“It is precisely those artists and writers who are most inclined to think of their art as the manifestation of their personality who are in fact the most in bondage to public taste.” – Simone Weil
This epigraph might seem an odd choice when writing about Andy Warhol – a man who painted soup cans and banana peels during the turbulent 60s, himself the king of Pop Art. Warhol, however, is a prime example of why we should never engage in such easy judgment and classification. His art may challenge and his tastes may shock, but he was (and out-of-step with the proclivities of his times) a Catholic.
That’s right. Warhol was a practicing Ruthenian Catholic, supposedly even responsible for at least one conversion as well as the financing of his nephew’s studies for the priesthood. Some of his last works were studies of the Last Supper; his parish priest reports his weekly attendance; shying away from attention, he would often sit in the back pews.
In the same vein, Warhol was a celibate gay man. Just as he designed cover art for the Velvet Underground, he professed virginity, in line with the teachings of the Catholic Church, at once a symbol of the turbulent, times, reveling in transgression, and a stalwart protester, grounded in a rich tradition.
Though his art may seem the obvious outgrowth of a rebellious personality, it is, in fact, at odds with mainstream culture, itself a manifestation of his religious nature. The artist’s work revels in themes like reproducibility, unrestrained sexuality, and cult status.
Eight Elvises, for example, asks us to consider what it means to place a man on a pedestal, to grant him privileged status within our lives, a man himself groomed to appeal to the masses. Similarly, the repetition of Elvis’s form suggests how easily we throw away people, like objects, how quickly our celebrities enter and exit our consciousness, acting as fleeting existential anchors for our restless hearts. In short, it is a meditation on the idea of the graven image.
His famous Campbell’s Soup Cans explores a similar theme. Itself crafted using a semi-mechanized screen printing process, the piece asks us to question the society we’ve created, one in which things are so easily reproduced and then forgotten. Gone are the days of closeness to the earth and the dignity of stewardship, arrived are the days of mechanized parts and lost faces in a crowd, a theme popular with the more explicitly Catholic author, J.R.R. Tolkien, as well as with Pope Francis.
In this sense, Warhol is a worthy icon for all Catholics, but especially for millennial Catholics. He defies easy classification, refusing simply to regurgitate traditional methods and forms while steadfastly preserving tradition itself. A likely gay man, he professed celibacy. A protest artist, he turned pop culture against itself, calling us back to a forgotten wholesomeness, not the pseudo-wholesomeness of the 1950s, but the loving embrace of Mother Church. Who better, then, to subvert our cultural binaries?
In Warhol, East meets West, secular meets religious, gay meets straight, and (most importantly) this generation of Catholics might meet both the past and the future.