Today Flavorwire's Paul Hiebert visits the Outsider Art Fair in New York and asks various collectors, scholars and curators how they define outsider art. Their responses vary with some calling it a pejorative term, some claiming the art lumped together as outsider art is so disparate it can hardly be called a movement, and some finding magic in its lack of filters. Michael Moon's new book Darger's Resources examines the life and work of Henry Darger, considered an outsider artist by many. In this excerpt from the book's introduction, Moon explains that his project is to confront the myth of Darger as an insane loner.
Contemplating the “outsider artist” Henry Darger (1892–1973), we begin with the myth of a life and career that is in some ways already deep-rooted,despite his having become the focus of much public attention only in thepast ten years or so. The myth holds that Darger produced his work in something approaching absolute isolation, never showing it to anyone else, laboring over it continuously for sixty completely solitary years, coming homefrom his job as a janitor and writing and painting through the evening, perhaps far into the night, with nary a response from anyone else. Even in comparison with the lives of other so-called outsider artists and writers, Darger’s sounds as though it may have been the loneliest ever.This book has been written to try to help dispel that myth. This is notto deny that Darger led an outwardly solitary existence, nor that he seemsto have succeeded in keeping his literary and artistic work to himself. It is,rather, to insist that although he appears to have strenuously avoided contact with his neighbors and fellow workers, he fashioned a populous other world for himself, in which he could live out a virtual existence replete with boththe intense excitement and the lively sociability that seems so conspicuously missing from his allegedly real life.Although the bare outlines of Darger’s situation may look almost like a parody of the Romantic idea of the solitary, isolated, tragically misunderstood artist, his work, when one studies it, reveals itself as having been highly relational and even in some ways collaborative. One thing about whichalmost everyone who has reflected on Darger’s work agrees is that it is appropriativein the extreme: he traced the figures that appear in his art out ofcoloring books, comic strips, newspapers, and magazines, and he collaged into his drawings images as diverse as Roman Catholic holy-card depictions of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the little Coppertone girl having her swimsuit bottom pulled partway down by a playful cocker spaniel, and a celebratedlandscape painting of an ominous “calm before the storm” (a theme dear to Darger) by the nineteenth-century artist Martin Johnson Heade. Similarly, in his 15,000-page-long The Story of the Vivian Girls in What Is Known as the Realms ofthe Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion,he sometimes reproduces entire chapters, with only occasional changes of names and wording, from books as varied as John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and James Oliver Curwood’s The Flaming Forest, a 1920s male adventure andromance novel about Mounties fighting fires in the wilds of Canada. Darger not only “borrows” characters and situations from novels, histories, piousdevotional works, newspaper comic strips, and children’s serial books (The Wizard of Oz, Heidi, The Bobbsey Twins, The Banner Boy Scouts, and the sequels to all of these), at times juxtaposing Mutt and Jeff with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Little Eva or Charles Dickens’s Fagin and Bill Sykes. Far from living in some kind of historical and cultural vacuum, Dargerin his extremely productive—albeit invisible to his contemporaries—career as a writer and artist enacted and embodied a new set of possibilities for amember of his proletarian class, living as a working adult outside any family structure. Darger was literate in a highly absorptive way but also in a highly productive way—unlike most omnivorous readers, he probably wrote even more than he read. He may have received some elementary (but, given his talent, extremely stimulating and valuable) training in watercolor painting in the institution where he spent his adolescence. Learning to read as he may well have done from the blazing color pages of the Sunday comics (he and the Sunday comics were born the same year), Darger also grew up with the movies and an unprecedented tide of popular and cheap print—the illustrated children’s books, devotional pamphlets and prayer cards, and pulp magazines that, taken together, offer the closest analogues to the kinds of material Darger wrote, drew, and painted. In retrospect, we can see him as, in his way, a heroic and inspired cultural worker participating (as manyof his contemporaries were) in an emerging proletarian public sphere that flourished for a few decades early in the twentieth century.
Excerpt copyright Duke University Press, 2012. Darger's Resources will be published in March.