Part of Henry Darger’s epic Realms of the Unreal is on display in the exhibition “Self-Taught Genuis: Treasures of the American Folk Art Museum” at the Saint Louis Art Museum. Henry Darger (1892-1973) was orphaned at a young age and spent most of his adult life working as a custodian. In his “free-time” he created an immense universe, and a 15,145-page manuscript, fully titled:
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.
Darger created hundreds of drawings and paintings to illustrate his epic.
“Self-Taught Genius” attempts to reframe the artwork of “folk” or “outsider” artists by tracing the concept of genius itself. In the classic ideal genius was seen as a connection to a cosmic truth or inspiration. The concept of genius became subjectified with the rise of bourgeois society. No longer did artists tap into some outside genius. The artists became geniuses in and of themselves.
While there can be no doubt that Darger fits both the classical and bourgeois molds of “genius,” the problem in approaching his work in this manner should be made clear. The model of “self-taught genius” ignores the social genius of Darger’s Child Slave Rebellion. After all, Darger’s work was shaped by the very real instructors of his life; his kind father, his brutal treatment as a ward of the state of Illinois, the “dead-end” proletarian job that awaited him in adulthood. It is no accident that Darger’s epic illuminated manuscript is, at its core, about a rebellion of child-slaves. Nor are his transgender heroes necessarily a mere accident of individual genius or naïveté. Maybe they are glimpses of the future emancipation that could not yet be articulated.
The rubric of “Self-Taught Genius” may improve on the insulting and inaccurate idea of “outsider art”—outside what? The art world? Much of the art world is alien to the vast bulk of the human race. But “Self-Taught Genius” assumes an imaginary tabulae rasae, and in so doing flattens the social and class origins of the “folk artist.” It denies the genius of the lumpen, the proletarian, and the uninitiated petit-bourgeois creator. It condescends to its betters.
In the Realms of the Unreal (2004) is Jessica Yu’s award-winning documentary film about Darger. I am reposting it here. Because we should remember the social genius of working-class artists. Artists that break through the banality and cruelty of capitalist life. Artists that navigate their own subjective liberation (real and imagined) through the contradictory mythologies of a barbaric world.