art by Will Goodan

I like museums. Monkey and I have been visiting them since he was very small. When he was around 5-years old, we brought sketch pads and colored pencils and, together, we would roam around local museums until one of us found a piece of something or other that we particularly liked and then we both would sit down and attempt to sketch it out. These days, we leave our paper and pencils behind, but we still like to go to the museums and check out what’s going on. Together, we’ve seen lots of good stuff.

Recently, Monkey’s middle school art club took the students on a field trip, which I had to cut short as he was double-booked and had a conflict.

“I never even got to see the special installation,” he complained as he climbed into the car.

I didn’t know anything about the “special installation,” but I promised him that we would see before it left the museum.

Last Sunday was our last chance to see the show before it left town.

So I inadvertently took my 11-year old to see “Psychedelic Art: Hallucinogens and their Impact on the Art of the 1960s.”

I could hardly have been less prepared.

Space Chase (2006)

For those who might not know, “Psychedelic Art” refers to any kind of visual artwork inspired by psychedelic experiences induced by drugs such as LSD, mescaline, and psilocybin (i.e: “magic mushrooms”). Inspired by the 1960s counterculture, psychedelic visual arts were a counterpart to psychedelic rock music. Concert posters, album covers, light-shows, underground newspapers and more reflected not only the kaleidoscopically swirling patterns of LSD hallucinations, but also revolutionary political, social and spiritual sentiments inspired by insights derived from these psychedelic states of consciousness.

In the museum, little laminated placards set next to each piece of art explained what inspired the artist and the materials used to create it.

“Look,” announced Monkey pointing to one multimedia collage. “That one has red pills set into it. And little leaves.”

I said little, wondering if, in fact, I should have been saying more.

“What’s that smell?” Monkey asked, sniffing the air.

Somebody had clearly smoked a doobie or two before coming to the museum. It seemed obvious that the scent was coming from the dude standing behind us. I glanced at him as he looked dreamily at the canvas that listed the materials as acrylic paint and hemp.

“Ohhhh,” said Monkey as he read the information card. “Those leaves must be dried out marijuana. ‘Hemp’ is another name for marijuana.”

And weed and blunt and spliff and reefer, I thought to myself, smelling the pot that lingered in the air around the dude’s coat. And ganga and cannabis and a million other synonyms that you don’t need to know about yet.

art by Stella

On the way home it happened.

It always happens in the car.

Monkey always asks the big questions in the car.

“Mom,” Monkey asked. “Everyone says drugs are really bad for you. That you should never do them. But the art people created while they were on drugs was really interesting.”

I braced the wheel, white-knuckled.

“What am I supposed to do with that?” he asked.

I explained to Monkey that the drugs of the 1960s were much weaker than today’s drugs. Since he had recently seen about two minutes of a disturbing episode of Intervention where a man was smoking crystal methamphetamine followed by an OxyContin chaser, I made a point of telling him that neither of those drugs even existed in the 1960s: that in the 1960s, drugs were kind of “home-grown” and meant to mellow people out, while today’s drugs have been designed in laboratories to get people hooked.

I know this is not 100% accurate. LSD was manufactured and (initially) distributed not for profit, but because those who made it truly believed that the psychedelic experience could do good for humanity, that it expanded the mind and could bring understanding and love.

I did not tell this to Monkey.

I did tell him that the art/music/drug experiments of the 1960s went along with the whole counterculture movement that was going on at the time. We discussed the Vietnam War and the Hippie movement. I explained that the people who chose to use the drugs were attempting to enter a kind of mystical world to explore a new kind of art, and – in many cases, they were successful as the drugs helped them to see a different dimension, a world where space was filled with multi-colored geometric shapes and surreal images.

I told him that while some people had good experiences with these drugs, drugs could be dangerous as well. I told him that some people who used hallucinogenic drugs had “bad trips” and that things that were bothering them became exacerbated and all they could do was wait for the drug to wear off – and that sometimes that took up to 8 hours.

Monet's Waterlilies

“I can’t deny that psychedelic art is interesting,” I stressed, “but to me it’s more culturally interesting than artistically interesting. I’d rather look at a great Monet. There is a lot more going on in a Monet than in, say, that random piece of plexiglass we saw on the floor. You know, the one with the piece of wood coming out of it?”

Monkey was quiet. “So just because a few artists made cool art while on drugs doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to use drugs.”

“I’d go along with that,” I said breathing again.

I’m not sure I said the right things.

What do you say to your 6th grader when he or she asks about drugs?

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