Art docs: prodigies and outsiders

There’s something extremely fascinating about those rare individuals who function on a higher plane, however dysfunctional or detached from the rest of society. The art world, as any other, knows its prodigies and outsiders alike. Here a few good documentaries that cover a wide range of such people.

The Prodigies

My Kid Could Paint That is a curious story about a 4 year old wunderkind, a girl who could paint like Pollock — or so it was claimed. What starts as an earnest exposé of this young girl’s talent becomes an exploration of the nature of truth. It’s never quite clear if the girl really was the author of the amazing artwork, or her father, or both.

Regardless, the extra-feature DVD extended interview with New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman is well worth the price of admission, so to speak. His very clear dissection of what art actually is — in particular modern art — is akin to sitting in on a college lecture on the topic.

Teri Horton, an outsider to the art world if there ever was one, stumbles upon what she comes to believe is a long lost Jackson Pollock painting in Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?. Pollock being one of the geniuses of the modern art world, was completely unknown to Teri, a straight-talking truck driver.

What she finds is that the art world is quite insular. She goes so far as to hire a forensic scientist to help prove that her painting is authentic, comparing embedded fingerprints and DNA against other known Pollock paintings. All the while, the art intelligentsia won’t have any of it. To them, science means little; what matters most is the esotericism of the community itself and its internal ability to establish authorship — a term called “provenance” 1

The Outsiders

While most everyone clamors to witness the self-evident genius of an art prodigy, not everyone can appreciate the genius of another kind: that of the outsider. “Outsider” has become a generic term for:

…art created by people outside the “art world” mainstream, regardless of their circumstances or the content of their work. 2

Although originally, outsider art was specifically generated by the mentally insane and criminal.

While not criminal, Robert Crumb may have been a touch insane, if not certainly disturbed. The famous yet reclusive underground comic artist had various demons and fetishes throughout his life. Crumb, Terry Zwigoff’s breakthrough documentary of R. Crumb’s life, is nothing short of amazing, testament to Zwigoff’s own genius. Crumb’s pathology (having come from a terribly traumatizing family) is so thoroughly painted for us on screen, that it’s impossible to look away. Crumb — and Zwigoff by extension — seem to be proving the old adage that genius and insanity are separated by the thinnest of lines.

In the Realms of the Unreal similarly chronicles the secluded life of Henry Darger, a man who wrote a 15,000 page erratic novel of epic proportions. The documentary is nearly as scattered as Darger, but nonetheless fascinating. That’s partly because of the subject matter. This is one of Jessica Yu’s earlier documentaries, who later made the wonderful doc Protagonist. Her motif of animated reenactment is similar here, using paintings from Darger’s life work to bring passages from the novel to life. But in that aesthetic choice, the film begins to bog down by Darger’s own unfocused rambling. Characters from his story come and go, change voice and blur gender, die and are reborn. The experience of watching can be tiring.

Update, February 2016

Artsy 3 contacted me about their online Darger exhibit.  See it here.

The Devil and Daniel Johnston follows an indie singer/songwriter from the 80s named Daniel Johnston. Raised in a strict Church of Christ family, the boy was gifted by not relished by his parents. They frankly didn’t understand his artistic outbursts. Daniel didn’t make it easy on them for sure.

Daniel is the musician’s musician. Few people outside the music world have heard of him. Yet briefly, he had a stint on MTV and Kirk Cobain even boasted him secretly via his nationally televised t-shirts.

Daniel’s singular obsession, and arguably his artistic muse, is a teenage love interest. The majority of his songs were directly inspired by Laurie Allen. If you’re looking for a happy ending to a rather sad and unfortunate life, do yourself a favor and watch the DVD extras for the reunion between Daniel and Laurie some 26 years later. It’s tear-jerking.


  1. The provenance of a painting is a document detailing past ownership and condition of a print as well as where it has been displayed. Source: that eminent non-esoteric source of art to the masses, eBay.
  2. Source: Wikipedia
  3. From Artsy: We strive to make all of the world’s art accessible to anyone online. Our Henry Darger page, for example, provides visitors with Darger’s bio, over 15 of his works, exclusive articles, as well as up-to-date Darger exhibition listings.

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