The Selling of Howard Finster
Folk art galleries began selling his work in the early 1980's, and Finster has worked as a full-time artist ever since. Finster's son, Roy, told me in a phone conversation that his father has made approximately two million dollars from his art. All the while the network of gallery owners and art critics have celebrated his naivete and supposed ignorance of what he is creating. The term "Outsider" has been used, meaning "The artist shall be innocent of pictorial influences and perfectly untutored. He shall be socially nonconformist, even to the point of diverging violently from the psychological norm, and he shall not cater to the public," wrote the British art historian Roger Cardinal (quoted in Gaver, p.72). The art world's sometimes cult-like devotion to some "Outsider" artists, and especially Howard Finster, seems to hinge on a desire to view the Outsider as both child-like and primitive --- and therefore closer to the psychic source of artistic inspiration. As Michael Stipe, lead singer of R.E.M. and a self-styled naif himself, says of the artist, "Finster's completely outside the mainstream. There's something that really appeals to me about people who, in this day and age, work outside that whole miasma of everyday life." (quoted in Handelman, p. 66). This view of Finster fails to adequately define what is mainstream and what is the psychological norm and seems to diminish the man. It also refuses to recognize that Finster has been profiled in The Wall Street Journal and sells his pieces for up to $20,000, and very often made to a buyer's order. In fact, Finster once painted a Marilyn Monroe for entrepreneur Peter Paul, even though he personally finds her distasteful.
Having struggled all of his life to make ends meet, one can hardly blame Finster for accepting money for his art. It may not be consistent with what an armchair romantic would like to believe about such an "Outsider", but it shows an unexpected commercial understanding. Asked why he would paint an album cover for a rock band like the Talking Heads (he says he hates rock and roll), Finster replies, "I had twenty-six million verses go out and reach the world. That's more than I ever reached in the forty-five years I was pastoring. The rock-and-rollers are my missionaries." (Turner, p.162) Clearly Finster departs from the Cardinal definition of "Outsider" in that he does cater to the public, but ask him, and he'll tell you that he's just trying to send his message out to as many people as possible, while making sure to get back what is rightfully his.
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