Altered States of Art

A man will be imprisoned in a room with a door that’s unlocked and opens inwards; as long as it does not occur to him to pull rather than push.

– Ludwig Wittgenstein

There’s an anecdote about the artist Andy Warhol that claims he was once approached by a company interested in buying something from him, but they didn’t want his art; it seems that they wanted to buy his aura. They were willing to pay a lot of money for it too, so for that reason Warhol decided he should try to figure out what an aura was, although he never did. Not that I’ve heard anyway.

As an artist myself I find it pretty odd that someone so influential in the art scene at that time didn’t know what an aura was – he had lived through the sixties after all – not to mention the idea that money was his only motivation to find out. I cannot imagine becoming an artist or being an artist without the influence of the weird. My art is driven by strange encounters, by the exploration of consciousness, by the mystical, the mythical and whispering the muse. There was no way for me to not encounter magic, because my journey into art has been a journey into magic.

Art and magic have been interwoven since the beginning of human endeavour. If we look through the history of art we can see a long standing relationship between art and magic, from Palaeolithic cave paintings, to religious art and surrealist and visionary wonders. And that’s just painting; we have danced, sung, sculpted, written and acted our way through the ages. Art has defined and designed our world while at the same time pushing the envelope of what we consider conceptually tolerable. Can you imagine a religion, a political movement or an idea worth fighting for without the power of art? Eras and nations are defined by the power of aesthetics.


So where did this creative power come from? And more importantly, where can it take us from here?

Symbolic Revolution

Art, freedom and creativity will change society faster than politics.

– Victor Pinchuk

Between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago we began to paint art on the walls of caves and rock shelters. Historians call this the “Symbolic Revolution”. The art produced appears in many places all over the world, with many common themes. There are various theories as to why we started to do this; the most commonly believed being that it was a form of hunting magic. But archaeological investigation seems to suggest otherwise, as the animals most commonly depicted are very often not ones eaten around the caves and very few are depicted as actually being hunted. Many of the images are of therianthropes, creatures that are part human and part animal, and many seem to suggest some kind of transformation taking place. There are many depictions of people turning into animals, plants and mushrooms. There are also many images depicting geometric patterns, shapes and grids. These are not images that one would generally observe from life and they have perplexed archaeologists.


Above is a 10,000 year old piece from the Tassili n’Ajjer mountain range on the southern edge of the Sahara desert in Algeria I feel a particular affinity with. It depicts a human figure with a grid covering his body, huge glowing eyes that form part of an almost bee-like creature for the head, from which appear to be growing horns or bolts of light, and the entire figure is covered on the outside by protrusions which to my eye immediately look like mushrooms. This image powerfully reminded me of several experiences I had had through meditation and so seemed to me to rather obviously depict an altered state of consciousness. Yet for a long time this piece of cave art, and others like it, had archaeologists baffled. They couldn’t work out what was going on because, one can only assume, they had no context.

I have had numerous spiritual and psychedelic experiences that I could depict using very similar forms and themes. I’ve encountered otherworldly animals and beings, therianthropes and amazing geometric images, particularly spirals. After many years of experimentation I feel I have only just begun to scratch the surface of having and expressing these encounters. I’ve had many experiences through meditation and through ritual, as well as through the migraines and asthma attacks that seemed to force me onto this path initially, along with deep contemplation and profound experiences of the natural world. There are numerous ways to have these kinds of encounters, and clearly we have been having them for a very long time.

Fortunately, some are born with spiritual immune systems that sooner or later give rejection to the illusory worldview grafted upon them from birth through social conditioning. They begin sensing that something is amiss, and start looking for answers. Inner knowledge and anomalous outer experiences show them a side of reality others are oblivious to, and so begins their journey of awakening. Each step of the journey is made by following the heart instead of following the crowd and by choosing knowledge over the veils of ignorance.

— Henri Bergson

Professor David Lewis Williams is the main proponent of the idea that cave paintings are the result of shamanic activity, specifically that they are depictions of altered states of consciousness.

What gives most credence to this explanation is all the scientific research that’s been done, particularly in the 1950’s and 1960’s, documenting the experiences of modern people in altered states of consciousness, using various techniques to induce it. This research has shown the similarities of these experiences, in particular of visual phenomena experienced: geometric patterns, shapes and grids, and encounters with animals and beings such as therianthropes. But the most convincing evidence of all comes from the various indigenous peoples that have explicitly stated that their shaman would go into trance and then draw what they see, creating images from experiences very much like those depicted in the caves and experienced by modern volunteers  I highly recommend reading ‘DMT: The Spirit Molecule’ by Doctor Rick Strassman if these sort of experiments are of interest to you. It’s a great book.


