In his cheeky invention of a character called Marvin Pontiac, an obscure West African-born bluesman, the avant-garde composer and saxophonist John Lurie created “a wry and purposeful sendup of the ways in which critics canonize and worship the disenfranchised and bedeviled,” Amanda Petrusich writes at The New Yorker. Lurie’s satire shows how the critical fetish for outsider artists has a persistent emphasis: a hyperfocus on “misshapen yet pervasive ideas” about class, race, education, and ability as markers of primitive authenticity.
The term “outsider art” can sound patronizing and even predatory, laden with assumptions about who does and who does not deserve inclusion and agency in the art world. Outsider art gets collected, exhibited, catalogued, and sold, usually accompanied by a semi-mythology about the artist’s fringe circumstances. Yet the artists themselves rarely seem to be the primary beneficiaries of any largesse. In the case of the fictional Marvin Pontiac, his status as “dead and heretofore undiscovered” makes the question moot. The same goes for the very real and perhaps most famous of outsider artists, whose life story can sometimes make Lurie’s Pontiac seem underwritten by comparison.
Reclusive hospital custodian Henry Darger spent his early years, after both parents died, in an orphanage and the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children. He spent his almost completely solitary adult life in a second-floor room on the North Side of Chicago, attending Mass daily (often several times a day), before passing away in 1973 in the same old age home in which his father died. He had one friend, left only four photographs of himself, and his few acquaintances were never even sure how to pronounce his last name (it’s a hard “g”). In his last diary entry, New Year’s Day, 1971, Darger wrote, “I had a very poor nothing like Christmas. Never had a good Christmas all my life, nor a good new year, and now… I am very bitter but fortunately not revengeful, though I feel should be how I am.”
So much for “outsider.” As for the label “Artist”—inscribed on his pauper’s grave (along with “Protector of Children”)—Darger shocked the art world, who had no idea he even existed, when his landlord discovered the typescript of an unpublished 15,000-page fantasy novel, The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. Also in his apartment were a 8,500 follow-up, Further Adventures of the Vivian Girls in Chicago, and several hundred “panoramic ‘illustrations,’” notes the “official” Henry Darger website: “many of them double-sided and more than 9 feet in length.”
These works, we learn in the PBS video at the top, “The Secret Life of Henry Darger,” now regularly sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Darger, it seems, never meant for anyone to see them at all. Perhaps for good reason. His work leaves “a set of contradictory impressions,” Edward Gómez writes at Hyperallergic, “a celebration of childhood fulsomeness and a whiff of pedophiliac perversion.” The latter impression seems to have less to do with criminal sexual inclinations than with contemporary cultural perceptions about childhood. Compare Darger’s work, for example, with Lewis Carroll’s obsession with children, alarming to us now but not at all unusual at the time.
Still, Darger’s hundreds of “drawings of naked, prepubescent girls whose bodies prominently include male genitals” have raised all sorts of questions. Critics have pointed to the obvious influence of Victorian children’s literature, but perhaps even more pervasive was Darger’s own painful childhood, his considerable discomfort with the adult world, and his expressed desire to protect children who might suffer similarly (a preoccupation shared by Charles Dickens). Learn about Darger’s troubled, tragic childhood in the Down the Rabbit Hole video biography above, and in these two portraits, see why his work deserves—despite but not because of his marginality and oddness, his being self-taught, and his desire for his art to disappear—the posthumous acclaim it has received. Like that quintessential outsider artist, William Blake, Darger left behind a daringly original body of work that is as compelling and beautiful as it is disturbing and otherworldly.