents to possess sound wisdom and grounded perspectives. That is certainly how contemporary American Zen “priests,” “masters,” and “practitioners” present themselves. But in keeping with the inversion by the increasingly unhinged political left of nearly every objective reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Organized Zen Buddhism in America today has sailed far from its historical moorings, tossing overboard and sinking to the depths the fact that most of its early missionaries to the west were themselves fleeing authoritarian communist regimes and influence, and defiantly repudiated all forms of tribal identitarianism and factionalism. These late founding teachers proudly embraced America as the land of liberty and unprecedented equality they emphatically recognized it to be.
Contemporary Zen Buddhism in contrast has been transformed by its second-generation, aging radical boomer leaders, with their allied Gen X and millennial apostolic “Dharma successors,” into nothing more than a degenerate neo-Marxist front, fomenting murderous revolutionary chaos and committed to the complete dismantling of western civilization – all in the name of twisted notions of “progress” and “social justice” based in half-truths, misdiagnosed problems, and poisonous fictions. This disastrous cataclysm reveals deeper paradigmatic conflicts that no amount of inter-faith, feel-good ecumenism will ever resolve. Aligning themselves with the morally and intellectually indefensible side of this epochal national, global, and quintessentially spiritual battle has further marginalized the Zen religion – a faith with tenuous enough roots in American soil as it is. Beyond simply risking their institutions’ non-profit tax status, acting as petty agents of hatred, lies, and death while posing as paragons of “wisdom and compassion” leaves these leaders more than deserving of some unbridled criticism. The kid gloves need to come off.
I can mark the night of Trump’s earth shaking election as the point when my life as I’d known it really started to cave in. Not that it was that stable beforehand. There were plenty of visible cracks, and tremors giving pause. I just couldn’t quite accept how unsound the foundations truly were. I wasn’t yet ready to just give it up and flee to more solid ground, and held out as long as I could. Too long. But the house I’d built would not withstand the aftershocks, and soon enough, sticking around was no longer an option.
Around 2 am, a few hours after the results were announced, my wife woke me up keening like a wounded animal, grief stricken that Cheeto Hitler, the Mango Mussolini, had somehow taken over the western world – or so she and millions of others presumed. I considered her reaction overblown, but sympathetically patted her shoulders and stroked her hair like you would a child waking up from a nightmare, as I had many times before. Yet I had an amorphous sense of foreboding myself, as if an apocalypse was nigh. It wasn’t Trump. As much as I viscerally loathed she who must not be named, neither could I bring myself to check the box for the Donald, and in our so-blue-its-indigo district, it hardly mattered. His being elected was weird, no doubt, but I’d seen enough bozos get into office that it barely dinged my hide, much less got under my skin. I noted with some curiosity how relieved I felt, even a little excited to see things get shaken up from the insidiously benign malaise that had blanketed the nation under Obama, whose seductive affability always weirded me out, even as I took too long to grasp the true depth of his corruption, the ubiquity of which comes into ever-increasing focus as one chicken after another comes home to roost. No, my unease wasn’t just the election. Something bigger was stirring, and I was hardly alone in being forced to get up to speed.
I’ve just been back about five days from a month in Ireland, driving most of its perimeter and hundreds of miles of the winding, narrow roads of its interior. I arrived home not only overstimulated, sleep-deprived, and jet-lagged, but I caught a bit of food poisoning I think from the absolutely dreadful lukewarm airplane food, so I’ve been asleep the last few days more than awake, my mind and soul apparently still stuck firmly in an Irish dreamtime. I’ve dreamt continuously of traveling still its relatively meager forests, surprisingly abundant stony mountains, actively crumbling coastal cliffs, grim but bustling cities, pastel-painted villages, and layered human structures, old and new.
2 1/2 years ago, I had a show of a bunch of paintings. Since that time, I’ve imagined a tidy little catalog to reflect that show’s concept and memorialize the work. I pulled it together this week, and it came out more or less as I imagined: a small victory over the forces of inertia and distraction.
Earlier this year, I resigned as a Soto Zen priest essentially because the religion has been totally hijacked by hypocritical social justice warriors, patronizing race-baiters, and Marxist ideologues. One of the named authors of the “Repentance Statement” issued by the Soto Zen Buddhist Association that constituted my final straw, and one of that organizations most prominent leaders, is Zen teacher Norman Fischer: former Abbott of San Francisco Zen Center, founder of Everyday Zen, and a kind, charismatic person. Norman was previously one of the guiding teachers of the Zen group I co-founded and formerly directed essentially by myself (supported mostly just by our regular attendees), though I have met him personally only a handful of times.