Another theme in ancient art, art history, and in modern reports of altered states of consciousness is the serpent. I have had incredible encounters with serpents, ranging from the sublime to the terrifying. The similarities between experiences of my own and those that other artists have depicted throughout the ages has stunned me.

I have had experiences with beings in which I have been explicitly instructed to paint and to write and to pass messages to mankind. I tend to take these experiences with a pinch of salt, but I can only imagine what such encounters would have been like for our ancestors. I think they would have been left with a deep sense of awe and purpose. It is easy to see the origins of religion in such direct contact. Some of the most profound experiences I have had have been when I have encountered therianthropes, many of whom I associate with various Egyptian deities. The Egyptians, of course, worshiped many therianthropic beings and practiced many methods to alter their consciousness, believing so intensely in a spiritual reality that they were compelled to construct some of the grandest monuments in the world to honour it.

My own encounters and the reports and evidence of countless others leave me fairly convinced that it was altered states of consciousness that compelled us to paint on those cave walls thousands of years ago and quite radically changed our behaviour. The expansion of consciousness, now utilised explicitly by people who participate in consciousness altering activities, was at least part of what catalysed the advancement of humanity from the caves to where we are now, if not that which caused it.

Before the “Symbolic Revolution” we were just another group of pack hunting primates following the same patterns of behaviour, and after: art, music, story, civilisation. We remained physiologically the same, yet this was the point at which our creative and imaginative capacity really started to emerge and we began to use symbols to represent our experiences. Altered states of consciousness are fundamental to the practice of magic, and not only did these magical practices compel us to make art, but in art we found our greatest magical tool, because not only did we start to use symbols to map our experiences, we started to use symbols to create and project experiences. We started to actively participate in the creation of our realities.


Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself. – Ludwig Wittgenstein

Since the “Symbolic Revolution” we have created languages, myths, concepts, conventions, religions, philosophies, cultures, political movements, histories, sciences, a huge variety of ways to try to express our perceptions and explain our world. These are all attempts to paint a picture, to try to understand what is happening. But these are all symbolic games and they tell us far more about how our minds work than they do about the world.

Our brains receive billions of signals every minute, and out of these signals a small portion is selected and projected out as the reality we perceive. This is what Robert Anton Wilson termed our ‘reality tunnel’. No two beings perceive the same world. If I asked a crowd of people to describe a room, no two people would give me the same description, because we’re all wired differently and we all have different preoccupations. A person concerned about their looks, will notice how more or less beautiful people around them are. A person very concerned about gender or racial issues will see that play out around them. A really hungry person becomes focused on noticing where they can get food. A horny person will primarily notice the people they find attractive.


Our perception of the world is like a Rorschach blot, we project meaning which often says more about us than the phenomena.

Yet an individual born into a particular time and place is brought up believing in these projections, their culture, their religion, their gender, their economic status, their language, their social reality. Our attempts to understand reality become conventions and power structures, we’re taught that the way our culture sees the world is the correct way. The direct experiences of particular figures become enshrined as truth and our own experiences are deemed somehow less important. Our languages and the metaphors we use to understand reality become confused with reality. We are enmeshed in a work of art, spellbound by our own taste and cultural aesthetic.

You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.

— Friedrich Nietzsche

The philosopher Deleuze called these conventions images of thought. We are handed an image of the world, a model that we learn to believe and worship as reality, and this stops us from actually thinking, because all phenomena are simply interpreted in relation to our model. Anything that doesn’t fit isn’t included. Then we believe this interpretation is reality and that everyone should see it this way. Yet, as I said, no two beings perceive the same world, but our shared conventions – such as language – trick us into believing that there is a correct way.

In philosophy this is known as naive realism, that what is perceived is real reality, and philosophers have been arguing against naive realism since Buddha and Plato. In our culture currently some people will concede to some extent that the human mind does not perceive ‘real reality’ but they are usually quite convinced that scientific instruments can find it, even though, just as in art and philosophy, relativity and quantum mechanics show that what you find with instruments is true relative only to the instrument you’re using and where it’s located in space time. We’re all looking from the point of view of our own personal realities; there is no vantage point from which real reality can be seen. We share conventions, that doesn’t mean that if someone experiences something beyond those conventions that they’re wrong or crazy or lying. We all have different reality tunnels and every reality tunnel might have something interesting to tell us about our world.

