[NOTICE: I’m writing this in bed with a fever. I claim no responsibility for what I write.]
I’m interested in artists who hand me their work on the street, who scare people, whose work is confusing and contradictory, and especially those who redefine our notions of art. Art works, in and of themselves, are objects, but, for me, it’s my response to those works that makes them art.
Jolene Charging To Battle the Glandelinian Overlords
The photo above reminded me of a conversation which took place about 15 years ago between myself and my friend Jerry. I’d just met him (we’re still good friends, but don’t talk as much as we should) . He loved to show me that my definitions, at that time, of social limits, cool, and status quo were all absurd. He was right, too. I had no idea what I was talking about. I still don’t, and that’s what he taught me. I’m always wrong as there’s always someone out there redefining normal and pushing the limits of what is acceptable. Plus, Jerry was one of those people. He’s not happy unless he’s redefining reality. I find this fascinating and laudable. The conversation started when I noticed he was carrying around some prints that didn’t quite make sense to me. They were drawings of little girls with penises in some kind of fantasy world. Having just met him, I was afraid to ask (which is a weird concept to me now as I’m a totally different person, today I’d just tear into a conversation with just about anyone).
After a week or so, he was still carrying them around. I asked. He explained they were the work of Henry Darger. He also explained how Darger was a misunderstood artist who was institutionalized early in life and people generally misinterpreted his art as a form of pedophilia. Turns out, Darger was autistic, abused as a child, and his art was an expression of his desire to protect children. He was harmless. He was also, quite possibly, one of the greatest artists who’s work is classified as outsider art.
The term outsider art was coined by art critic Roger Cardinal in 1972 as an English synonym for art brut (French: [aʁ bʁyt], “raw art” or “rough art”), a label created by French artist Jean Dubuffet to describe art created outside the boundaries of official culture; Dubuffet focused particularly on art by those on the outsides of the established art scene such as insane-asylum inmates and children.
While Dubuffet’s term is quite specific, the English term “outsider art” is often applied more broadly, to include certain self-taught or naïve art makers who were never institutionalized. Typically, those labeled as outsider artists have little or no contact with the mainstream art world or art institutions. In many cases, their work is discovered only after their deaths. Often, outsider art illustrates extreme mental states, unconventional ideas, or elaborate fantasy worlds.
Darger grew on me over those 15 years. I studied him whenever I saw something that reminded me of his work. I find I keep going back to it for some reason.
Henry Joseph Darger, Jr. (/ˈdɑrdʒər/; ca. April 12, 1892 – April 13, 1973) was a reclusive American writer and artist who worked as a custodian in Chicago, Illinois. He has become famous for his posthumously-discovered 15,145-page, single-spaced fantasy manuscript called 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, along with several hundred drawings and watercolor paintings illustrating the story. Darger’s work has become one of the most celebrated examples of outsider art.
I like that he created his work in total solitude. I don’t know why I find that appealing. I like that he unknowingly challenged the definition of art. This led me to ask the question: What is art?
“Someone dumped a pile of elephant shit in a museum and called it art. I must live in art. I’m surrounded by shit all day.” — Stephanie Sicore when questioned about the work of Damien Hirst.
I remember when Hirst, Saatchi, and the Young British Artists made a stir back in the ’90s. What I didn’t notice was the Stuckists who responded to Saatchi, conceptual art, and Duchamp. They published several manifestos about the definition of art. To me their argument boils down to: Art is only painting with the product displayed in non-museum settings, without all the ego. I don’t think art can be restricted to such a narrow definition. To do so would be to make a subjective value judgement of the response one has to any work presented as art. While I do not appreciate the work of Hirst (if you can call it his work because he usually isn’t the one actually doing the work), I believe I have no right to say something is or isn’t art.
Who am I to define what is normal, acceptable, or appropriate for another’s response in observation? Who am I to question the value placed on response by another? These are things I simply cannot control. I’d rather relish the diversity and permit my own value response by taking the time to observe whenever I can.