Recently walking through Andy Warhol: Revelation at the Brooklyn Museum, I came across an exhibit of Warhol’s holy card collection. One included a card from Pope Saint Paul VI.
“I wonder if Warhol read Humanae Vitae…?” asked a friend of mine who was walking me through the exhibit.
This made us wonder even more about Warhol’s attitude towards chastity in general. Warhol was known to be sexually attracted almost exclusively to men, which he made clear in his art and films. The exhibit’s curators seemed mindful of the existence of an irreconcilable conflict between Warhol’s homoerotic tendencies and the doctrines of the Catholic Church. There were comments about this alleged “conflict” on nearly every other legend throughout the exhibit.
Warhol was raised in the Ruthenian Rite and often attended Mass in the Roman Rite in Manhattan as an adult, although he refrained from receiving the Eucharist. It struck me as odd that the exhibit never mentions Warhol’s celibacy. Could it be that Warhol found meaning in attempting to live a chaste life (emphasis on “attempt” – he was known for his voyeurism and pornographic art)?
Perhaps his attempt to live in the tension between sin and holiness, rather than rejecting these teachings altogether, sharpened his artistic sensibility? Apparently not.
Judging by the keen sense of paradox in Warhol’s art and the deep understanding of human nature, sin, beauty and artifice that his works often display, I would dare say he would have at least understood and appreciated Humanae Vitae and the Church’s larger view of chastity, though he may not have followed it perfectly.
Later in the exhibit, there was a photo of Warhol shaking hands with Pope St. John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square on April 2, 1980. After doing some research, I realized this meant that Warhol had been present for the delivery of John The Twenty-Third of Paul II Theology of the body catechesis about “Marriage in the Integral Vision of Man.”
I began to wonder if Warhol would have been more attracted to Paul VI’s Thomistic approach to sexual morality in Humanae Vitaeor the more phenomenological approach of John Paul II in Theology of the body.
Although Warhol attended St. Vincent Ferrer’s Church in New York, which was run by Dominican friars whose preaching was surely steeped in Aquinas’ theology, I am inclined to think that Warhol would have been more drawn to the Theology of the bodywhose phenomenological foundation borrows more from the subjective, experiential postmodern sensibility that shaped Warhol’s art.
In the particular catechesis at which Warhol was present, John Paul II mentioned that modern culture was under “the pressure of a materialistic and utilitarian way of thinking and evaluating”, which shaped the normalization of separation from sexual pleasure of procreation. He goes on to describe the conjugal union of man and woman as “the way to the redemption of the body”, which “must consist in rediscovering this dignity. In it, the real meaning of the human body, its personal meaning and its sense of communion are fulfilled simultaneously.
His insistence on reclaiming the dignity of the body from utilitarian, materialistic reductions reminded me of Warhol’s fixation on consumer culture. His engravings of famous brands and logos, such as Campbell’s soup cans, served as a commentary on the beauty of everyday mundane things (my friend told me that Campbell’s can paintings were inspired by the when Warhol’s brother brought him bed soup when he was sick), but also an ironic critique of the insipidity of consumer culture. True dignity and fulfillment come not from endless consumption of finite things, but from fellowship with God and others.
Warhol further commented on the communion ideal of self-sacrifice in his many reproductions of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting. Last Supper. The most notable of these juxtaposes Christ consecrating the bread and wine superimposed with the image of a young bare-breasted bodybuilder, with the inscription “Be one with a body”. It was as if he was commenting on the emptiness of consuming aesthetic beauty and homoerotic lust versus consuming eternal love and beauty in the Eucharistic body of Christ.
Next to this image was a photo of Warhol after being shot by Valerie Solanas in 1968, taken by Richard Avedon. Warhol is covered in scars and stitches, and stands in a manner reminiscent of depictions of San Sebastian.
Saint Sebastian is historically known for speaking to those who experience same-sex attractions, and he symbolizes the Christian inversion of the pagan god Adonis, who represents youthful masculine beauty. The beauty of Adonis exalts aestheticism and temporal pleasure, which eventually fades, as Adonis is stabbed by a boar’s horn and dies. Her death symbolizes the vain attempt to retain youthful beauty and possess it for oneself.
Sebastian, on the other hand, was a young man who recognized that true Beauty is not the earthly ideal of beauty, but the heavenly Beauty of the charity and love of Christ. Rather than trying to possess this earthly beauty, he allows himself to be possessed, even penetrated by it, for he is shot down with arrows for refusing to renounce his faith in Christ. His beauty lives on in eternity as he is now possessed and united with Christ, while the beauty of Adonis fades.
Warhol’s picture seems to assert that his true accomplishment was not in possessing earthly beauty, fame or wealth, but in embracing his suffering, the ugliness of his wounded body and uniting him to Christ, as did Saint Sebastian.
Although Warhol was hardly a paragon of holiness, his testimony was that of a sinner struggling with his lustful nature and the higher ideals of a life in Christ, and – at the very least – reminds us that these ideals are worth worth prosecuting.
Why was none of this taken into account by the curators of the exhibition? I wasn’t surprised to find Warhol-style advertisements for Perrier, the main funder of the exhibition, scattered around the exit of the exhibition, with a vending machine selling bottles of mineral water out of price. As I walked out of the exhibit, balking at the exorbitant price of an eight-ounce bottle of water, I couldn’t help but find it all amusingly ironic.
What more can one expect from an exhibition financed by a large company like Perrier? The moral teachings of the Church can only be understood as an “oppressive” force by global elites whose allegiances are based more on the utilitarian values of profit, power and pleasure than on charity, chastity and spiritual poverty. .
I came away from the exhibit with a deeper appreciation for the prophetic nature of John Paul II’s catechesis and the art of Warhol.
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