Defining the extraordinary works of untrained, mostly uneducated artists from America's rural backwaters has been a delicate topic for decades. In the 1980s, when the Rev. Howard Finster, of Pennville, Ga., became all the rage not just among the New York art elite but in popular culture at large — with no small thanks to Talking Heads and R.E.M., both of whom used his works on their album covers — the art and music intelligentsia vigorously debated what to call Finster's creations. Was it primitive art? Visionary folk art? Was it naïve art? Outsider art?
Not many things are more entertaining than sitting among a group of half-drunk intellectuals in an East Village dive bar debating the relative political correctness of naming the style of an artist who wasn't trained at the Chicago Art Institute or the Royal Academy, Pratt or Yale, Slade or Goldsmiths. Finster, who was born in Alabama, was trained in the academy of his own fanciful mind; his patterns and motifs — lots of wings, people and creatures with sparkling eyes, Bible verses and other spiritual and sometimes political messages — were beautiful, often disturbing and always utterly original.
Another visionary untrained artist is Thornton Dial, who, like Finster, was born in Alabama. An exhibition of Dial's works, Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial, is currently on display at the Mint Museum in downtown Charlotte, and you should go see it. You also should read this issue's cover story, because longtime CL contributor Scott Lucas' story is one of the finest pieces of arts writing I have ever read. That's not an overstatement or exaggeration. Lucas does not pigeonhole Dial or his style of art here; rather, he writes with unrestrained passion of the works' emotional and visceral impact. He gives Dial the dignity that any extraordinary artist — whether schooled in a shotgun shack or at the Royal Academy — deserves.
Here's a small taste of Lucas' near-poetic observations:
I see Thornton Dial walking out of his home in Bessemer City, Ala., walking down to his cavernous, cobbled-together barn studio, thinking about the little things and the big things weighing on his mind. Not because anyone told him the war in Iraq, or the price of corn meal, or the woeful treatment of neighbors and friends and family or poor folks or black folks was something he had to be thinking about. He's just thinking.
Past the pen with deer, the goats, the sleeping dog.
Past the piles of iron and copper and grayed and rotted wood, the tires, the bicycle wheels and the plastic spray-paint caps piled in 55-gallon buckets.
He's grumbling half sentences parsed from full thoughts, feeling grumpy.
But he's feeling the spirit.
He wants to make things.
By contrast, here's some chin-stroking, yawn-inducing observations from a New York Times art critic contemplating the Rev. Howard Finster in 1988: "A specialist in prophetic work from which, it seems, no folk art show is safe, Howard Finster is a very knowing naïve artist who is as likely to include pollution, missiles and Elvis Presley in his wordy efforts as he is to quote from the Book of Revelation."
If the words "naïve" or "primitive" are laughably condescending when referring to the works of Finster, who was white, they are exponentially more condescending and offensive to a black rural folk artist, who by definition comes from a far more demoralized legacy. In fact, such observations shine a bright ugly spotlight on the culture and class divide that leads to the sort of intense dislike of so-called elitism with which some conservatives brand educated politicians. While such accusations of elitism are absurd when discussing differences between, say, President Obama and Sarah Palin, they do drive home the need for all of us — conservatives, liberals, moderates, educated folks, working people, whatever — to choose our words wisely when discussing someone of another culture or class, to speak with dignity about all people, no matter how different they may be from ourselves.
The paintings and sculptures of the Rev. Howard Finster, Thornton Dial and so many other inspired untrained artists are not primitive or naïve. They are brilliant works of art that stand up to those of any other human being who possesses a gift for creating beauty and depth.