Monday, December 7, 2009

Regarding Henry Darger

Henry Darger seems to exemplify the definition of an "outsider artist". This is, for example, apparent in the fact that a Google image search of "outsider art" instantly yields results which include Darger's work near the top of the list. But what is "outsider art?" Well, based on a variety of online sources (roughly 5 or so), the general consensus could be summarized as -- artwork produced by an artist who was not trained to be an artist and who is uninfluenced by the concerns or input of others, and usually with no intention of making their work public. This label also seems to be a favorite for describing the art of insane people, namely those in asylums. So "outsider art" is valued as being a pure expression of that individual, one that you might say is untainted by any significant pretense imposed by society.

I must say, it takes a bit of a stretch to label someone an "outsider artist" unless he or she was raised by wolves or something. It's a very vague kind of a notion, I think, to suggest that a person can somehow live within a society, on any level, and not be influenced, artistically or otherwise, by his or her fellow human beings. Darger, for example, wasn't exactly ignorant of mainstream art. He lived in Chicago, after all, and not in the sewers as I understand. He even directly copied others' art to make his own. Still, relatively speaking, he was about as far removed from society, mentally, as one can get within a society.

In terms of content and formal qualitites, "outsider art", including that of Darger's, doesn't necessarily exhibit distinct "outsider" qualities. I'm aware, however, of no so-called "outsider artist" who ever produced highly rendered, true-to-life works. One might say, generally speaking, that "outsider art" has a child-like quality to it,. Indeed, one could reasonably say that most children are "oustsider artists."

It's no wonder that Darger seemed to be trapped in his childhood. Or I should say, rather, it's no wonder that his art reflected that apparent situation. Of course, Darger was also an adult, though he avoided many of the typical roles associated with adulthood, and was mentally and emotionally competant in terms of basic societal requirements. He worked. He paid his necessary bills. He didn't cause any trouble, though he was very odd by almosty anyone's standards. And to an outside observer, those few things would seem to comprise a full description of Darger. We now know that there was much more to Henry Darger than just those basic things, though. I think what he didn't allow the world to see was that his child-self had never really died, and he hid that child to protect it. Becoming an adult is, you might say, a process of killing your child-self. It seems that Darger saw this reality in adults and was greatly disturbed by it. And I think he decided, whether consciously or otherwise, to never let that happen to his child-self. Though his body would age, his child-self didn't have to die. Most people aren't even aware that's an option. In this regard, one might call Darger a brilliant man...or a brilliant child. Or, better yet, both.

It seems Henry Darger's massive book, "Realms of the Unreal" was executed as a continuing process of preserving the life of his child-self; The Vivian girls were him, I think. Perhaps that's why they had penises. Darger may have been incredibly odd but I don't think he was mentally retarded as one would have to be to live in a large city, serve in the millitary, and not know that boys have penises and girls have vaginas. No, those girls were, it seems, a projection of himself. Their war was his war. In the same way that the Darger character protected the children in "Realms of the Unreal", the real Darger protected his child-self from the real world.

What I find most interesting about Henry Darger is his ongoing struggle with his feelings toward God. He, at times, expressed intense anger toward God, and even threatened him. I'm sure he felt like he hated God at times. But if that's not love, I don't know what is (haha). I don't recall from the video whether Darger ever made references to specific passages in the Bible. I can't help but wonder if he was familiar with Jesus' instructions in Mark 10:13 where he tells his followers they must come to him as little children (to make it into heaven). Well Darger certainly did just that. In fact, I think it's safe to say that he followed those instructions, whether consciously or not, more closely than anyone else who attended or lead the churches whose floors he scrubbed on his hands and knees.

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