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Howard Finster

Visions Planets Beyond the Light of the Sun, 1978, Tractor enamel on masonite board with hand-made frame, 76.84 x 40.64 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC, © Howard Finster / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Photo: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC / Art Resource, NY

Norbert Kox

Rock of Ages: The Prophet Elijah Confronts Idolatry, c.2018, Acrylic glaze on canvas, 92.71 x 76.2 cm, Private Collection, © Estate of Norbert Kox; Courtesy of the collection of Jeremy and Megan Kox

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, Photo by Michael Edward Smith

The Saving Similitude of Religion and Art

Comparative Commentary by

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.

 

References

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]

Maizels, John. 2002. Raw Vision Sourcebook (Radlett, UK: Raw Vision)

Morgan, David and Sally Promey (eds). 2001. The Visual Culture of American Religions (‎Berkeley: University of California Press)

Rhodes, Colin. 2000. Outsider Art: Spontaneous Alternatives (London: Thames & Hudson)

Schjeldahl, Peter. 1991. The Hydrogen Jukebox: Selected Writings of Peter Schjeldahl, 1978–1990 (Berkeley: University of California Press)