American Fundamentalists
(Christ's Entry into Washington in 2008)
by Joel Pelletier
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My Review of "American Fundamentalists"
by Christopher Vincent, Master's candidate in Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder

Can intolerance of intolerance be intolerant? Am I too anal-retentive, or just full of myself (my words, not his). Or just grumpy (his words, which I confirm here). Read the spirited discussion below (and feel free to add your thoughts).

(8/19/04) This is interesting. One can't be anything but impressed by the thorough ensemble of subjects.

The web site is fascinating, particularly the section entitled, "The Movement." He is quite a passionate fellow and in my eyes has breathed new life in the all-but-forgotten literary vehicle that is the manifesto. But I wonder if this effort isn't a touch ironic, and by irony I do not mean the term which has been so horribly diluted in its association with young people who wear their pants around their ankles. An entire generation must first stand for something before they can traffic in irony. But I digress.

Mr. Pelletier is not, apparently, a booster of fundamentalism. And not simply the religious variety; he asserts that fundamentalism can be equally applied (and similarly despised) to economic and political philosophy. His explanations regarding this opinion are lucid and poignant. He is currently touring the country to explain them live-and-in-person.

He understands "fundamentalism as binary (yes/no right/wrong good/evil)." He gets grumpy when an individual (or group of 121 of them) assert the supremacy of one interpretation of "x" over all others. He left nary a stone unturned in pinpointing the perpetuators of such hubris. Which is why I was left a bit confused when he did not insert a self-portrait in the mix of "totalitarian" subjects.

Take any given parable from any given religious text and I'd be happy to concede there is elastic left in the waistband to stomach an elaborate buffet of interpretations. But even the most tender of egalitarians would agree there must exist the barest modicum of connection to the actual text. Try as I might I can't believe anyone would offer me the slightest respect were I to compare the struggle to choose my lunch appetizer to the parable of the Good Samaritan. Even though that happens to be wicked diverse. This is only to say that a structured idea (be it religious, political, or economic) comes prepackaged with a scope of what may be considered relevant interpretation. If you don't believe me, attempt to talk of nothing but mongoose in your next theoretical seminar. See how far you get.

Art, however, has (up until now) been afforded more latitude. To stand before a Miro or a Mondrian or a Lichtenstein is to take receipt of boundless interpretive license. In this instance, were you to chatter of mongoose you might very well receive tenure in the Art Department of Brown University. A structured idea is down right claustrophobic and confiscatory in ponderous possibility when compared to layered confusion of a Jackson Pollock. I always rent the headphones on the museum tour hoping A Very Smart Person will explain what something means. Instead, they merely locate the work in a historical chronology of kited checks and sexually transmitted diseases.

But not so with the art of Mr. Pelletier. In his website and lecture tour he is exactingly, um, fundamentalist in describing what he means with every last stroke of his brush. Which is to say, "There is no room for sloppy guesswork, humble patron. Unless you come away understanding this as 'Fundamentalism Sucks', you are no/wrong/evil."

We will tolerate any view we find tolerable. Otherwise, you're a freak'n nazi. Prints available for $10, or five for $40.

(my response, 8/19/04) Chris,

Thanks for the review - very interesting for someone OTHER than myself to deconstruct my work (for once). I look forward to the opportunity to keep more to myself as time goes on and let others do the deed for me.

I suppose one way to view this painting would be as my own form of a "Doctoral Dissertation." I lay my thesis out, and it hangs or falls on my ability to "illustrate" my points. I agree that the work is unusual in that I find it necessary to leave nothing open to interpretation - this IS a political, religious, economic, military (blah blah blah) TRACT, or as you defined it, a manifesto. But my concern, supported by many conversations with people viewing the work, is that most Americans today have no idea how to look at sophisticated, multi-layered art (thanks to focused and successful advertising), and also have virtually no idea that the movements I have portrayed even exist. I created the painting out of a mix of anger and fear: anger in watching this large and complicated story unfold over the last 20 or so years in the United States, and the fear that - despite my knowledge - I am powerless to do anything about it. Oh yes, and anger that I had to spend a year researching and 6 months painting people and images I personally despise, becoming something of an expert in a topic I want nothing to do with (for the purposes of putting as much reality into the work as I could fathom). If I can't communicate this, along with the details on the movements and persons involved, I would have wasted that time and effort, and that is why I am planning to tour with it.

