Realms of the Unreal

Lately, I’ve been thinking about Henry Darger. He was a man who lived in near seclusion, and made his living as a janitor. It was only after he died that people discovered he had spent his life writing and creating visual art. He made another world for himself and created an entire cast of characters (the Vivian Girls). There is a fantastic documentary on Darger called Realms of the Unreal–that’s how I was first introduced to him and his work. What I find myself lingering over is the fact that Darger had the impulse to create without the desire to bring attention to his creation. While he was alive, no one was aware of the artistic output that was happening in his home. I wonder if that means the work came from a more authentic place? When one creates for the sake of creating—is a slave to that creative impulse—and creates without compulsion to share the creation or bring attention to the creation (and creator), does that make the act more pure (because there aren’t any ulterior desires motivating the act…money, fame, aspiration etc.)? I don’t think I’m phrasing the question/idea properly. It’s not so much that one way is pure/authentic and one way isn’t, but when an artist chooses to keep his work to himself, and is very prolific in that work…isn’t that different than someone who seeks recognition for their work? Doesn’t that imply a different sort of motivation?

Maybe it’s the difference of how one identifies himself/herself. If one does not view himself/herself as an “Artist,” then perhaps one is not going to think his/her work is worth anything, and not think of it as something worth sharing.



5 thoughts on “Realms of the Unreal

  1. Very possible that his day job as to most people ” he was just a janitor” sadly is how society judges people. Creating his art was his way out of the so called “shame” some feel because we have put titles on such a pedestal and his title was simple. I for one quit working for people who do not think you are worth a damn, and they do not see how artists see, i quit because art to me is living….a 9-5 with nothing in the end isnt… See for yourself

  2. I don’t think “shared” art comes from a “less authentic” place. I may show you but I don’t really care if you like it or not. Praise is nice and I may hope others enjoy my work but the creation itself is for my pleasure, not yours. If it was about “you” I’d be making custom versions of everything I write instead of ignoring most comments and criticism.

    Besides, we don’t know that Darger didn’t have the desire to share his work, only that he didn’t. We can only speculate: he didn’t want to or he may have had the desire but didn’t for various reasons.

    That is, I think, a more interesting question: what of art we wish to share but don’t? What are the reasons, real or imagined, that hold us back?

  3. If the pleasure is in the creation (and I believe that it is), then why show it to anyone at all once it’s finished? Why not place it to the side and begin the next piece? Particularly if one doesn’t seek praise or critique. That’s what I find interesting about Darger and other Outsider artists. Though we can’t know Darger’s inner thoughts regarding whether he wanted to share his work, we know he created art in the solitude of his home, without sharing. The same goes for Bill Traylor, a freed slave who started drawing when he was in his 80s–simply out of a desire to draw. He went to his grave having tried to satisfy the creative impulse, but without bringing attention to himself for doing so.

    A variation of this question came up last semester in the nonfiction workshop when Ray asked whether the students in the class would keep writing if they knew their work wouldn’t be published, and no one would ever read it. My answer is yes because I’ve always written and without thought to publication. I don’t feel terribly compelled to try to publish my poetry, primarily because I’m never certain it’s that good, but I enjoy working on it. In those instances I do feel satisfied finishing a poem, then putting it aside and starting another. On the other hand, I tend to have an eye toward publication when I’m working on my essays. And if those essays were never going to be read/published, I’d like to think I’d still craft them. The same goes with my visual art. I’m content to scribble and draw in my sketchbook and not show anyone what I’m doing, but I’m always interested in showing my photography. (So, I guess my response to your last question has to do with how I perceive the strength of my work…when I’m confident in its quality, I’m willing to share. When I’m not, I’m willing to work on it and keep it to myself.) (Which brings in the issue of ego, I suppose)

  4. Hmmm…I thought I answered your (1st) question: “praise is nice” (albeit not necessary) and I hope the person I show it/stuff/work to will enjoy it (this doesn’t necessarily mean “like”—they may just enjoy the process of breaking the poem down, editing, etc.).

    Also, I’m not necessarily thinking of sharing art depending on its “goodness” (hehe) or strength. For example: I love to sing. I have a decent voice, better than most—but I won’t sing in public. I want to but I won’t. I want to be in a band, musical theatre, go caroling at Christmas, etc. But I won’t. I might with a few drinks in me but (as you know) that almost never happens. It’s not the “goodness” (hehe) that holds me back—but I remember being mocked as a child by my mother and best friend’s mother for constantly singing and having a vibrato.

    And because of the info. we do know about Darger, I start to wonder about how his childhood and religious beliefs played into his desire/inability/reticence to share his art with others. And even his desire to create at all.

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