So instead of searching for real reality, the attempt to try to understand what is happening should become a matter of taste, which is something we all have in common but can differ considerably from person to person. In order to discover the boundaries of your reality tunnel – that is, your taste – you need only observe how you observe. What attracts you? What repels you? Do you like the world you’re living in?

Observation is the beginning of conscious awareness, because we start to use our mind as a perceiving instrument rather than believing that we are our mind and perceptions and preoccupations, which is like believing I am my desire for cake. I have a desire for cake at the moment, but I can detach from that and focus on something else. When we cease to identify with our observations and instead start to use and observe observation then we are, philosophically speaking, starting to actually think. Instead of saying ‘this is how it is’ we ask ‘how does it seem to me?’; we are open to the experience. That is thinking. Thinking should in some sense make us uncomfortable; it should push us to reach beyond our conceptual limitations.


Learning to draw is a way of learning to think. At first we will tend to draw the idea of what we see – what we think we see – then as we observe and improve we will begin to be able to draw what we see; a master will be able to draw what they intuit, they will draw something that seduces you into a particular way of seeing that has not only forced them to think, but may force you to think as well.

These images do not reflect ‘reality’ singular; they show realities of their own, ‘realities’ plural. They demonstrate what the German philosopher Husserl said: that ‘all perception is gamble’. You can experience something of the reality tunnel of any good artist or musician or writer quite clearly through their work, you can experience a reflection of their way of observing, their particular gambles.

To the creative mind there is no right or wrong. Every action is an experiment, and every experiment yields its fruit in knowledge.

– Robert Anton Wilson

If you practice observation you become more aware not only of your own preoccupations and taste, but of the apperception of pattern as such. That is to say the more you observe your reality the more you will become aware that there are likely infinite ways to observe and so the possibilities of interpretation are endless; therefore knowledge appears infinite as does its expression. You become able to start to choose the reality you inhabit. If you don’t like the world you live in you can change your taste by consciously choosing to observe differently.

Every great artist has been so because they noticed the world in a different way and they enabled others to notice this too. Observe that this is also what great philosophy and great spirituality does. We transform our perception and enable that transformation to ripple out from us. A work of art should at least expand the consciousness of the artist and at best alter the consciousness of those who perceive it.


Above is the wonderful painting of a pipe by Magritte called ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’. Many people see a pipe when they look at this painting. Those who understand French tend to be amused or perplexed by the title. Very few can look at the painting without instinctually seeing a pipe, yet, as the title suggests, it is not a pipe. It is a painting of a pipe and the artist makes this explicit. I could pick up Magritte’s pipe and smoke it as much as I could drink the word ‘water’. Yet we are, more often than not, fooled by such symbolic games.

Wittgenstein takes this idea further with his infamous ‘duck-rabbit’:


Unlike Magritte’s ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ there is a lot more room for interpretation here, making this a more suitable metaphor for language, which was part of Wittgenstein’s intent. The image does not contain any meaning, it is not meant to be either a duck or a rabbit, it is a line and a dot that helps to demonstrate the way in which we interpret and project meaning with very little evidence. Just as we do with the sounds that we interpret as words, and the images and assumptions that we interpret as ‘reality’, editing and constraining our perception as we go.


Just as you may have just edited that sentence. Look at it again.

As Picasso so eloquently stated ‘Art is the lie that enables us to reveal the truth’ and the truth seems to be that the reality we inhabit has a very large element of metaphor and choice, but only if we’re willing and able to take charge of our conscious awareness. Art is a powerful tool to expand or to control consciousness, because our perceptions are never innocent. Whether we are aware of it or not, what we see changes who we are and who we are changes what we see.

Yet artwork and other descriptions inspired by altered states of consciousness appear to share common themes across ages and cultures. They are still interpreted through the lenses of particular reality tunnels, but certain content, patterns and ratios emerge fairly frequently, as if our taste as a species has an underlying factor. These themes and shapes and ratios are particularly expressed in spirituality and religion.

Art demonstrates the relativity of perception; yet art that depicts altered states of consciousness shows common themes. Altered states of consciousness allow us to perceive far more than we otherwise would, they allow us to glimpse beyond our conditioning and bring back new ways to perceive and new ideas to project.  But where are these ideas coming from? What is this other realm we seem to experience that has been so influential?

