How “Problematic” Outsider Art Avoids Scandal
Outsider art is rife with nude women, violence, expletives, and imagery that you wouldn’t want to view with your parents. The drawings of Henry Darger focus on naked, often-sexualized children. Morton Bartlett created a series of eerie dolls and photographed many of them sans clothing—or, as in Untitled (Girl at the Beach) (1950), so thinly sheathed that their nipples and pubic areas are still visible. On signs he hung around his Louisiana home, the self-proclaimed “prophet” Royal Robertson rendered angry, misogynistic language aimed at his ex-wife. For his part, Miroslav Tichý photographed women unaware they were being captured; his oeuvre is full of blurry, voyeuristic shots.
Dark, untempered psychologies pervade this work. While raw emotions and impulses are, of course, responsible for much creative output, the lack of emotional restraint characterizing art made by Darger, Bartlett, Robertson, and Tichý can be jarring. In a culture that regularly lambastes male painters, photographers, and sculptors forobjectifying women (Degas) or promoting pedophilia (Balthus), it’s surprising that these outsider artists haven’t received similar scoldings. Recently, I asked a few art dealers why we hold mainstream artists to different ethical standards. While one disagreed with the premise of my question, another posited a simple rationale: Our acceptance of artwork with upsetting or offensive motifs ultimately depends on the creators’ intended audience.
Darger, Bartlett, Robertson, and Tichý all made art in varying degrees of isolation. Far removed from the contemporary art world, Darger worked as a janitor for a Chicago hospital. Around the age of 19, between 1910 and 1912, he began his epic illustrated novel, 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 (1910–70). The project ultimately reached around 15,000 pages, and tells a strange story about the revolt of the young Vivian Girls against a group of evil, child slave–owning adults termed the “Glandelians.” Darger illustrated his tale with lush, sexually explicit watercolors. Pedophilic adulation pervades even his images of clothed figures. Second battle of McAllister Run they are pursued, for example, features phallic gun–wielding adult male soldiers who stalk a group of short-skirted Vivian Girls.
Scholars know little about Darger’s motivations; the public didn’t even know about his work until after his death. Photographer Nathan Lerner, Darger’s landlord, discovered the veritable treasure trove of his artwork, largely bound in books, who saved them for posterity. “Not until I looked under all the debris in his room did I become aware of the incredible world that Henry had created from within himself,” Lerner once wrote. “It was only in the last days of Henry Darger’s life that I came close to knowing who this shuffling old man really was.”
According to the Chicago Tribune, after Darger died in 1973, Lerner invited interested parties—“art students, booksellers, psychiatrists, anyone who might know what to do with, or make of, its complexities”—into the apartment. Four years later, Darger got his first show when the Hyde Park Art Center separated the books’ bindings to mount his works on paper as individual pieces. The compelling story of Lerner’s discovery and Darger’s secret work has become integral to his legacy.
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.”
Nevertheless, Ogden opts to not show Robertson’s most offensive work. He’s more interested in the artist’s pictures of futuristic cities and vehicles. I asked Ogden what he thought about lucrative exhibitions of work by serial killers like Charles Manson or John Wayne Gacy. Throughout his imprisonment in the 1980s and ’90s, Gacy painted thousands of canvases, many depicting creepy clown figures. Los Angeles’s Tatou Art Gallery and the Arts Factory in Las Vegas have both shown the work for commercial gain. Gacy, of course, committed far graver crimes than any of the mainstream artists we’ve reprimanded throughout the #MeToo saga.
Ogden, however, doesn’t condemn institutions willing to show work by such figures. When he curates, he mounts art that he’d want to live with personally. “I assume if you’re showing work by serial killers or something in that realm, you must find it interesting and it must be somehow desirable or you think it’s important to show it, right?” he said. “Everyone’s got different reasons why they’re selling or exhibiting art.”
Of all the outsider artists mentioned here, it’s the Czech artist Miroslav Tichý who committed the greatest infractions during the artmaking process itself—photographing strangers around public pools and other areas in his hometown of Kyjov without their consent. His images often catch young women in varying stages of undress. Still, galleries around the world continue to exhibit his pictures.
Andrew Edlin, who runs his own eponymous gallery in addition to the Outsider Art Fair, isn’t so sure that audiences hold outsider and mainstream artists to different standards at all. He mentioned Robert Mapplethorpe, who made sadomasochistic photographs; Chris Ofili, who has incorporated dung into his paintings; and Andres Serrano, who once photographed a crucifix submerged in urine. I noted that all of those artists received blowback in a way that outsider figures have not. Edlin pointed out that it’s difficult, and perhaps condescending, to treat outsider artists as mere naifs who don’t know any better.
But Edlin also concedes that artists such as Darger easily avoided reproach because they died before anyone knew about their practices or could hear their motivations firsthand. “He wasn’t around to tell anybody what was on his mind,” Edlin said. No one can tear Darger apart for public statements he’d made or interviews he’d given. Perhaps the key to making morally ambiguous—or downright reprehensible—art without reproach is to never display or discuss it all. That, however, would be a great loss.