Look, He Gets a Name for It

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Title: Look, He Gets a Name for It
Creator: yourlibrarian
Date(s): August 20, 2008
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Contents

Look, He Gets a Name for It is a 2008 essay by yourlibrarian written after seeing an art exhibit in New York City.

Some topics discussed are id vortex, transformative art, and artistic expression.

Excerpts

While in NYC I went to its Folk Art Museum and saw an exhibit that instantly made me think of fanfic, especially since the exhibit itself was about works influenced by other works. The exhibit was about Henry Darger.

I need to say upfront that I have never taken an art history class, and I know very little about art despite having had several friends who are artists. So I have the feeling that part of this is going to come off like that cliché of someone looking at spatters of paint on a canvas and not getting it by saying "I could have done that."

The thing is though, I feel I rather do get it and it's the curators who are kind of nuts. And I think it's because I am accustomed these days to seeing things through lenses that fanfic has given me, and these are not lenses that these curators apparently share. But given the discussion surrounding this exhibit, I'm trying to hone in on what their definition of art is. There are some interviews with artists connected to the exhibit that reveal there are concerns among most artists about being connected to their influences for fear of being derivative and not "art." This puzzles me because I thought that part of what one studies in art history is different artistic movements and it would seem that such movements automatically classify certain artists as influencing one another and working in the same realms, yes? And if anything, it seems to me that the exhibit demonstrates how "influence" is a very broad thing, since I find the various artists involved fairly different from one another even as I see connections to Darger (some I'd argue, rather loose). Perhaps that's the point of the exhibit, but then maybe I'm not the target audience. After all, one only has to look at the vast panoply of fanfic which is a seething mass of influences to see how even work which is historically derivative is nonetheless original in various ways.

Returning to Darger though, I remain baffled by the suggestion in the exhibit notes that he is "one of the most significant artists of the twentieth century." This isn't even qualified by the word "folk." If she had said "prolific", this would have made more sense given the obsessive quantity of his art and writing. But I have to say I found it repetitive, and the art itself little more than copying material he found elsewhere. In fact, there was a part of the exhibit that showed samples of what items he traced to create his figures, and these were largely images of little blond girls from comics and ads. They were quite literally traced, so that they sometimes appeared in the finished piece without any sense of proportion to other figures. I couldn't help remembering how I'd done the same thing when I was 12 and used figures in comics or other drawings to help me create characters for stories I was writing. The thing is though, I copied them, I didn't trace them, and in revisiting the ones that I still have some were surprisingly accurate copies. My original drawings tended to be pretty poorly done, but I've still got some decent painted reproductions on my wall. And I kept wondering what was so remarkable about these drawings that he'd not only have his work saved, but shown and inspiring other artists. I never created long murals on tracing paper, but frankly it would have been less work than what I did do. As the curator notes he "freely and unapologetically commandeered images, and if all else failed he simply cut and pasted reproductions directly onto his watercolor paintings, creating collages." ("My mural iz pasted on, yay!")

Which leads me to my final point, which is that of audience. It seems pretty clear that what Darger did was exactly the sort of solitary writing mentioned above. He died in 1973 so there was no wave of mass sharing over the Internet yet. But I wondered if what these artists valued about his work was also his solitude, his total isolation in this work. It's another cliché that great artists are often the most successful after their deaths. I don't know if this says more about the way the art world works and the simple value of scarcity, or if it suggests that artistic isolation is itself a component of artistic validity. If so, that would seem an ironic idea in an exhibit about artistic influence.

But perhaps there has to be a certain isolation for that Id Vortex to come into full play in the way it did for Darger. With so few people in that circumstance (I would hope), maybe this seems startlingly original to sectors of the art world. But to me, it seems more like work I see every day only gone awry -- unusable and unreadable due to that very lack of audience that would make something from one mind capable of transferring itself successfully to many. Which leads me to the final quote of one of the exhibit's artists, Robyn O'Neil: "Great art should baffle, but how often does that truly happen? When images bewilder and quiet, they resonate forever." In that sense then, I guess Darger's work is great art. But at least from the fanfic standpoint I don't see Darger's work as some kind of artistic success, but an artistic failure.