American Fundamentalists
(Christ's Entry into Washington in 2008)
by Joel Pelletier
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I recently presented the painting at the SSA Conference in Columbus, Ohio (August 2005), where it was seen and discussed the 100 or so attendees. In a panel discusssion organized by SSA Ms. Knox presented her critique of the painting, then adapted and posted in IHS's Humanist Netwok News. I am reposting her complete IHS comments below, followed by my response (Joel).

Pelletier painting is propaganda, not art
COMMENTARY By MARTHA KNOX for, Aug. 24, 2005

This August I spoke at a panel discussion about the painting "American Fundamentalists" by Joel Pelletier, at the Secular Student Alliance's annual conference.

The painting was also recently exhibited in Albany, N.Y. by the Institute for Humanist Studies. It continues to tour, and is scheduled to appear at the Council for Secular Humanism's 25th Anniversary Congress in October. As an artist, teacher and humanist, I am concerned about this work circulating the national freethought community.

It seems the only reason anyone is giving this painting any attention is because they respond to the political issues the painting so fervently brings up, not because it is a work with much artistic merit. "American Fundamentalists" presents itself as art (as opposed to illustration and commercial art) by its medium, size, style, and artist's intention. However, the painting's sought audience (the general public), its color palette, symbolism, lofty, and overwrought execution, cause it to fit better into the category of political propaganda.

Certainly art can effectively express social concern or make social commentary. Francisco Goya was one of the first artists to depict war as tragic and not romantic and heroic. The black and white aquatints in his "Disasters of War" series both horrified and educated his viewers. But compared to "Disasters of War", "American Fundamentalists" is amateurish.

Regardless of its title, "American Fundamentalists" is a broad attack on the entire spectrum of extreme conservatism in America. As such, the painting does not generate constructive discussion based on its own artistic merit, but only when it is used as a prop by the artist.

Display of the painting as a work of art by so many freethought organizations also sends the message that leaders in our movement don't mind if a work presented as art has little artistic function or merit, so long as it promotes our ideology.

The biggest problem with propaganda is that it is emotionally manipulative. Thus, I found it ironic that Pelletier writes that his painting condemns Machiavellian means to power. In Robert Greene's book, The 48 Laws of Power, Law 37 advocates creating compelling spectacles as a way of gaining power without debate. Greene writes: "The visual short-circuits the labyrinth of words. It strikes with an emotional power and immediacy that leaves no gaps for reflection or doubt. Like music, it leaps right over rational, reasonable thoughts."

Political cartoons do not do this because they are modest in presentation. Goya's Disasters of War and Mapplethorpe's X Portfolio, too, were journalistic in their provocation and crafted with humble materials.

Freethought organizations have been intelligently addressing the dangers of fundamentalism for decades. Are we so insecure about our position that we feel the need to back it up with propaganda that we legitimize by labeling "art"? "American Fundamentalists" may introduce more people to the cause of freethought, but exactly what sort of folks does it attract? And if the purpose of the painting is advertisement, why are we presenting it as art?

Martha Knox is a MFA candidate at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and a teaching artist through the Mural Arts Program's anti-truancy program. She's been involved in the freethought movement for eight years. Her Web site is:

(my response to IHS, 8/29/05)
In Martha Knox's critique she expressed an obvious dislike for my painting (which is fine), but to simply dismiss any art that attempts to illustrate a message as "propaganda" is to forget that this is what most art has always been. All good art is emotionally manipulative; the more manipulative, the greater its effect (think of Norman Rockwell or even Steven Spielberg).

For my painting I was particularly concerned with the message, which is why I had no reservations adapting James Ensor's technique and aesthetic rather than creating my own. His 1888 painting was soundly rejected with far harsher words, not just because it was seen as technically amateurish, but also politically insulting and blasphemous. By choosing to adapt it, I was entirely prepared to be accused of the same and worse, and have not been disappointed. It's only from the distance of time that we forget depicted figures and events, whether real or allegorical, and can view older works in an exclusively aesthetic way; Ensor's "Christ's Entry in Brussels" it is now considered one of the finest examples of European Expressionism, and no one can name the persons he painted into the parade.

Ms. Knox does not believe the Freethought community should present this work, but they seem to be the only persons willing to discuss these issues in public. We are all too aware of the assumed (but mythical) American open-mindedness and tolerance for critical political and religious views. I did not intend the work only for our little philosophical ghetto, but I am grateful for the interest, and continue to be open to anyone's invitation to bring it to the public.

As for "creating compelling spectacles as a way of gaining power without debate," I don't even show the painting unless there is a Q&A session or panel. What was the seminar where Ms. Knox originally presented her comments if not informative debate? In fact, attendees of the SSA conference overwhelmingly said that it made for the most engaging intellectual discussion of the entire conference, and complained that the allotted hour was too short.

I have no particular interest in "generating constructive discussion based on the works' own artistic merit." I could not care less. My painting IS a prop, informed by my skepticism and humanism, designed SPECIFICALLY to be used as a catalyst for intellectual, political, religious and economic discussion. Instead of simply writing a book, essay or thesis, I put my argument into visual form, which gets IT and ME in front of people so that I can explain more. What Ms. Knox sees as the reason "American Fundamentalists" fails is exactly why it has been a tremendous success.

Its future status as art, not unlike like the afterlife, is of no interest to me now.

Joel Pelletier's painting "American Fundamentalists (Christ's Entry into Washington in 2008)" will be on display in "The God Show" at the Gallery Project in Ann Arbor, MI from 9/7-10/9/05 (with a reception on 9/9 and a panel discussion at Ann Arbor's UNION HALL on 10/10). For more events and information on the work go

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Order a signed poster (click here).

2004-5 Joel Pelletier,, email:, web design: the Way Home media

Original text & images protected by copyright law; reproduction without consent prohibited.

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