Artifact: Outside In


Credit: Smithsonian American Art Museum

Here's a detail from "After Marcocina," by Henry Darger (1892-1973), currently one of the art world's hottest stars. Darger's bizarre works will inaugurate Manhattan's new Museum of American Folk Art in December, further mainstreaming so-called Outsider Art. That exploding category includes work, often naïve, by self-taught "eccentrics." Darger's watercolors have sold for as much as $60,000 and have been widely displayed (this one is held by the Smithsonian). There's an unpublished 1,200-page study of Darger by a Princeton scholar, and Hollywood is mulling over a biopic.

Darger is in many ways the perfect demented outsider. A reclusive obsessive who talked to himself in different voices, his mural-size paintings illustrate a sadistic 15,000-page fantasy about a war between soldiers and child hermaphrodites, The Story of the Vivian Girls. The text and images were discovered by Darger's Chicago landlord, along with hundreds of Pepto-Bismol bottles and balls of string, after Darger left. He'd otherwise been known for attending Mass all day, and rummaging through garbage.

Outsider Art has a long history, often associated with mental patients. Its 19th century "discovery" sprang from the Romantic obsession with locating "genius." Most such work has remained beyond the reach of the curator-critic art establishment, but the rise in exhibits and the new museum are evidence of change. Now outsiderism is becoming a style and more: a pose, a bohemian strategy. It's a study in the collapse of tastemaking. The question becomes, are art's gatekeepers letting outsiders in, or themselves out?