To me the mission of art is not only to show us what we are capable of perceiving at this time, but also to present us with possibilities, to show us what we can aspire to. The continued exploration of this other realm seems integral to that mission.

The Labyrinth

If you’re trapped in the dream of the Other, you’re fucked.

– Gilles Deleuze

To return to the beginning, Andy Warhol’s motivation for creating art was money. In his book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol he states “Making money is art” and that does seem to be the primary motivation of most successful artists in today’s market. I’m not blaming Warhol, he’s just one of the most famous and successful examples of the fact that the primary function of art today is to make money, but clearly that wasn’t what motivated us to begin with.

What we see in most modern art today is a regurgitation of our cultural preoccupations, with the mission of modern art being the creation of useless objects, because fine art is by current definition art that serves no function. These useless objects are given pride of place in the public eye and huge price tags – much like celebrities and politicians and other carefully crafted media images.

The primary motivation of our culture has become the acquisition of money and stuff that is of mainly transient metaphorical value. There has been a great attempt to twist our tastes and persuade us that bits of paper and useless objects are more valuable than each other, than community, than our environment and than our own happiness. This is the spell our culture is currently trying to cast over us, through our art, our music and our stories.


Our culture seems based more and more on self obsession and greed, we are bombarded with things to fear and stereotypes as various forces attempt to manipulate our tastes and therefore our behaviour. Much of what we are exposed to seems designed to distract us from what is happening, to close our minds and keep our conscious awareness focussed on images of thought rather than the exploration of our own realities. It could be very tempting to blame this all on some elaborate conspiracy, to say it’s all the fault of social engineers like Edward Bernays, the so-called father of propaganda, or that it’s the fault of some power elite or whatever.

But this is not a new predicament.

You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.

Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave.

― Plato, The Allegory of the Cave

Here’s a different piece of cave art. The Allegory of the Cave is probably Plato’s most well known contribution to philosophy. It was written over two thousand years ago yet still has great relevance. The story describes a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall by people passing objects in front of a fire behind them, and their entire reality is defined by these shadows. It is then explained that the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall do not make up real reality at all, as he can perceive a different reality from a different perspective.

Now the common interpretation of this is that the people chained to the wall are the people of society and the people casting the shadows are the power elite manipulating them and keeping them enslaved. The thing is… the supposed power elite don’t seem to be leaving the cave either, they don’t seem aware that they can, they too continue to behave in the same way, except they aren’t wearing any chains and they should have the advantage of being able to perceive things from a different perspective. When someone who is chained is released though, it may take a while, but they leave. If we take this as a metaphor for society, it seems that those casting the shadows are just as trapped if not more.

I prefer to view the story of the cave as a metaphor for consciousness, that all we perceive is a small portion of what we project out as reality and we can become aware that we are the ones creating these interpretations, but that doesn’t stop us or necessarily allow us to see beyond them. There remains part of us though, that can become able to try to perceive beyond our limitations, but it takes incredible effort and courage. This is our inner magician or muse. The part of us able to journey beyond the confines of our reality tunnel and bring back new ideas and inspiration, without which we would just perceive whatever our preoccupations and tastes draw us to.

Daedalus © Janice Duke. Illustration of the ancient Greek myth of Icarus and Daedalus. Personal work.

One of my favourite myths to describe this aspect of consciousness is the myth of Icarus; here we return to the theme of therianthropes. In this myth, Icarus’s father Daedalus is ordered by King Minos to build a labyrinth to imprison the Minotaur, a part man part bull, pan-like nature spirit. Daedalus and Icarus end up trapped in the labyrinth themselves and in order to escape Daedalus creates wings from wax and feathers so that they can fly away. What is often emphasised about this myth is Icarus’s hubris and exuberance ultimately being his downfall, as even though Daedalus warns him not to fly too close to the sun, he does so, melting the wax of the wings and causing him to fall into the ocean and drown. Daedalus himself flies on to shore and goes on to use his skills to create many more works of genius.

Daedalus means “skilful artisan” and is associated with many innovations in arts and crafts in the ancient Greek world. To me, like the philosopher of the cave, he also represents the creative and imaginative capacity of the human spirit; he represents that part of us that can journey beyond our limitations. The labyrinth is the reality tunnel we each build to explain our world, trapping our inner natures in the work of art that is our minds. But the same art that builds the labyrinth can build the wings we use to free ourselves and embrace our full capacity; by taking wing Daedalus overcomes his own Minotaur, by embracing his nature instead of trapping it.

