UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The transubstantiation of Henry Darger Shields, Faith Ann


Henry Darger (1892-1973), incarcerated as a boy, isolated and unknown during his life, has, in death, become one of the world's most well-known outsider artists. What do the work, life and afterlife of Henry Darger tell us about the ways normative society, and the disabled themselves, deal with mental disability? I claim there is something about disability--in this case psychological disability--that is challenging to the normative "healthy" person or social institution. Some of those challenges are obvious and practical; some are more metaphysical. Darger embodied both kinds of challenge: while alive he made strange noises, refused to bathe and avoided social interaction. When dead, he left a legacy of images and text that fascinates us, that we seek to enjoy and profit from, but which is also unsettling and even horrifying. I examine Darger's life and work, in the context of his psychological disability, and some social and critical strategies applied to him. This thesis details how critics, curators, academics and helping professionals used, and continue to use, a series of strategies: political/bureaucratic, religious/theological, and aesthetic/commodifying to dissolve the discomfort Henry Darger's presence and work created and still creates for us.

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