The father of Funkupaganism started his sermon on how society is going down the toilet before we’d even ascended the steps to his art supply-cluttered apartment—something about how Sen. Barack Obama has made all young people angry because “now he’s a war monger, too.”
Artist-guru Robert Delford Brown, 77, was referring to Obama’s recent trip to the Middle East. He was just getting warmed up. Since founding Funkupaganism or The Church of the Exquisite Panic Inc. in 1964, Brown has made it his mission to defy the constructs of organized religion, preach an anti-corporation doctrine of people caring for people and to create art through his spirituality.
To Brown, the creation of art and spiritual belief are the same things, which is evident inside his apartment. Official icons of his church cover his walls. One sculpture is a converted skateboard with foam tubes glued to it. Another is a hot pink resin bust sculpture called The Love Bug. Dedicated to his late wife and partner in Funkupaganism, Rhett Gurney, The Love Bug looks like a stringy alien with large heart-shaped sunglasses.
“My higher power is creation. Creation is infinite. Creation is eternal,” he said. “Human beings have charge over everything? No we don’t! We learned from the animals, and then we built a few villages, and suddenly, we don’t need the animals anymore.”
Brown calls the Church of the Exquisite Panic an Orthodox Pagan belief. Its chief deity is named WHO? – as in, “We don’t know where we’re going, but WHO? knows!” The church’s main commandment is to live and the main prohibition is, “Do Not Eat Cars,” a nonsensical rule stemming from Brown’s theory that a major problem with modern organized religion is its lack of humor.
Though Brown now lives in Wilmington, N.C., he spent most of his artistic career in New York City, participating in the major art movements of the 1960’s and 70’s. He developed Funkupaganism as a way to unify his artistic efforts: by creating his art as icons for his church, Brown found that he was able to observe and comment on societal ills in a lofty-yet-irreverent way that fulfills his interest in social justice.
Brown introduced the New York art world to Funkupaganism in 1964 with “The Meat Show,” an exhibition set in a 38-degree meat locker where he hung pounds of beef, lamb and pig heads as well as hearts, lungs, human hair and lingerie.
This time around his subject matter is more environmentally focused, choosing to use recycled materials like the tires and car mirrors for a recent series of mandalas. Working in multiple mediums, from happenings to gluings to sculptures, many of Brown’s projects have been collaborations with other artists. He’s also collaborated with children.
A local art school class of three and four year olds helped him decorate his white car with their handprints in orange and pink paint. He recently had his first solo art exhibition at the Cameron Art Museum in Wilmington. As part of the exhibition, he collaborated with artist Dan Brawley to design and build the “Tower of Tires,” a self-explained homage to the fragility of human life.
The Gospel According to Robert Delford Brown
Listening to Brown’s gospel is like sitting in on a comedy routine with the late George Carlin – with the same amount of expletives and continued interest in God.
“The whole idea of a personal God is dumb, beyond dumb,” he says. “The idea that I’m exempt from the consequences of my actions; the idea that I can say, ‘Please God, can you bend the rules for me?’ I don’t see anything clever about being exempt.”
If Brown sounds angry, he is. Disappointed. Discouraged. But he doesn’t just preach fire and brimstone. His beatitudes include humility and living simply. He hardly acknowledges that he knew some of the greatest artists of the 20th century, including Andy Warhol, Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Cornell.
“Everybody wants to be kings and queens living in our castle,” he says. “If you’re segregated then you don’t have to live with the masses… The whole idea of private property is nonsense.”
Perhaps it is best to end with some of Brown’s own provocative words:
On compassion: “The world today has nothing to do with people helping people. It’s people exploiting people.”
On gender equality: “When history is re-written the right way, there will be no great men. There will only be great women. It will be Mrs. Einstein’s son, Albert, and Mrs. God’s son, Jesus.”
And, finally, on prayer: “I pray 24 hours a day. My favorite prayer is the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi.”
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace, Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy; O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.