Discover more from Island in the City
Huzzah for flyover people
Why where artists come from matters
This summer, I somewhat accidentally read a book about urban loneliness. The Lonely City, by Olivia Laing, is a memoir of art, creativity, and solitude in New York City, written to commemorate an especially drifting time in her life. I initially read just the chapter on Henry Darger, the reclusive janitor, hoarder, and outsider artist from Chicago whose art and writing weren’t discovered until shortly before his death in 1973. After reading that chapter, I was intrigued to read the rest and see how Darger, a Chicagoan, fit in with the other artists in the book, all of whom were NYC-based. The short answer is I don’t think he does, because geography matters. Which got me thinking about the less obvious ways a city can convey loneliness.
This past week, the national media have glut themselves on news about New York’s disgraced (now ex) governor Andrew Cuomo. Meanwhile, here in Illinois, tornadoes ripped through the state (at least half a dozen in the northern part of the state), and Chicago had three mass shootings in one weekend. Three mass shootings. In one weekend. 73 people were shot and 11 died, including a police officer. This kind of news seems relevant to national and global concerns about climate change, gun violence, policing, and racial/class inequities. But none of it got even a fraction of the attention the sexual harasser out on the East Coast did.
There’s a definite fatigue that comes with being a Chicagoan or Midwesterner and continually seeing your home city and region erased or underestimated by the media’s bicoastal myopia. On the one hand, after four years of Trump—a New Yorker who first built a skyscraper in Chicago with a giant TRUMP sign on its face that marred the downtown visual landscape, then spent his entire presidency loudly trashing Chicago for its violence (as opposed to showing genuine concern and trying to help find a fair and effective solution)—maybe we should be glad to have the spotlight aimed back in New York’s direction. Even before Trump, we had our day so to speak—eight years of general good feeling thanks to having a local of sorts in the White House. Anyone with eyes could see that Trump’s attacks on Chicago were his way of trying to get at his younger, cooler, smarter, better-looking, and more beloved Midwestern-based predecessor.
On the other hand, it gets boring (on top of disheartening) tuning into the news and seeing the same old navel-gazing and blatant cultural hegemony coming out of NYC/DC/LA. The same old erasure.
Maybe this is what bothered me about Henry Darger’s inclusion in Olivia Laing’s book. Laing is a beautiful writer—her prose is clear, elegant, and full of thoughtful, provocative reflection. I enjoyed learning about artists I knew nothing or not enough about—from David Wojnarowicz (Laing’s clear favorite), Klaus Nomi, and Edward Hopper to Andy Warhol, Billie Holliday, and Jean Michel-Basquiat. I also appreciated her compassionate reflection on Darger.
If anyone needed compassion it was Darger, a man who grew up poor and motherless in Chicago before being placed in a home for “feeble-minded” children downstate (in Lincoln, Illinois) around the time his father died. He remained there until his late teens, when he escaped the downstate asylum and walked the 200 miles back to Chicago. Back in the city, Darger got a job at a Catholic hospital on the north side and worked in Catholic-run institutions until his retirement. Not long before he died, he went into another institution, an old folks’ home run by the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic order. It was the same home where his father had died, the event that set him on the path to institutionalization to begin with.
Laing’s chapter on Darger dives into the abuses in institutions of Darger’s time, including in the homes and asylums in Chicago and Illinois. Official records of Darger’s life are spare at best, so studies on early 20th century institutional life and abuse have to serve as a stand-in. That and, of course, Darger’s art.
It’s almost certain Darger experienced and/or witnessed abuse as a child. Darger had a number of personality and behavioral quirks that have led art scholars and biographers to diagnose him posthumously as everything from autistic to a possible pedophile or killer. His creative themes were predominantly children and childhood, war, Catholicism, and fantastical elements of nature like massive tornadoes and hybrid butterflies with children’s heads or bodies standing in for insect parts.
Some of his paintings and collages depicted extremely violent battles between innocent children and evil adults—illustrations for his 15,000-page novel about a war between seven Christian girls, called the Vivian Girls, and a government that practiced child slavery: 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 (better known as In the Realms of the Unreal). Sometimes the girls were depicted naked with drawn-on male genitalia. Much of his art used images he cut, traced, or duplicated and enlarged from newspapers, coloring books, and pulp novels. For years, Darger expressed extreme distress in his writing over the loss of a newspaper clipping of a child who went missing in Chicago in 1911. The loss of the image had a profound impact on his faith. For a time he attended Mass several times a day to appease God to help him find the lost image, then avoided Mass and forsook God angrily when the image remained gone.
