Prophecy in the Raw
Stranger from Another World
Commentary by Norman J. Girardot
Howard Finster (1915/16–2001) was a charismatic Southern Baptist preacher who became a visionary ‘painter of sacred art’ (Girardot 2015: 128ff.), and is a key figure in the emergence of ‘outsider art’.
Finster’s ‘painted sermons’ were a response to the End Time he saw coming during the Cold War era. In 1976 he experienced a revelatory transformation. After this, as a self-taught artist and prophetic ‘Stranger from Another World’, Finster manically produced myriad artworks displaying the dire signs of the times and the message to get right with the Lord.
Finster proudly declared the ‘only book’ he ever read was the King James Bible (Girardot 2015: 17). His understanding of his prophetic mission and artistic method is found in Hosea 12:10. Biblical quotations inscribed in the painting’s upper right declare that God had ‘spoken by the prophets’, and ‘multiplied visions, and used similitudes, by the ministry of the prophets’. The King James translation of ‘similitudes’ for damah (an imagistic ‘likeness’ rather than the logocentric ‘parables’) had special relevance for his use of both words and graphic images.
In this early tractor enamel painting, Finster’s self-styled status as a visionary astronaut informed his depiction of God’s ‘manny’ heavenly planets. In keeping with the myth and mystery of UFOs that was prevalent at that time, Finster interpreted all biblical prophets from Noah to Jesus as extraterrestrial strangers. To act on these prophetic messages from outer space would require, as the painting’s inscription says, ‘faith’ in God, and not the foolish knowledge of infidels. This curiously crude work from the nether world of Finster’s visionary brain also shows that he felt compelled to paint images along with the many words scribbled all over the surface of his paintings and constructions.
Finster’s untrained comic-book style of religious ‘marketing’ had a peculiar power to be simultaneously provocative, oddly memorable, and humorously weird. Depicted here is one of his characteristic early visions of a funky-funny cartoon-like outer space heavenly world of ‘no law, no sin, no death’—a divinely alien world of squiggly people and various animals who eat only mushrooms, live without a heartbeat, are sustained by ‘vibrating mussels’, inhabit unusual spaceship-like buildings, and seem to be addicted to constantly climbing conical mountains seen on the land and in the sky. For Finster, the Bible should be read imaginatively as a kind of presciently ancient, but quite current, sci-fi graphic novel.
Beal, Timothy. 2005. Roadside Religion: In Search of the Sacred, the Strange, and the Substance of Faith (Boston: Beacon Press)
Finster, Howard and Tom Patterson. 1989. Stranger from Another World: Man of Visions Now on This Earth (New York: Abbeville Press)
Girardot, Norman. 2015. Envisioning Howard Finster: The Religion and Art of a Stranger from Another World (Berkeley: University of California Press)
Peacock, Robert (1996). Paradise Garden: A Trip Through Howard Finster’s Visionary World (San Francisco: Chronicle Books)
Turner, J.F. 1989. Howard Finster: Man of Visions (New York: Alfred A. Knopf)
Commentary by Norman J. Girardot
Norbert Kox (1945–2018) was a booze- and drug-loving Wisconsin Outlaw biker who was improbably transformed into an apocalyptic hermit-artist, largely self-taught in biblical Hebrew and Greek as well as in oil painting.
Kox shared one of the central concerns of Hosea: the often-hidden depravity of official religious interpretations of Scripture, as well as the ‘fake news’ of so many modern institutions. He saw all conventional religious images as manifestations of idolatry, for things are never what they seem on the surface, especially when the object of worship is so often a selfish clinging to fame, money, and power. The esoteric truth of things has little to do with narcissistic or material self-aggrandizement.
Thus, Kox sees modern-day prophets as charged to challenge all piously conventional understandings of religious truth and to see through the potential hypocrisy of priests, popes, and politicians. Rock of Ages has special reference to Elijah’s contest with Baal’s prophets (1 Kings 18:20–31), but these concerns resonate with the text of Hosea, which recalls Jacob’s wrestling with God (Hosea 12:2–4). Our awareness of the truth hinges on a fateful contest that reveals the covenantal and communitarian truth of God’s fiery power from the sky.
Kox’s artworks were intentionally disturbing and grotesque to shock people out of their complacent acceptance of the ‘counterfeit’ beliefs of mainstream Christianity. However, this large, luminous painting of a Black Elijah with an uplifted shofar is one of Kox’s more hopeful works. The black Elijah is painted as a kind of doppelgänger of the bearded white Kox, and alludes to Kox’s identification with a poor black Pentecostal community from the island of Bimini in the occult waters of the Bermuda Triangle. The spirit of this work, as with the books of Hosea and Kings, emphasizes the blazing presence and spiritual power of God as channelled by these prophets.
