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September 20th, 2008

The Father of Funkupaganism

Artist-Provocateur Robert Delford Brown Offers an Irreverent Take on Religion—with a Serious Message Hidden Inside

 
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Self portrait by Robert Delford Brown, father of Funkupaganism

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.”

WHAT?
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.

“The whole idea of a personal God is dumb, beyond dumb,” Brown 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.”

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.

 
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The Author : Amanda Greene
Amanda Greene covers religion for a newspaper in North Carolina.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Brittany

    He’s an artist who thinks that people need to re-evaluate the way they live. I don’t think he ever begins to say he has all the answers. One of the main philosophies guiding his concept of Funkupaganism is “I must understand in order that I may believe. By doubting we come to questioning, and by questioning we perceive the truth” He challenges people to question the current order of society, and embrace the idea that all people are inherently valuable, creative, and worthy of respect, he never seems to say I’m right this is what you need to believe. His views on “a personal god” do seem narrow minded, in that he seems to define the idea of a “personal God” as nothing more than a way of people justifying inaction because their own relationship with God is strong, I obviously don’t think that’s all a personal relationship with God is about, however it is worth examining where one’s religion lives in ones life. If religion is just something one does to make themselves feel good , but it does not transcend into the way one acts in their everyday lives, than that religion is not that genuine. No matter how much you pray if you don’t live life respecting other people and caring for others you aren’t really living a good life.
    As far as humble, I imagine he is not, but I’ve never met an artist who, in reality, is humble, there is something about feeling that your view of the world is worth being viewed, heard, or evaluated by the masses which has inherent in it a bit of ego.

  • Jim

    But then he says that the idea of a “personal God is dumb”. He focuses solely on the negative aspects of this, as if the idea of a personal God is the equivalent of a “get out of jail free card.” What this guy needs is a slice of humble pie big enough to show him that he doesn’t have all the answers.

  • Brittany

    Eccentricity breeds creativity, that’s why, even if you hate modern art, you have to acknowledge to accomplishments of artists like Brown, who go beyond preconceptions of media, beauty and space to create works which cause the audience to challenge their preconceived ideas about art and culture. The levity of his churches “main prohibition” should be enough to tell you that he does not believe that he as a “religious leader” should be held to any high esteem, instead he wants to shatter peoples conceptions of piety to bring people back to what he sees as the truly important message of religion, love one another. A message which has inherent in it a commitment to social justice. I don’t think the creation of a new religion is necessary, but a wake up call to those who have become complacent to injustices probably is in order, which is really Brown’s ultimate goal.

  • Ronetta

    While I won’t be joining Funkupaganism anytime soon, I do think if people looked past the “shock” factor they would see that not only is he being genuine, he is also exposing the hypocrisy of (most, not all) organized religions. All religions are created by man, just because this one’s founder is still alive doesn’t make it any less valid, especially since the message he is preaching is a valid one. Plus, this guy isn’t taking himself too seriously, something most people need to learn.

    *cough* Jim *cough*

  • Jim

    Another nutbag eccentric who thinks he’s started his own religion. While he makes some good points he’s also bizarre and needs to get a grip.

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