I do admit that it has turned me into a ranter, and I do not plan on turning out more "political art" in the future, preferring to delve back into the personal to clear the palette (if I can). Are intellectuals deluded in believing that knowledge is power? This painting is my attempt to explore this question (successful or not). Can't someone be against FUNDAMENTALISM and not be a Fundamentalist? In order to understand and defeat your opponent must you become them? I hope I get a chance to come to Boulder and talk as much WITH you as AT you about the painting,

Joel Pelletier

BTW - As for a self portrait in the painting, I am a clarinet player on the far left of the front row of the musicians. Whether that makes me a fundamentalists or just a narcissist..? I actually struggled with the idea of inserting myself in the tableau, an old tradition amongst artists (and Ensor made himself CHRIST, a complex I have never shared). But I AM a musician, so I figured the only way I could have possibly survived these events would be as a gainfully employed musician in "The President's Own" Marine Band.

(his response, 8/22/04) Joel,

I really appreciate your writing me back - this was not something that I expected. I find myself exceedingly impressed with your ability to detach yourself to examine your own views/style/method, a rare quality these days, made even more so in your case given the intensive labor in crafting your work.

If I may be so bold as to make an observation:

Having digested a good portion of your web site, it's clear you have spent considerable time in realizing a personal understanding of democracy and, if I may, freedom. This is commendable, for as you pointed out in your email very few citizens trouble themselves with considering the umbrella of principles under which they conduct their lives. What troubles you, what constitutes the subject of your painting, is that the fundamentalism practiced by those you portray threatens the nucleus of freedom which, for America, has made all the difference. In some ways I share your angst. I simply wonder if you have identified the correct set of villains.

Sidestepping the Presidential election of 2000, where the electoral college collided head on with the popular vote, it strikes me that many of those in your painting have gained positions of power by way of the very system of principles you seek to protect: democracy and freedom. When the House swung conservative in 1994, it was the product of many individual elections spread over the map of this country. The Senate, while less dramatically, fell into Republican clutches in the same manner briefly in 2000, and then again in 2002. The media/celebrity/commercial personalities you portray ascended in a less structured, although similarly democratic fashion: the viewers/consumers of this country freely chose to tune in/purchase the message they were (and continue to) peddling.

This logically careens toward a chicken/egg query: Which came first, the fundamentalist streak of the people or the narrow understanding of the elite? Because there is certainly a case to be made, at least in some cases, that the elite are less pioneers and more opportunists. They simply hitched their wagon to a much larger train that had long before left the station.

A recent set of polls put this in perspective: In the first, 42 % of Americans "Describe myself as born-again or evangelical" (The Gallop Organization, June 2004). In the second, 26% "describe myself as a born-again Christian" and 7% describe themselves as simply "fundamentalist" (Ipsos-Public Affairs/Associated Press, June 2004).

Joel, what happens when the citizenship freely adopts fundamentalist paradigms, and subsequently uses democracy to reflect such attitudes at the Federal level? Somebody labeled this the tyranny of the majority, but in your case this proves particularly nettlesome. For you have clutched two potentially opposing ideas close to your chest: That freedom and democracy are, as principles, GOOD; and secondarily, filled in a utopian vision of what kind of society should result from adherence to these principles.

It would be my simplistic observation that at some point you'll have to jettison one of these. IF the populace continues to trend 'right', you will have to decide what's more important to you: Accepting the ends (Republican Death Star) because you believe in the principle of the means (democracy) OR rejecting democracy because it manufactured a product that was distasteful to your empirical sensibilities.

With all of that said, it just seems that what lies at the root of your dissonance isn't so much the 121 personalities, but the population itself. Thus, shouldn't your work be populated by the anonymous faces of those who have allowed your personalities the power and privilege they currently (and historically) enjoy?

Chris Vincent

(my response, 8/22/04) Hmmm... I have given your conundrum, as described in your first email, a bit of thought over the last couple of days while tearing out and rebuilding a room in my house. I agree in large part with your new email (where we are today because of choices made by individuals in the free market and electorate). I propose that there is, in fact, no contradiction in my fear of the "Republican Death Star" logical conclusion you so aptly coin.