As far as anyone knows, Darger was entirely self-taught as an artist and spoke of his work to no one. Only three or four pictures of him exist—two of them with a friend at Riverview amusement park in Chicago. This was his only known friend. He mostly kept to himself. He never left Illinois, except for a brief stint in Texas when he was drafted into the army in 1917. He was known around the neighborhood for searching in alley dumpsters for discarded newspapers and books, salvaging images for the art that no one saw or knew about. He hoarded odd items like twine and eyeglasses, and neighbors described him as a man who could be heard speaking in other voices, replaying conversations from the day, in his cramped, one-room apartment at night.
Darger very well may have had Tourette’s or been autistic. He certainly had to have been affected socially by the extreme adverse circumstances of his childhood. It’s no wonder the man kept to himself. But there’s no evidence to support any of the theories about possible criminal mindset or activity. None beyond some viewers’ discomfort with the more graphic, unusual elements of his art and his differences in ability and socialization.
Darger is probably the loneliest person discussed in Laing’s book by far. If we’re talking about lonely big-city artists, you can’t get any lonelier than Henry Darger, the ultimate outsider artist. But by throwing in a Chicago artist alongside New York artists (which Laing does without much discussion of the differences between the cities and regions), to me it felt like Darger was being displaced even more—and Chicago, the great, overlooked, “Second City,” as well.
Truth is, Darger the artist isn’t exactly a cultural ambassador for the city, or for any place on earth. After all, his masterwork was named after “the realms of the unreal.” And he didn’t create urban scenes. Yet it seems clear he was influenced by his surroundings. Here’s what I notice, as a Chicago-born person.
Chicago media and violence: He lived his entire adult life (except for that army stint) in a city notorious for its violence and crime and for the sensational headlines of its newspapers and media. Darger wasn’t the only one who salvaged newspaper headlines and images. My maternal grandfather, an Iowa farm boy who emigrated to the south side of Chicago in the 1920s to work in the factories, kept a scrapbook of news articles that interested him. I remember looking through it as a child and wondering about some of his choices. There were the usual memorable events, such as sports and wartime announcements. But also articles about accidents, fires, and kidnappings in the city, complete with stark, black-and-white photos of distraught parents, grim-faced detectives, and apartment exteriors such as the outside of a bedroom window from which one child was taken. As well were articles of religious interest such as a nun in Europe with stigmata (my grandfather was a devout Irish Catholic). I still remember the black-and-white image of her with dark trails dripping from her eyes down toward her chin, tears like the blood of Jesus. The image fascinated me as much as it horrified me. (Her name was Therese Neumann and the jury’s still out whether she was faking it or not.)
Who knows why my grandfather wanted to keep some of these articles. Yeah, some were interesting and historically important, but some were just lurid. But they do represent the kind of news Chicagoans were seeing on their doorstep or at the newsagents every morning in the era Darger was creating. You work with what you get. In that vein, Darger’s obsessions with child safety and with violence seem less “out there.”
The Church and Chicago: As a devout Catholic himself, Darger probably would’ve known who Therese Neumann was and maybe even had an image of her. He salvaged religious images as much as ones of children. Even now, Chicago is an intensely Catholic city, and much more so in Darger’s time. The Chicago archdiocese was responsible for much of the charity and social services in the city, including the formation of its health and education institutions. The neighborhood where he lived was especially dominated by the church, with the DePaul University campus and its founding church (and Darger’s home parish) of St. Vincent DePaul within blocks of his apartment (at 851 Webster off of Halsted in Lincoln Park). His childhood parish was Old St. Pat’s in the West Loop, another church that dominates the cultural and social life of the neighborhood, even to this day. Over his lifetime, Darger was institutionalized by the state as well as the Church, but it’s Catholicism’s dual themes of punishment and salvation that dovetail with the themes in his art and shaped his life and psyche. In Chicago, he wouldn’t have been alone in his devotion or his emotional ties to the Catholic Church.
Midwestern landscapes: Though Darger’s art was almost wholly absent of Chicago street scenes or imagery, the pastoral scenes and natural elements in his paintings and writing resemble Midwestern scenes. There’s something about the wide, blue, cloud-heavy skies in Darger’s paintings that recall the kind of wide-open landscape he would’ve walked through on his escape from the asylum in Lincoln back to Chicago. One of his written works devotes thousands of typewritten pages to the story of a massive tornado named “Sweetie Pie.” According to Darger’s recollections, he witnessed a tornado in 1908 while walking the 200 miles to Chicago. He also kept weather journals in which he laboriously recorded the local weather for about 10 years. This sounds strange and obsessive, and there’s a fascinating essay written by an art editor about the moral consciousness exhibited by Darger in these journals and his focus on the figure of the weatherman. I don’t mean to argue with experts, but I will say that Darger never sounds more like a typical Chicagoan or Midwesterner than in these obsessive weather journals. Here, the local weatherman is probably a bigger celebrity and focus of combined awe and derision than Oprah, Kanye, and the Daleys put together. In a city where the weather can give you all four seasons in one day, it’s hard for weather to not become a preoccupation of the mind.
