Saturday, November 7, 2009

Darger and the Artist's Ego

If it is important for an artist and his work to demonstrate the unknowable to us, what are the lessons we can learn from the life of Henry Darger?

For those unfamiliar with Darger, he lived most of his eighty-plus years in Chicago, a friendless, anonymous man who did custodial work for a Catholic hospital. In his spare time, he created a complex parallel universe consumed by an epic conflict known to him as the Glandeco-Angelinian War, in which child slaves known as the Vivian Girls rebelled against their masters, fierce soldiers resembling Dixie grey coats in uniform and run by John Manley, a school bully Darger once had to contend with as a boy, now infamously immortalized for his tyranny. The story, a magnum opus if there ever was such a contender for the term, runs over fifteen volumes, totaling 15,145 pages, alternately typed and drawn, traced, painted, or collaged together, creating a dreamlike effect aesthetically unique: the vivian girls are androgynous creatures marked by lovely girlishness and small penises. They are violently tortured by their captors in explicit detail, often utilizing christian symbology, especially tragic martyrdom.

The work is beautiful, bizarre, and incredibly idiosyncratic, yet there are many such works of art that convey the wondrous details of the imagination not quite so universally celebrated. Darger may be the greatest embodiment of art brut--a movement describing artists who work outside institutions such as museums and galleries and have learned their craft independent of any apprentice work or university system-- but today he is anything but an outsider. Very few modern artists have bigger household name value.

Is it simply the beauty of the work itself that makes Darger so beloved? Or rather is it the purity of his intentions, his championing of innocence and childhood? Or perhaps it's the single-mindedness of his vision, that a whole life should be committed to a single project? Or is it possibly that Henry Darger, lonely and emotionally isolated, composed his epic narrative because he had to-- out of love, passion, or catharsis-- and its acceptance by the general public had nothing to do with it?

Darger did nothing in his lifetime to publicize his creations nor to advocate himself as an artist, a quality of indifference very unique among creative people. Most need to show their work and be congratulated for it. Because of the internet, today's artists are not so dependent on the fickleness of gallery owners in order to get their work out. In spite of its intangibility and inherent limitations, the internet means "space" can exist anywhere, in any room in the world and can exist there indefinitely. Nevertheless, with the creation of counters for plays or views, our egos are more than ever intertwined with being seen, heard, noticed. Most of us are all too human and attach self-worth to the attention, accolades or value our work receives. The unknown artist can only google his or her name with extreme caution. This is because for most of us, our work cannot exist on its own merits. Satisfaction is contingent on recognition from an audience. Is this a very human quality, the need to be appreciated? It's a matter of love, isn't it? We need it and the fact that Darger could be so creative for so many years while keeping such a marvelous work to himself must seem incomprehensible to the Myspace generation. In this sense, he was operating like an immortal, beyond the realms of the real, someone whose superhuman discipline, patience, dedication, fanatical detail, talent, and self-assurance is something worth our admiration.

Although his childhood was particularly Dickensian, his methodic channeling of sadness and the themes he explored therein were particularly American. Poverty-stricken and orphaned at a young age, he never quite got over his unhappy childhood and was perhaps trying to resolve that dilemma with this mammoth effort, drawing from ideas of war, christianity, and most especially the battle between good and evil. Though childless and too destitute to qualify as a candidate with adoption agencies, Darger followed the travails of children in his imagination, the only place in his life where he had absolute control. Many of us Americans suffer various maladies of Peter Pan syndrome in our own childish ways-- we don't want responsibilities, we want to look, feel, stay young-- yet if only more of us could so selflessly express these anxieties in art and be happy for the effort, we might be so much better off.

When Henry Darger died in a hospice in 1973, his life's work was discovered by his landlords, Nathan Lerner and his wife, Kiyoko. Lerner, an accomplished photojournalist, recognized immediately the value of Darger's vision and took careful measures to ensure it was preserved and shared with the world. Likely, there are many landlords who would have tossed out the entire shebang and thus today we wouldn't have the amazing paintings composing In the Realms of the Unreal.

If you want to go back further, if Darger had had a happy childhood, maybe he wouldn't have been inspired to create what he had.

Everything, it seems, then, exists as a trick of fate and we should be thankful for what we've got. What we've lost--through the failure to acknowledge or preserve the work of artists who had no name or reputation to speak of-- is something that we will never quite comprehend.


  1. I first heard about Darger after seeing the documentary about him.
    I was moved by the incredible imagination of this strange man and to think again about him and his work in this way is interesting.
    You are right, in these times of our peacock attitude to being artists his solitude becomes all the more poigniant.