It's my understanding that the Constitution was designed with the same thoughts in mind: majority votes WITH minority rights, the first document of its type to do so (from what I understand). If my memory serves, it had something to do with the "tyranny of the majority," or something like that. If I believe that tolerance and acceptance of the minority (intellectual, religious, ethnic, political, etc.) is the cornerstone of this Republic (we are NOT a democracy, in fact), then the extremist, intolerant, "winner take all" approach of the Machaviellian/Straussian ethos of the far-right, in all of its forms (many opportunistic, as you also mention) IS anti-Constitutional, and anti-American.

Many on the far right political scene (Norquist, Reed, DeLay, etc.) have preached just this - winning is EVERYTHING, controlling ALL branches of government is the goal. This is NOT what the founders had in mind. Religion, and the religious view that certain leaders are chosen by God, leads to a void of introspection and deliberation. "If God is on our side, and chose us to lead, then our ultra-idealistic view of how the world SHOULD be, as opposed to what it is, must be right, and we can do no wrong." This simplistic view of governing has led us to the morass we are presently in. A one-party system is NOT what the founders envisioned, and by its own definition rejects toleration, moderation and consensus. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, after 150 years of Theocratic government, made it illegal in the 1700's for clergy to hold elective office. THEY understood the subtleties and contradictions of religion vs. government.

Although a one-party state it is FAR more of an efficient system to pass the laws and regulation the one party wants. Mussolini was praised for insuring that the trains ran on time...

Another acute danger that has developed from the FIRST day of the Bush II administration is secrecy. Religion (and Fundamentalist religious thinking) must be, at its core, about faith. But government cannot be about faith; it must be about transparency and verification. All sides (unfortunately for us in the United States, only two of them) in government are admittedly motivated by self-interest (their constituents, their lobbyists and their own), but as long as there is the ultimate in transparency in all government actions everyone can know what the other is up to, and all citizens can monitor their governments actions, with the power to approve or disapprove via lobbying and/or voting (with a free press as a vital component to protect this right). The Clinton administration had a deliberate, open policy of releasing EVERY government document to the public EXCEPT for the rare, national security/classified item. In the first day of the Bush II administration a directive was signed indicating that the Justice Department had the authority to deny ANY and ALL Freedom of Information Act requests unless they were forced to do so through the courts. They have also stopped disclosing, or ceased all together, more government reports and economic, environmental, judicial (etc.) studies historically performed by the government (some for decades) than any previous administration.

The wholesale consolidation of Media, and the "1984"-level redefining of the term "News" by some of the corporations now producing news programs (especially Fox and Robertson's CBN) has SEVERLY eroded the media's responsibilities mentioned above. It allows the Fundamentalists (or, perhaps better defined, Intolerants or Totalitarians) to get away with much in government and commerce, never reporting on what their real actions, agendas and goals are, to protect themselves and those they have latched on to to increase or cement their holdings. When is the last time NBC did a hard-hitting report on the Nuclear Power industry (NBC is owned by GE), or CBN on the Blood Diamonds trade in Africa (Robertson owns millions in African mining interests) or Fox on the FCC (Murdoch owns more media that any other single individual in the world)?

Absolute power corrupts, and our system was designed to protect against that. My fear, as spelled out in the painting and my writings since, is that the obscene consolidation of power and money portrayed have the effect (and stated goal) of locking in absolute power absolutely. THIS is anti-American, anti-democratic, and anti-Constitutional.

I have a line is a song of mine which reads "I really hate apathy, except for times I just don't care." It's a throw-away joke, but it has some similarity to your challenge, "can I hate intolerance (or Fundamentalism) without being intolerant myself." I believe the answer is yes. The German government, with its modern Constitution, includes freedom of speech as a right, but they ALSO outlaw the Nazi Party, swastikas, etc. A tolerant person can't allow theft, violence or rape to occur in front of them - he/she can be INTOLERANT to those actions without being a law-breaker himself (you can shoot someone in self-defense, or to protect the life of another, and not be a murderer). Teddy Roosevelt said that "The purpose of Government is to protect the citizenry from Monied interests," which is a tip off that he understood that there is such a thing as TOO MUCH power, TOO MUCH money, and that TOO MUCH can place the country in danger.

We're there, and that's what I am fighting against.

Thanks again for your conversation, and I REALLY DO hope I can show this thing in Boulder. I will have firm dates in the Chicago area this week, and will forward them to you to see if you have any ideas on locations in your area on the trip through,

Joel Pelletier

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

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

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