The creator of some of the most transcendent art of our time explores why it is necessary to go beyond the faded postmodern milieu of today’s art world, how psychedelics can play a role in discovering and manifesting one’s deeper realms of being, and how the “two kinds of higher” can impact artists and their work.
In the foreword to Alex’s book The Mission of Art, Ken stated: “Alex Grey might be the most significant artist alive.” At first glance, this can appear to be pure hyperbole, expressing the understandable enthusiasm of a long-time friend and colleague. However, with an Integral Approach, Ken explains, “significant” has a specific meaning, and it was this meaning alluded to in the foreword. “Significant” refers to the degree of depth of an occasion (how many levels of complexity does it contain?), and “fundamental” refers to the span or breadth of an occasion (how many of them are there?). Atoms, for example, are extremely fundamental to the universe—and have enormous span (there are zillions of them)—but they are not very significant (containing little complexity). Humans, on the other hand, are not very fundamental to the universe (e.g., there are far fewer of us than there are atoms), but we are uniquely significant (no other thing or organism in the known universe contains more levels of depth and complexity than a human).
So, how is Alex Grey possibly the most significant artist alive? Looking at the territory we have covered so far, the answer is actually quite simple and elegant: Alex has explored and to various degrees mastered all five states of consciousness, and has grown to integral and transpersonal levels of development, the current leading edge of consciousness evolution. (In Ken’s book Integral Spirituality, these two axes are likewise called “the two axes of Enlightenment,” and no spiritual realization is complete without both.) Particularly when it comes to the forms of reality disclosed by non-ordinary, meditative, and peak states of consciousness, Alex is unparalleled in his ability to translate what he sees in his “eye of spirit” to a work of art, which then often has the extraordinary ability of evoking similar kinds of states in viewers.
“There are certain areas, like Chartres Cathedral, where you’re reminded of something, and it brings you home to Yourself in a new way—it’s completely unlike going to Costco.”Alex Grey
In Part 2, Alex and Ken discuss the current state of the art world—which to be frank, is pretty sad. As Alex recounts, the artists capturing the attention of the so-called intelligentsia and occupying the most popular galleries are those who, quite literally, cover themselves in chocolate syrup and then wriggle about nude on a canvas (and this is one of the more tame examples). There is absolutely nothing wrong with this kind of art, and it should have its rightful place. The problem comes when it dominates the scene to such an extent that no other forms of art are allowed their rightful place—which is precisely what has happened.
The power of an Integral Approach lies in its ability to help one “make sense of everything,” and this is certainly true when looking at the often-confusing world of art and the interpretation of art. A merely postmodern, pluralistic view asserts that there is no way to prove that one piece of art has any more depth or value or significance than another, because in a postmodern view—and particularly in its pathological forms (mean-green-meme, boomeritis)—there is no depth to be found in the world at all, because all perspectives are held to be fundamentally equal (hence the term “flatland”).
As Ken explains, depth, height, and increasing orders of complexity and value are intrinsic to the Kosmos—you simply can’t get rid of the fact that more complex occasions transcend-and-include less complex occasions (cells transcend-and-include molecules and atoms, but not vice versa, and so cells are of a higher order). The leading edge of thought regarding depth as a crucial element of existence can be found in Ken’s Integral Spirituality, where one can see that there are two kinds of “higher”: one can be found in states of consciousness and one can be found in stages (structures) of consciousness. This has profound implications for the understanding and interpretation of art. Two artists may be accessing the same state of visionary creativity and then interpreting that profound state from two radically different stages of development. To the untrained eye, based on the similarly “far out” nature of the art involved, it may look like they’re “doing the same thing”—but they’re not, not at all, and the Integral Approach is uniquely qualified to explain why.
“I was always looking at the fact that transcendental art was working on one major dimension—getting you to something higher. But now there are two kinds of higher!”Alex Grey
An important part of Alex’s development as an artist came from visionary insights while on psychedelics, particularly during formative years in the ’70s. As anyone who lived through the ’60s and ’70s will probably tell you, psychedelics can give you “some pretty wild experiences.” But at what point does a “wild experience” give way to a life-changing spiritual or religious experience? Lots of people have taken psychedelics; some report seeing God, some don’t. So what’s going on here? In your own life, if you have experimented with psychedelics, how did you interpret your experience? Secularly, spiritually, or as just scary as hell?