Despite all this, Laing’s book locates Darger in New York because his archives are now housed there, in the American Folk Art Museum, which she visited to study Darger’s materials. Laing also mentions a visit to Chicago and to Intuit: The Center for Outsider and Intuitive Art in Chicago, which has a recreation (of sorts—it’s neater than the original) of Darger’s tiny one-room apartment on Webster Ave. But she gets a few Chicago names and locations wrong, which for a Chicago reader only highlights the New York-centric view of her book and Darger’s displacement as a Midwestern artist. This is a petty gripe, I know. But after reading the rest of the book and noting how much close attention Laing pays to particular neighborhoods and sites in New York in discussing the work of David Wojnarowicz or Warhol, I don’t think it’s too much to question why it didn’t occur to Laing to think more deeply about the implication of geographical urban difference before writing up her chapter on Darger.
Since Darger’s death, the discovery and dissemination of his work, and the legend that has grown around him as the ultimate outsider artist, there have been discussions about just how self-taught he was and whether he may have had even a smidgen of exposure to art history or lessons. The question that people’s wondering really seems to be getting at here is whether he would’ve been a different artist had he been less isolated—would he have been a better one, in terms of technique, or a less original one? Would he have self-censored his art? We can never know, of course. Just as we can’t know if he would’ve been a different artist—or an artist at all—had he been born in another city or lived in another place. It’s likely Andy Warhol and David Wojnarowicz would not have been the same artists they became, at all, had they lived elsewhere than New York. NYC is so integral to their work and their legend. Can Chicago make any such claims on an artist? If so, who would it be? Or is Chicago’s art world and are Chicago’s artists impacted by the Second City status of the city and its erasure?
How does cultural erasure affect a place’s sense of itself? How does it affect the local morale and temperament? Does it create an underdog or chip-on-its-shoulder mentality in the people who live there? Or a tendency to overcompensate? Can it add to a feeling of isolation or loneliness in the air, even if the place is big and bustling? Like a self-fulfilling prophecy of neglect? What does it do to the place’s creators, to its artists? Can it actually be liberating?
I ask the last question because once I heard a defense of Chicago’s cultural marginalization on a walking tour of the Old Town neighborhood, home to The Second City comedy improv school and theater. The guide, a comedian and former Second City student herself, said the great thing about Chicago for creative types is that there’s less pressure to be perfect, because you’re not being watched as closely as people on the coasts. She said in New York everyone is looking to get ahead, and in L.A. everyone is looking for an agent or producer who will make their career. “In Chicago, no one is watching you,” she said. “You can fail here.” Meaning, you can experiment. You can play. You can grow.
No one was watching Henry Darger. He was just a lonely, strange old man who hoarded trash out of the city’s alleyways. At night though, he experimented. He played around with the stuff he found in the trash. He taught himself art tricks. He made mistakes, failed, cursed his failures and impatience and frustration, cursed God too, but kept at it, night after night, for decades.
Chicagoans have created a beloved, world-renowned brand out of their “second-best” reputation. But everyone knows there’s a grudge energy propelling that brand. It certainly ain’t the graciousness non-Midwesterners derisively and ignorantly assign to anyone from “flyover country.” Many Chicagoans combine a territorial defensiveness about their city with a blowhard’s boasting. Some say this is behind another of the city’s reputations. In any case, just as there’s a grudge energy underlying the Second City brand, there’s a stinginess underlying the Windy City brand of territoriality and boasting. When credit is rarely given, you’d rather not share the little you get. And nothing hurts more than seeing the things achieved here overshadowed or taken away from us for greater glory somewhere else.
Once in awhile, at least, the media gets it right. Following on the Cuomo scandal, there were also a lot of headlines about the baseball match between the Chicago White Sox (yay!) and the New York Yankees (…..) in the Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Iowa. The Sox won. The country has been desperate for some good news, and Iowa and Illinois brought it. Huzzah for the Second City! Huzzah for flyover people!
Connections: Intuit currently has a Darger exhibit called “The Room Revealed—Methods and Manipulations,” about “the visual culture from which Darger drew inspiration.”
Next up: My next post will be about Vivian Maier and Lee Godie, a street photographer and a street artist, and thoughts about aging, ageism, and female outsider artists.