The black Elijah and his white twin are precursors of the coming messiah who will unveil—like the ‘Bible codes’ (symbolic numbers encrypted in Hebrew letters), and like Kox’s own paintings—God’s secrets of salvation. The proof of God’s power is shown in the sacrificial fireball crashing down from heaven and blasting the ‘stone heap’ altars of the faithless idolaters of Baal (Hosea 12:11).
Bonesteel, Michael. 2018. ‘The Apocalypse According to Norbert Kox’, Raw Vision, 99
Bottoms, Greg. 2007. The Colorful Apocalypse: Journeys in Outsider Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press)
Damkoehler, David. 2009. ‘Masquerade: Norbert Kox’, Raw Vision, 65
Girardot, Norman. 2019. ‘Through the Portal: Norbert Kox has Gone Elsewhere’, Folk Art Messenger, 28, pp. 4–7
Kox, Norbert. ‘Apocalypse House’ partially disabled website, available at https://nkox.homestead.com/ [accessed 12 March 2020]
———. 2010. 'Bimini Art Gallery Show', available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qeVGuCOZOjM [accessed 12 March 2020]
Manley, Roger. 1998. The End is Near: Visions of Apocalypse Millennium and Utopia (Los Angeles: Dilettante Press)
Weisenburger, Erik. 1996. ‘Norbert H. Kox’, Raw Vision, 14
Commentary by Norman J. Girardot
In Hosea’s opening verses we encounter the story of Hosea and his estranged wife Gomer facing difficult times in the eighth century BCE northern kingdom of Israel. Centuries later in the south of the ‘New Jerusalem’ of the United States, we find the story of the African American Royal Robertson (1936–97) and Adell, his wife of nineteen years and mother of their twelve children.
These tales resonate most notably in the way that the prophetic vocation of both men was triggered by their wives’ traumatic infidelity.
A meagrely educated descendant of slaves, Royal Robertson managed, because of his talent for drawing, to eke out a life for his wife and children as a commercial sign painter. When Adell and the children left him, he suffered a nervous breakdown. He became increasingly hermetic and paranoid, seeing himself as sent to earth to warn of the perfidy of women and the duplicitous ways of the world. Like many visionary outsiders, he made his modest house and yard into an alarming visionary art environment—a kind of fantastic ‘mythological jambalaya’ (Arnett 2000: 444)—cluttered with biblical quotations, warnings of doom, depictions of flying saucers, pornographic scenes with nubile space amazons, apocalyptic sermonic rants, and meticulous hand-drawn calendars tabulating his troubles and despair.
In Prophet Royal Robertson’s furious words, the treacherous adultery of ‘divorce whores’ was simultaneously the cause of his tragically fractured life and his gift for visionary prophecy. This marital rupture became a defining metaphor for the covenantal relationship between earthly men and women and the relationship between the heavenly God and his chosen people—whether the Israelites let out of bondage or the black folk of the United States emancipated from slavery. Yet, the freedom found by being chosen by God only led to further tragedies caused by ‘demonic principalities and powers’ and often by the wicked unfaithfulness and craven monetary idolatry of God’s own people (we see all this in Hosea 12).
In the cases of both Howard Finster and Robertson, as of many prophets or ‘seers’ whose witness is in the Bible, it is often difficult to distinguish between godliness and dementia, between compulsive visionary saintliness and wrathful madness. Whatever the case, look and listen carefully to what comes from God’s astronauts from the sky, those UFO planets above and beyond the light of the sun. Whatever the source or time, the basic message is to repent or be damned.
Allamel, Frédéric. 2001. ‘“Prophet” Royal Robertson’s Architectural Odyssey: Psycho-Spatial Drama in Three Acts’, Southern Quarterly, 39: 152–68
Arnett, Paul. 2000. ‘Royal Robertson’, in Souls Grown Deep, vol. 1: African American Vernacular Art of the South: The Tree Gave the Dove a Leaf, ed. by William S. Arnett (Atlanta: Tinwood Books), pp. 444–57
Gundaker, Grey and Judith McWillie. 2005. No Space Hidden: The Spirit of African American Yard Work (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press)
Thompson, Robert Farris. 1984. Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy (New York: Vintage)
Yelen, Alice Rae. 1995. Passionate Visions of the American South: Self-Taught Artists from 1940 to the Present (Jackson: New Orleans Museum of Art and University Press of Mississippi)
Howard Finster :
Visions Planets Beyond the Light of the Sun, 1978 , Tractor enamel on masonite board with hand-made frame
Norbert Kox :
Rock of Ages: The Prophet Elijah Confronts Idolatry, c.2018 , Acrylic glaze on canvas
Royal Robertson :
No Divorce Whore’s Allowed, photo of 'Prophet' Royal Robertson and at his house and yard art environment in Baldwin, Louisiana, USA, Late 1980s–early 90s , Photograph
The Saving Similitude of Religion and Art
Commentary by Norman J. Girardot
All three of the artists and artworks discussed here are expressive of what is most commonly, and often controversially, called ‘outsider art’—sometimes despairingly referred to as the ‘art with no name’. This ambiguous category has its roots in intuitive forms of culturally and psychologically marginal, and usually self-taught or unschooled artistic expressions outside of what—after the eighteenth century—was sanctioned as the academic, fine, or high art of elite tradition.