In part 3 of this dialogue, Alex and Ken almost exclusively use the term “entheogen” when referring to psychedelic substances such as LSD, hallucinogenic mushrooms, peyote, and so on. One meaning of entheogen literally translates as “that which reveals the Spirit within.” As Alex elaborates, the intention you had when you chose to take such a substance is extremely important in determining what your experience will ultimately be. Were you simply looking to have some fun, or were you earnestly searching for Spirit, God, or Reality, by whatever name? Both uses are clearly valid within their own purposes, but in Alex’s case, it was very much the latter—and he did see something far more Real than anything he had seen before.In this dialogue, Alex and Ken almost exclusively use the term “entheogen” when referring to psychedelic substances such as LSD, hallucinogenic mushrooms, peyote, and so on. One meaning of entheogen literally translates as “that which reveals the Spirit within.” As Alex elaborates, the intention you had when you chose to take such a substance is extremely important in determining what your experience will ultimately be. Were you simply looking to have some fun, or were you earnestly searching for Spirit, God, or Reality, by whatever name? Both uses are clearly valid within their own purposes, but in Alex’s case, it was very much the latter—and he did see something far more Real than anything he had seen before.
Alex and Ken go on to discuss the process by which Alex, as an artist, tried to depict some of these profound experiences in his paintings, resulting in masterpieces such as “Universal Mind Lattice,” “Theologue,” and “Deities and Demons Drinking From a Milky Pool” (pictured here), so that others might be able to glimpse aspects of their own deeper and truer nature. Such is one of the most important roles of visionary and integral art—whereby it becomes transformative art—and Alex is among the most accomplished artists in this important and specialized realm of creativity.
“Not everyone who takes mushrooms is going to interpret this as a religious opening for themselves… they might just see it as, ‘Wow, that was weird.”Alex Grey
In Part 4 Alex and Ken discuss a question that’s fundamental to the success of any visionary and spiritual artist: how do you “plant a seed of liberation” in the mind of the viewer? If you are interested in getting to know your own higher dimension of being, seeking out this kind of transcendental art can be one important practice in your own integral life—and if you have some kind of understanding of what’s happening when a piece of art pops you into a higher state of consciousness, the more likely that realization is going to “stick,” and stay with you longer.
What Alex has had the good fortune to discover, and the skill to express, is that portraying—as he puts it—”transcendental light in relationship with the body” is a very effective way to help people resonate with a piece of transformative art. As Ken goes on to mention, all states of consciousness are supported by their corresponding bodies, and by depicting some of the higher and more refined bodies, Alex has been able to elicit and anchor some of the higher and more refined states of consciousness in viewers.
An example from more traditional sacred art helps make clear what all of this actually means: when Christian artists paint halos around the heads of saints, they are depicting a subtle-body aspect of a saint’s higher state of consciousness—and if you gaze upon the image of a saint long enough, you may start to feel saintly yourself. What’s extraordinary about Alex’s work is that he has taken this general concept and brought it into the modern world, always drinking deeply from the world’s wisdom traditions, but then expressing those visionary insights with astonishing creativity, detail, and clarity.
“For example, when viewing art from a truly enlightened Zen Master, there can be four simple brush strokes for a stalk of bamboo, and BOING — Big Mind.”Ken Wilber
About Alex Grey
Alex Grey, a renowned visionary and spiritual artist and author of The Mission of Art. In the foreword to The Mission of Art, Ken Wilber stated: "Alex Grey might be the most significant artist alive."
About Ken Wilber
Ken Wilber is a preeminent scholar of the Integral stage of human development. He is an internationally acknowledged leader, founder of Integral Institute, and co-founder of Integral Life. Ken is the originator of arguably the first truly comprehensive or integrative world philosophy, aptly named “Integral Theory”.