New York

Howard Finster

Painewebber Gallery

Fourteen years ago, in the God-bless-America bicentennial year of our Lord, the Reverend Howard Finster had a divine vision. Busy at work at one of the countless odd jobs in one of the dozens of trades he mastered over the years to support his mission and family of five, Finster, a sixty-year-old (at the time) Free Will Baptist minister, looked down at a smudge of white paint on one of his fingers, and lo and behold, a human face appeared there. From that little face came a mighty voice, and the voice spoke to Finster and said to him, “Paint sacred art.” It seems that after forty-five years of spreading the word of the Lord—pastoring eight churches and delivering his fire-and-brimstone sermons, Finster’s good work was far from done.

Visionary (religious) eccentrics are hardly a new phenomenon. In fact, their efforts constitute a richly varied artistic tradition. Though religious fanaticism on the order of Finster’s transgresses the social norm and is generally regarded as psychologically abberant, even potentially dangerous, society is more than ready to accept and even savor these extreme expressions. Of course, like all social mechanisms, this accommodation of the symbolically excluded is not without its own intricate logic.

Why should we almost unanimously welcome an untrained, uneducated, unattractive, and unpredictable painter into the pantheon of respected highly collectible art stars? How does Finster, as a well-documented and larger-than-life persona function with respect to the desires, values and tastes of our current culture and what does our acceptance of him tell us about the deeper issues surrounding our ambivalent relationship to folk culture?

When an outsider artist achieves a level of success and is exposed to and co-opted by the mainstream, does the artist lose the hermetic privacy which engendered the work’s idiosyncracy—the very essence of otherness? When the public accepts the vision and style of such an artist, does that artist still remain an “outsider”? Certainly mass-media exposure not only dilutes Finster’s self-identity (his “difference”), but threatens the entire fabric of artistic and ideological expatriation. As the membrane that separates the subversive, subcultural, antisocial impulse from the organized social body dissolves, the potency of antagonistic, escapist, or psychologically obsessive alien elements beneath our culture’s self-perpetuating veneer of health, normalcy and well-being is inevitably reduced.

It would be gratuitous to question Finster’s sincerity or authenticity as a religious eccentric here, yet those who looked carefully at the progression of his work in this retrospective would have had to acknowledge that his painting lost some of its quirky intensity. It is perhaps in this very way that Finster’s vision serves his “sane” audience. Hardly so outside at all, Finster’s work is decorative enough to be used on pop music album covers, his beliefs are status quo, and his ideological principals are disturbingly in tune with the self-righteously conservative position of the Moral Majority. He’s a sweet old man who firmly believes in God Almighty and the American Way—a perfect vehicle for conformist culture to confront its own darkest fears of insanity and otherness in a harmless and unthreatening visage of temperate benevolence, while smugly reaffirming the myth of the artist as a romanticized hybrid—a cross between a pathetically daft dreamer and the noble savage.

Carlo McCormick