Sometime around my late 20s I began taking a serious interest in visual art. As a lifelong music enthusiast, I hadn’t ever taken much time to appreciate other forms of art because I thought it might take away from my “music-guy” persona or whatever. Somewhere along the way I decided I would be known by everyone in my life as someone they could rely on for music recommendations or educated opinions on various artists & records. Going to bet that nobody has ever seen me that way but it made me feel cool growing up.
That said, the first time I can recall being truly moved by a work of art was when I saw Dali’s The Persistence of Memory on display at my local art museum. This is the famous Dali painting with the melting clocks that I’m sure you’d recognize after a quick google search. I remember being astonished by this thing. I couldn’t stop looking at it. It was so overwhelming that It felt like it was the only thing that mattered in my world at that moment, I could have looked deeper and deeper into it and never get bored. It felt like I could jump in and live inside this unbelievable work of art. In summary, I liked it and started to wonder “What else am I missing out on?!”
The answer was apparently a lot.
I dove headfirst into the art world in the most over-the-top, unhealthy way possible. Dali led me to Haring who led me to Basquiat who led me to Twombly who led me to Rothko (I fucking love Rothko), who led me to you get the point… there’s a lot of art.
Without a doubt the most fascinating alcove of the art world that I found was that of so-called outsider art. Outsider art is generally defined as art created by those that are self-taught or have little to no contact with the more traditional structure of the art world. Basically, these are people who created for the sake of creating and didn’t really care if it would sell in a gallery or earn them any kind of notoriety. The careers of many of these artists are more punk rock than anything Joe Strummer ever did (especially because The Clash sucks– which is a topic for a future post). Aside from the non-commercial aspect of it, this kind of art is sometimes attributed to mental illness or religious fanaticism, cave drawings, etc… However it came to be, it’s fascinating and part of almost every culture in human history.
In the introduction to Greg Bottoms’ The Colorful Apocalypse, Journeys in Outsider Art, a book about the correlations between Christian fanaticism and American outsider art, Clifford Geertz writes this:
The drive to make sense out of experience, to give it form and order, is evidently as real and as pressing as the more familiar biological needs. And, this being so, it seems unnecessary to continue to interpret symbolic activities- religion, art, ideology- as nothing but thinly disguised expressions of something other than what they seem to be: attempts to provide orientation for an organism which cannot live in a world it is unable to understand.
To translate, if you need it, we as humans create and consume art in order to feel less alone. We as humans create and consume ideologies and religions to feel less alone. This has been the case for thousands of years and will likely be the case until we’re all swallowed by mushroom clouds or forced to submit to our robot overlords (skynet, probably). Whatever your religion may be, art, music, christianity, sex, golf, etc… it helps you cope. It gives you something to look forward to and to think about and to find peace in when life goes sideways. It provides orientation for us when we cannot understand the world in which we exist.
This brings me to my favorite of the so labeled outsiders, Henry Darger. Darger was a guy that worked for decades as an anonymous hospital janitor in Chicago, a survivor of childhood abuse who spent his last 40 years living in a small apartment and tirelessly creating his own world, a world that he called The Realms of the Unreal.
This dude made a 15,000 (fifteen thousand!) page illustrated work about a group of young girls that he called the Vivian Girls, who fought a group of evil grown men in confederate style uniforms called the Glandelinians. Try to keep up I know it’s a lot. I could spend months talking about everything that is fascinating about the guy and his work, there are several very good books about him and you should read them all. When he eventually died, his landlord began throwing away all of his belongings, including his art. Netflix did a variation of this story with the beyond terrible art/horror film they put out with Jake Gyllenhaal this year. I won’t write the name because I don’t want to get sued, but I will exercise my first amendment right to tell you that it is fucking awful. The film kicks off with some reclusive old artist dying and their work being discovered by art dealers who end up being murdered by ghosts or something I can’t remember, I tried to block it out of my memory. All the cool guys like me though knew they got that idea from Henry Darger, that’s the main reason I mentioned it.
Regardless, the point is that our friend Henry was creating this world for himself. 15,000 pages of work that is now in museums all over the world, which have garnered him international recognition but didn’t put a single dime in his pocket as he died broke and alone. But I might argue that he wasn’t alone- he created his own world as a way to provide orientation for himself, an organism that cannot live in a world he is unable to understand.
We all do this, or we should. Maybe not to the extreme lengths that Darger or others have gone to, but at the very least it’s crucial to find your own orientation, your own way to understand the world in which you live. It’s extremely easy as a parent to lose yourself to the daily tasks that await you. By the time you make breakfasts and and lunches and dinners and change 5 diapers and try not to lose your cool as clients call you at 8am while your daughter is smashing a granola bar into your couch or punching the dog directly in the face, you can look at the clock and realize that your day is done. It’s now 9pm and you’re not sure how. You haven’t felt a connection all day, or had a worthwhile conversation that didn’t involve you trying to save a toddler from their own destructive explorations, or gone out with friends that provided you with any kind of recharge because you feel selfish asking for someone to give back to you after you’ve spent all day/week/month giving to your kids or your work. This will emotionally (and maybe physically) kill you if you don’t figure out how to deal with it, if you don’t figure out your own orientation to the world in which you live.
The point is this, it is not selfish to take care of yourself. It feels selfish. Your mind will tell you that it’s selfish. It’s not selfish. Go out with friends, watch a bad movie (not the Netflix art one, show some self-respect), order pad thai at 10 pm because you’re old now and that shit makes you feel alive. Create a world that works for you and fills you up because nobody else is going to do that for you. I have found this world for myself through art and music and climbing, as well as through a handful of close friends and family that I talk to almost every day. Some days it’s a strong refuge, others I can spend the whole day forgetting that it exists, but it’s there and I’d be lost without it.
Be your own Darger, create your own world.
Last thing, if you get a chance you should really read The Colorful Apocalypse, Journeys in Outsider Art because it is a wonderful book about faith, art, and Americana. I can’t recommend it enough.