Darger fits neatly into the paradigm of outsider personalities. “A lot of these artists did not make work simply for an audience,” explained Scott Ogden, who runs SHRINE Gallery in New York. “Most of it was very private. They weren’t trying to make this work for a gallery or museum.” Even if their subjects and imagery were in questionable taste, these artists weren’t, for the most part, trying to expose their work to the public.
Ogden acknowledges that most artists—outsider or not—often make art from a deeply personal impulse. Yet mainstream artists, who hope to show and sell in brick-and-mortar art spaces during their lifetimes, are aware of sales, the market, and gallery politics. They have different concerns and responsibilities to the public, and we examine and judge their work accordingly.
Gallerist Marion Harris agrees. “I believe outsider artists are not so much held to a different standard, but are given more leeway because they are outside the mainstream in many ways—often eccentric and unschooled and oblivious to normal mores and behavior,” she wrote to me recently via email. In 1993, while attending an antiques fair, Harris discovered Morton Bartlett’s dolls and accompanying photographs. Bartlett had already been dead about a year—he’d never intended to show or sell this work. Harris believes that any potential offensiveness, then, was a “moot point.”
“It’s natural to know that you’re making art for an audience in a different kind of way than if you’re Prophet Royal Robertson in extremely rural Louisiana, decorating your bedroom,” echoed Ogden, who has exhibited Robertson’s work since 2016. Like Darger, Robertson has a particularly colorful backstory. Ogden believes that he was schizophrenic and experienced near-daily hallucinations that convinced him that he was traveling through space and time. Mental illness was probably responsible, too, for his extreme anger at his family and ex-wife. In addition to the flying saucers, space crusaders, and imaginary lands he depicted, Robertson penned angry, offensive messages; one of his signs reads “No Divorce Whore’s Allowed.” “His mind was just set in a way that’s very different from most people’s,” Ogden said. “I think the art reflects that.”