Henry Darger, culture hero

Jessica Yu’s documentary In the Realms of the Unreal does a convincing job doing something I was taught in graduate school not to do, trace connections between an artist’s life and his work and fill in biographical holes with analysis of his art. I don’t mean to assess the so-called biographical fallacy here; I mention this only because it was quite disconcerting for a film about Henry Darger, outsider artist extraordinaire, a man about which virtually nothing is known to spend so much time elucidating that virtual void while doing nothing to put his work in any kind of art-historical context. But the results were surprisingly poignant: I was left with a palpable sense of extreme isolation and the quiet dignity that, oddly enough, comes from absurd over-the-top obssession.

In obvious ways, Darger was clearly a lunatic. He saved bits of string. In private he talked to himself incessantly, in different voices for different characters in his private world. If his drawings are any guide, he seemed to believe little girls have penises. And he wrote an endless, unreadable fantasy novel detailing the endless child slavery wars in his “realms of the unreal” that he invented for himself. Yu tries to illustrate how the “realms of the unreal” are a distorted mirror of the reality of Darger’s alienation. So his art becomes a case study in the function of ideology in its most hard-line pessimisstic formulation, as a species of false consciousness that compensates for a life of deprivation. And if that is so, then it also demonstrates how productive the illusions of ideology can be; in order to realize its comforts, Darger was driven to type out fifteen thousand pages of his novel and make hundreds of enormous paintings (often radically reconfiguring sentimental images cut from magazines and advertisements, making him the ultimate “productive consumer,” reusing culture for his own ends) to illustrate it, and he did this not out of artistic vanity or ambition or even out of a reflexive need to express himself, but simply because his ideological framework required it. Ideology is often understood as a limitation, as something that prevents one from seeing truth. But it’s really constituitive, creative, productive; it supplies the structures that make artistic production possible, it supplies the desire to create that transcend market imperatives (even if it is concealing those imperatives from the artist in order to induce him to create).

It’s because outsider artists are so external to the marketplace that they are so fascinating. Market motives seem so inherent, especially to us now, having entirely naturalized capitalism and declared it to be the end of history and all, that those capable of operating outside of them seem like true aliens, utterly unfathomable. Often, we are reassured by deeming such people mentally ill, seeing their preternatural creativity as pathology, a tainted kind of achievement. But there is probably a hint of jealousy in our attraction to people like Darger; we sense our own stunted creative potential in the monumental accomplishments of such ordinary, “unskilled” artists; we see that anyone could be as wildly creative and productive, and we see how much of our imagination we surrender to get along in the world.

In fact, capitalist ideology prepares us to be jealous of Darger, because of the value it places on uncompromised individualism. No one is more uncompromisingly individualistic that Darger; he is perfectly self-contained, unhindered by any communal ties. But since whatever jealousy we feel of Darger’s productiveness is effaced by a revulsion at his anti-social behavior and his puerile narcissism, we see the real limits on individualism, how individualism is a phony ideal itself. Typically, what we understand as individualism is really an ideologically distorted drive to conformity (this is the hinge on which much advertising turns). But Darger shows us what real individualism looks like, and it’s completely unapproachable, overwhelming.

Darger also gives the lie to the capitalist fetish of innocence; capitalism celebrates innocence because it’s a nice name for the impulsiveness and gullibility necessary for consumerism to soak up all the surplus production generated in search of more and more profit. But real innocence is innocence of the marketplace, it is innocence beyond gullibility, it is a kind of self-contained womb state in which one has trouble distinguishing one’s own limits, one’s separation from the world around one. Darger created a world in whcih he could be present everywhere as both subject and object, preserving innocence by not allowing his desire to seep into the marketplace, to go there for (partial, always unsatisfying) fulfillment.

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