Fundamentalism Vs. Art

The great pop group Tears For Fears has been dormant for a decade now, but one of their best songs is called “Sketches of Pain”. It was never a hit, or even a single, and it was released over twenty years ago on the Raoul and the Kings of Spain album.

It’s a remarkable song for many reasons, but especially for the way that the lyrics describe how fundamentalists fail to understand art.

Some cry shame

Some cry shame

We tore them apart

We failed to imagine


God might claim

God might claim

The works of art

We failed to imagine


Great wide stretches of canvas

Signed by a godless name

Strange bright colors of madness

Only a fool would frame


Sketches of pain

Sketches of pain

I’ve never seen pop music touch on fundamentalism so precisely.

Let’s define a fundamentalist: He is an individual who’s feels that he’s been denied some sort of path to the future. He comes in all shapes and sizes, from Christian to Muslim to Jewish to white to black to Asian to rich to poor. He sees himself as a victim of modernity. He is above all desperate.

To cope with his lack of personal progress, the fundamentalist seizes upon the idea of glory days. He comes to believe in a mythical time when everything was somehow better, a time when lollipops grew on trees and unicorns pranced through fields and people who got married stayed married and going to religious service was deeply satisfying and not at all obligatory. A time when everybody lived hip-deep in disposable income and all the children were above average. The fundamentalist feeds himself these lies by losing himself in old texts, often interpreting them literally and verbatim.

The fundamentalist is a blunted soul. He is a flattened nailhead driven deeply into the aged wood of a mythical past. He can’t be pulled out of that imaginary world.

Most importantly, he can’t understand the act of artistic creation, because it doesn’t share this same worldview.

As Steven Pressfield wrote in The War of Art, “Fundamentalism and art are mutually exclusive.”

That said, there are some things that tradition gives us that we shouldn’t lose sight of. Two-parent homes, for instance, are undeniably the best way to build strong people and therefore maintain a strong civilization. The data (in the United States, at least) supports this. Likewise, recipes, created through centuries of experimentation, shouldn’t be abandoned. The Czechs were forced to do exactly this under Soviet rule, as Anthony Bourdain explained in a long-ago episode. And don’t get a writer like me started on the value of old books.

So the fundamentalists do have a point. Once in a while.

But in the field of art, they’re struck dumb. While the humanist artist sees the world as a constant churn, maybe even as a gently inclined slope of progress, the fundamentalist has a very different shape in mind. The fundamentalist sees a downward arrow. He is willing to go to the grave with his single inflexible belief that we humans have fallen from a higher state to a lower state.

This is, to be plain, total crap. The Christian story of The Fall has been long debunked by modern science. We humans are made of carbon chains, the same stuff as dirt. Our cerebral cortices show that abstract thought has been a relatively recent development.

As a species, we’re not plunging away from a deity because of poor decisions. We humans—at least, some of us—are building our way up to that deity for the very first time.

In her adventures, Ainsley Walker represents this impulse in all of us. The desire to grow, change, transform, and remake the world into something new and better.  The desire for Something Else. Not clinging to the past out of fear, but carrying the past with us as we build into the future.

It’s a big world. Let’s go see it all.