We all have this capacity, it’s part of what makes us human. It is the power elite in each of us, not in terms of power over each other but in terms of power over ourselves and our own consciousness.

When you define the power elite as somebody else I regard that as a loser script. I define the power elite as myself and my friends, and that’s a winner script. The way to accomplish things is with a winner script. I define myself as a winner, I define my programmes as winnable and I count on the stupidity of whoever seems to be in power to undo them eventually.

– Robert Anton Wilson

Hidden Realities

It is only in the last hundred years or so, as our culture has become ever more drawn into consumerism and materialism and grown ever more destructive of the environment and of life, that we have started to rediscover our roots and explore our consciousness. Information about the practices of aboriginal peoples all over the world today, combined with what we can gather about many ancient peoples, particularly our cave painting ancestors, and what has begun to be gathered together from modern experiments using drug and non drug techniques, combined with the continued discoveries of quantum physics, blow wide open the assumptions that our society currently operates on.

Those of us in the alternative scene are on the cutting edge of all this, which is a fabulous, mind-bendingly dangerous place to be. The role of artists as I see it is to catalyse the transformation of our culture by trying to awaken the Daedalus in each of us, so we can continue to explore this beautiful wonderful mysterious existence and inspire ourselves and each other with what we find.

We are the explorers of a frontier as unknown and denied to modern Westerners as the Americas were to Europeans when they thought the world was flat. It may be that the world has many more dimensions yet to be discovered, and it takes courage to even suggest this, let alone to advocate it or to do it and talk about it freely.

There are experiences that most of us are hesitant to speak about, because they do not conform to everyday reality and defy rational explanation. These are not particular external occurrences, but rather events of our inner lives, which are generally dismissed as figments of the imagination and barred from our memory. Suddenly, the familiar view of our surroundings is transformed in a strange, delightful, or alarming way: it appears to us in a new light, takes on a special meaning. Such an experience can be as light and fleeting as a breath of air, or it can imprint itself deeply upon our minds.

One enchantment of that kind, which I experienced in childhood, has remained remarkably vivid in my memory ever since. It happened on a May morning — I have forgotten the year — but I can still point to the exact spot where it occurred, on a forest path on Martinsberg above Baden, Switzerland. As I strolled through the freshly greened woods filled with bird song and lit up by the morning sun, all at once everything appeared in an uncommonly clear light. Was this something I had simply failed to notice before? Was I suddenly discovering the spring forest as it actually looked? It shone with the most beautiful radiance, speaking to the heart, as though it wanted to encompass me in its majesty. I was filled with an indescribable sensation of joy, oneness, and blissful security.

I have no idea how long I stood there spellbound. But I recall the anxious concern I felt as the radiance slowly dissolved and I hiked on: how could a vision that was so real and convincing, so directly and deeply felt — how could it end so soon? And how could I tell anyone about it, as my overflowing joy compelled me to do, since I knew there were no words to describe what I had seen? It seemed strange that I, as a child, had seen something so marvelous, something that adults obviously did not perceive — for I had never heard them mention it.

While still a child, I experienced several more of these deeply euphoric moments on my rambles through forest and meadow. It was these experiences that shaped the main outlines of my world view and convinced me of the existence of a miraculous, powerful, unfathomable reality that was hidden from everyday sight.

– Dr. Albert Hoffmann

Contact with hidden realities has haunted us throughout our history. These experiences that we may have, through ritual, dance, chanting, drumming, fasting, meditating, ingesting various substances and many other ways, are not only fundamental to our creative and imaginative capacity, they are fundamentally what made us human to begin with.

When I haven’t been doing my particular practices, I find an increase in intense dreams, migraines and asthma attacks. Last time I had a migraine I asked my muse, why is this happening? Why am I doing this to myself? And it said to me, ‘it was the only way we could get your attention’. I’ve had amazing experiences when I’ve been pulled in like that, but always tinged with terror. Whereas when I do my practices, and I’m mindful and observing and being creative, and I can just let myself fall into those places, the experiences have completely lacked that fear and been rich with transpersonal love.

There is something out there, waiting for us that has been calling to us since the beginning of history, and one way or another it will get our attention. We are a long way from the pack hunting apes we once were, and we can only wonder what we have yet to become.

From a talk given at PaganCon in Preston, England, on Saturday 13th July 2013.

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