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Jul 10

The Sovereign Darger

Summary by the artist Pedro Bakker

Proceeding with my practice-based research I made large color drawings in my studio, a formerly brothel in Amsterdam, and theorised about sovereignty. There has been some talk of it in my practice as well as in my study of the French writer Georges Bataille. After that prepatory work I losed myself in the work of the American Henry Darger. He certainly is the best example to understand what sovereignty is. Here I will give a clear exposition of the theoretic problem in relation to my art practice. The most important result of my research project is that I saw the light in the concept of negativity. I will illustrate this concept with a recent experience that set my thinking about Darger.
As my graduation show got a continuation in Witzenhausengallery in Chelsea, New York, I had funny encounters at my opening and with the afterparty in a disco I made a night of it. The next day I bought in a bookshop a booklet with the title *I like your work: art and etiquette*. It’s about the social mores that establish our art community, I read on the back. It ranges from David Levine’s phrase “so the art world becomes a paradise of social ineptitude” to some anointing words of editor Naomi Fry concerning “your expression” and “your emotion”. Andrew Berardini took his guidelines for openings very seriously: “If you’re young and you hate openings, there’s a noble history of outsider artists living in insane asylums and working as janitors who are discovered long after they’ve died”. This phrase touches the raw nerve of the problem statement of my thesis about the sovereign Darger, because he was a janitor, grew up in an asylum and was discovered a few months before his death. Opposed to Berardini whose first guideline read: “You must attend openings. When you’re Bruce Naumann, you can be a hermit in New Mexico”, I will advice: be a hermit! As a young artist you have to build up your own work in isolation. In the beginnings you have to go through years spent in the tropics. It is better to take Henry Darger as an example. The self-taught artist and recluse Darger (1892-1973), who created in the secret of the night his artwork and writings, was during daytime the ‘irrevocable insignificant’ man in the street. If you choose to be an houseman and take care for your kid while your wife is working, maybe your lifestyle is of little interest but in the secrecy of your studio you are able to create your wildest dreams.
In some way my MA thesis is a philosophic thesis because I try to understand Darger with the theory of sovereignty as formulated by Bataille. In not a single case my thesis can be thought of as an artist statement, on the contrary I dislike the fully awareness of the intentional artist. I had never heard of Darger, but I was immediately impressed by his yardlong watercolors depicting naked girls, with male genitals, ran along the ground from the thunderstorm, which he painted black at the horizon. Besides a genius of color Darger was a writer of an impossible, gigantic novel of 15.000 pages, named *The Realms of the Unreal*. Without any statement, even without the purpose of making art, Darger embodies the absolute authority of doing. I develop the concept of doing with the help of the philosophy of Hegel, Kojève’s lectures about Hegel and the critique of servility by Derrida and Bataille.
Darger’s work inspired me to make more large color drawings with the plain colored pencil, for days intensively working and remembering my childhood. My memories of the house I grew up have the same impact on my artistic work as had Darger’s memories on his doing. I told about it in a lecture as part of my Master programme and in this thesis you can read a résumé of it. The reader will not read anything about psychoanalytic theory. I studied a lot of Freudian stuff, but Darger’s work doesn’t need a psychoanalysis as MacGregor tried in his thorough standard book. Ultimately he pointed out that Darger is a highly gifted autist.
While working on my art, I gradually began to omit text almost entirely. In my studio I enjoyed the freedom endowing the image to speak for itself. I didn’t like to inform my artwork anymore and I also scared that too much Freudian knowledge might ruin my ongoing art project. But viewing my show the public and especially the media needed some information. So my gallerist asked me to write a text for my show in New York which I did and *An uncensored talk* was in my portfolio there. A quotation from it: “At seventeen years of age, when I was painting in the kitchen, I learned the truth about what happened: My mother was a murderer! Up till this day this causes endless fights with my brother and sister ( on *Burnt Home 7* I depicted my brother and sister). I tend to avoid my siblings and I no longer see them. The drawings of Darger helped me to represent the ‘strangling scene’”.

It became a rough, bare text totally without the positive causal knowing of Freud. At long last! It’s very close to Bataille’s view on the “powerless negativity” of an artwork. “Powerless” because this negativity isn’t recognized *as such*, it becomes recognized as affirmation that nullifies the negativity. Did Darger succeed to become the man of “recognized negativity”? We have to open our eyes for “the negativity as sin” in Darger’s art, to see in the scenes of strangulation of little girls his imagination of sacrifice and death as his own negativity. Are we able to fancy that we throw his artwork away as comically insignificant. Does laughter finally heal the unhappy wound of Darger?
I discuss the sovereign excess to value Darger’s negativity at work. That is to say the *sovereign* Darger whom I distinguish from the *servile* Darger. The last one was the servant of his master God but as a sovereign he depicted many massacres of childslaves without disseminating the christian morality of abjection. In the horror of death and suffering *The Vivian Girls saw* he also communicates his solidarity with his vitims. He was impressed by the disasters of the first and second world war: his work is not imagined by a madman.