Why is Howard Finster’s Art Good?

My brain is computerized direct from God to the end of my brush.”
“I pastored churches 40 years.”
“I can do 22 different trades.”
“I been working on garden 20 years.”
“I never had a wreck.”
“I wrote thousands of articles.”
“I farmed up to 1937.”
“I had a program on radio for years.”
“I never been drunk.”
“I read the Bible daily over 50 years.”

These are quotes from a piece of Howard Finster’s artwork that asks in big bold letters, “Who.is.Howard Finster.?”

Howard Finster is recognized internationally as one of the best-known contemporary-religious folk artist in the world – “the grandfather of Modern American Visionary Art.”1 His prolific work (just put his name in a “Google” images search) can be seen from the Internet to the Smithsonian to album covers of R.E.M., Talking Heads, U2, Blackhawk, and the Newsboys to Paradise Gardens.

Paradise Gardens is Finster’s 4-acre project in Georgia, developed over a twenty-year span that features Finster’s creations, an art gallery, and a five-story, sixteen-sided structure known as the “World’s Folk Art Chapel”. (Learn more about the garden.)

I saw and was mesmerized by Finster’s art in the High Museum in Atlanta, GA. The museum boasts a large collection of folk art defined as art created by self-taught artists.

One of the museum posters explains that many “self-taught artists are inspired to created for spiritual reasons.” This was definitely true for Finster, who at the age of 60 claimed he was directly commissioned by God to create visual art.

As a result, Finster’s preaching ministry morphed from the audible to the visual. He went on to create at least 50,000 pieces of painted and sculptured art that incorporated recycled material, pieces of Bible verses, and his own thoughts. His art invites people into relationship with God through its colorful intriguing images that awaken joy in the heart and honest simple phrases that shock and enliven the modern, educated mind.

On first glance, I would have described Finster’s work as simple and primitive, but, on a deeper level, I instinctively knew it was good. So what made me and obviously thousands of others give this “good” valuation to Finster’s art? In “Creating Art from Theology” as a help for artists who are thinking about how best to convey their ideas we suggest thinking about the following questions based on Francis A. Schaeffer’s thoughts about how to judge a work of art.2

• Which idea best accommodates my current skills? Which idea will allow me to produce the most excellent structure, balance, and unity that I can?
• Which idea flows from and to a Christian worldview?3 Which idea moves from and to the understanding that God gives meaning and purpose to all of life?
• Which idea honestly represents what I really believe?
• Which idea facilitates a style that both carries the content well and best communicates the concept to my contemporary culture? Which idea incorporates a form that does not compete with the content or create unnecessary barriers to the culture I want to engage?

I don’t know that Finster ever read Shaeffer, but somehow I doubt that he did. Nevertheless, if Shaeffer’s ideas were a checklist applied by a critic to Finster’s art, you can just hear the critic rehearsing the criteria and saying, “Check. Check. Check.”

Finster’s art is simple but it evokes a complexity of thought and emotion in the human soul. It is primitive, but it transports the viewer into another world – into a relationship with Finster and God.

And Finster’s art is good. It is good because it is honest. It is good because his form carries the content well. It is good because it highlights his skills. It is good because it is balanced and unified. And it is good because it is consistent with his Christian worldview and transports others to it – over and over again. It is good because it does all these things well.

Of course my mind races to connections with how all this is true of God’s word in its many literary forms, but I’ll save that for another blog.

1. Paradise Gardens, “History
2. Used with permission. For more on this subject see, Francis A. Schaeffer, Art and the Bible, (Dover, IL: InterVarsity Press, IVP Books, n.d., © L’Abri Fellowship, 1973), 62-93.
3. For non-Christians, the question would be, “Which idea flows from and to the artist’s own worldview?”