In the modern world, the evolution of society has saddled the art world with a difficult dilemma. On one hand, art must be sincere. It needs to be relevant, but without being derivative or cliché. On the other hand, our society has turned art into a commodity. It needs to be marketable and desirable in order for collectors and gallery owners to profit, and for artists to be able to survive. All of these competing economic pressures and stylistic requirements confine art, and force artists to create work that caters to the tastes of collectors and the current artistic vogue, rather than the actual vision of its creator. Artists that refuse to compromise their sincerity for the demands of the art industry are often spurned by galleries and find themselves drawing closer and closer to the “starving artist” stereotype.
Perhaps then, to find art that remains challenging, sincere, and wholly original, we should look outside the confines of the art world and the art industry. It’s here that we find what has been termed “outsider art”: art created by people with no formal art education, with simple materials and resources, and often in complete secret. What we lose in technical mastery and mainsteam appeal, we gain in sincerity, scope, and in a style that belongs to no movement or school, but remains entirely unique and original.
Many of these outsider artists are people who exist on the margins of society. Their personalities and psychological states range from eccentric to mentally ill. Many amazing works of art have been created by patients in the confines of sanitariums and insane asylums, often with scavenged and improvised media. These pieces fascinated extremely influential artists, such as Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, and Jean Dubuffet, who felt that the art of mainstream culture was inauthentic and confined.
Particularly, Dubuffet called these works made by untrained artists in asylums art brut, meaning “raw art”. He was awestruck by the authenticity and passion demonstrated by these untrained artists, something that he saw as lacking in the mainstream art world. He argued that mainstream art is contaminated by a desire for fame, wealth, acceptance, or other forms of success, and that any truly original ideas are quickly assimilated into mainstream culture and are thus robbed of their originality. Only outsider artists, he claimed, were able to create art that endured this process and remained original and authentic, because they either refused or were unable to be assimilated. He even went so far as to say that, by comparison, the mainstream art world seemed like “…the game of a futile society, a fallacious parade.”
Consider the art of Henry Darger, who penned an immense 15,145 page fantasy novel called In the Realms of the Unreal. The book itself is bound in 15 large volumes, and includes numerous illustrations by Darger himself, created by tracing over pictures cut from magazines. Its plot is convoluted and confusing, but it roughly follows the struggle of seven young girls, known as the Vivian Girls, in their struggle against an evil regime of child slavery. In his writing and illustrations we see a slice of his world, a brief glimpse into the mind of a truly unique individual.
The scope of his work is so incredibly daunting because Darger never intended the work for public consumption. He was completely unconcerned with creating something accessible or marketable, because he created his art solely for himself, and for the sake of his own convictions. Indeed, his truly immense body of work was only discovered after his death in 1973.
Darger’s work is filled with themes drawn from his own life and experience: The prepubescent girls who revolt against child slavers are frequently shown with male genitalia, and all are shown to be devoutly Catholic. His work can be interpreted in a sense as a mechanism for exploring and coping with many deep-seated issues that he wrestled with until his death; his gender identity and sexual orientation, and the way these things conflicted with his Catholicism; the androgynous children who represent innocence, purity, and blamelessness, all things that Darger had been robbed of through his unnecessary confinement to a boys’ home following the death of his father. In the Realms of the Unreal was fifteen thousand pages of self-exploration and coping, and it’s this type of sincere, authentic creative expression that would have undoubtedly fascinated Dubuffet.
In 1905, Henry Darger was making his last of many attempts to escape and end his confinement in the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children. Nearly 1,000 miles away in Houston, a man named Charles Dellschau was in the process of constructing his own private world. In at least 13 notebooks, he used watercolors, drawings, and collages to draw pictures of airships, and to serve as the daily record of the fictitious Sonora Aero Club. In these notebooks, Dellschau claimed to be a member of this club, who supposedly met secretly in Sonora, California to fly airships of their own design.
While Darger and Dellschau were similar in the reclusive, secretive way that they worked, all the pain and struggle and violence that can be seen in Darger’s book is missing from Dellschau’s art. Instead we find a touching optimism, an obsession with the freedom of flight and the all the technological promise it brings. His drawings have the boundless enthusiasm of a child’s imaginative crayon scribblings, and the technical proficiency that can only be mustered by a skilled and practiced artist.
Then, we have Madge Gill. Gill’s art contrasts with the optimism of Dellschau and the moralistic paradigm put forward by Darger’s work. Gill makes no attempts to tell a story, but rather uses intricate geometrical patterns, women’s faces, and distorted perspectives to create work reminiscent of M.C. Escher. She contracted a serious illness after giving stillbirth to her third child, leaving her bedridden for several months and blind in one eye. Following her recovery, she expressed a passionate interest in drawing, and claimed to be guided by a spirit named “Myrninerest”.
All of these artists, despite the differences in the circumstances of their lives and upbringings, and the contrasting motifs in their work, share certain qualities that are rarely found in mainstream art, the same traits that fascinated artists like Picasso and Dubuffet. Things like obsession, transformation, and a seemingly boundless passion.
Outsider artists frequently straddle the divide between eccentricity and mental illness, which gives us cause to ask ourselves: are the characteristics that enable creative people to produce moving work the same as those that underpin the deep psychological issues that many people struggle with throughout their lives?
In questions like these, and in the tremendous scope of the work of these quiet, secret artists, we see the true beauty of outsider art. The very lives of these artists and the nature of their bodies of work make us question the nature of art, culture, and the commoditization of creativity. Questions like these are best posed and answered through the medium of art, and often those best equipped to show us the answers are the people we often marginalize and ignore.