This kind of art has significant affinities with religious, spiritual, and visionary experience which points to a consanguineous relationship of art and religion going back to the visionary art in the Palaeolithic caves. The evolutionary record seems to show that aesthetic ‘beauty’ and the ‘sublime’ are closely intertwined with the religious experience of the ‘sacred’ and the ‘divine’. Both forms of awe-full emotional response have to do with the ritual need to make our intersubjective cultural world ‘special’ (Dissanayake 1992: 56, 92) by revealing these qualities in words, matter, and practice.
The spontaneity, intensity, and ecstasy of the visionary experience of tribal shamans, biblical prophets, and outsider artists are in many ways an analogue for artistic inspiration and creativity. This is one of the important lessons exemplified by the prophet Hosea along with these modern-day American outsider artist–visionaries. They are all spacey emissaries of the mythic imagination, shamanistic visitors from the sky, who travel to other strange inspirational, dreamy, and visionary worlds in order to bring back and publicize urgent and powerful therapeutic warnings about the idolatrous seductions of the world. Indeed, the taste for outsider art may draw upon a universal human ‘yearning for proof’ of some ‘spontaneous connection to the real’ (Schjeldahl 1991: 147).
The makeshift visionary artworks of these prophetic artists, whether crudely cartoonish or more technically accomplished, help us to acknowledge that the larger truth of Scriptures like the book of Hosea goes beyond any narrow literalistic understanding of these works. Seen here are themes or similitudes that are central to the nature, practice, and meaning of prophecy as recorded in the Abrahamic Scriptures as well as more comparatively and broadly in what the Victorian father of ‘comparative religions’ Friedrich Max Müller called the ‘sacred books’ of the world. Traits shared by Hosea and our artists include the mythically generative power of fear and hope and the importance of some kind of traumatic transformative experience often rooted in the fraught relations of men and women. It is this that leads these men—an ancient cuckold Israelite and a preacher, a sign painter, and an Outlaw biker in modern America—to embrace their strangeness as prophets, seers, and visionary guides from some planet beyond the sun.
Other similitudes found in Hebrew prophetic Scripture and in the art of these outsider artists include frequent references to the urgent and righteous anger of prophets and suggestions concerning the fine line between psychosis and prophecy. Another theme is the sometimes tricksterish, and at times comically satirical, contest-like activities of prophets to provoke people to see behind the superficial deceptions of the world. Hosea, Howard Finster, Royal Robertson, and Norbert Kox were trying to tell us something valuable about the duplicity of the world and the ignorant sinfulness of human life. We are, in fact, always engaged in a competition with the many inner and outer demons of idolatry. So pay attention and read the signs! Heed the warnings! Listen to the stories! Behold the art! Look always behind and through the surface of things. Still better, look to what curiously strange stories and peculiar images may reveal about the earth under our feet and other worlds above.
All of these American outsider artists were associated with different forms of Protestant Evangelical tradition that emphasized knowing God’s cautionary word and secret messages as recorded and encoded in the illustrative stories and implicit images recorded in the Hebrew and Christian texts. Each discovered that imaginative visual images or similitudes can sometimes tell the full meaning of the Bible more challengingly, symbolically, and completely than just words. Even better, therefore, is to marshal the maximum prophetic armament of imaginative similitudes involving visionary images and signs allied with the graphically evocative parables found in Hebrew or Christian prophetic Scriptures. Finster’s shrewd focus on the ‘similitudes’ of Hosea 12:10 might, therefore, be taken as a surprisingly insightful perspective on the larger comparative and global importance of a ‘visual culture’ approach to the appreciation and understanding of, and commentary on, religious Scriptures throughout world history.
Beardsley, John. 1995. Gardens of Revelation: Environments by Visionary Artists (New York: Abbeville Press)
Crown, Carol (ed.). 2004. Coming Home! Self-Taught Artists, the Bible and the American South (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi)
Dissanayake, Ellen. 1992. Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes from and Why (Seattle: University of Washington Press)
———. 2001. ‘Very Like Art: Self-Taught Art from an Ethological Perspective’, in Self-Taught Art: The Culture and Aesthetics of American Vernacular Art, ed. by Charles Russell (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi), pp. 36–46
Girardot, Norman. 2002. ‘Max Müller’s Sacred Books and the Nineteenth-Century Production of the Comparative Science of Religions’, History of Religions, 41: 213–50
———. 2005. ‘Visual Culture and Religion: Outsider Art’, www.encyclopedia.com, [accessed 12 March 2020]
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Schjeldahl, Peter. 1991. The Hydrogen Jukebox: Selected Writings of Peter Schjeldahl, 1978–1990 (Berkeley: University of California Press)