Bl. Andrew Warhola, Fool-for-Christ

Current controversy concerning the removal of David Wojnarowicz’s video “Fire In My Belly” from the “Hide/Seek” exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington has generated two interesting open letters from The Andy Warhol Foundation. Wojnarowicz’s video, which uses a crucifix being swarmed by ants to speak about suffering through the AIDS crisis of the 1980’s, was judged by Bill Donohue of The Catholic League to have been “designed to insult and inflict injury and assault the sensibilities of Christians.” (Andrew Sullivan makes a go at explaining the inexplicable, here.) I would like to weigh in on one aspect of the controversy.

The Warhol Foundation, which has funded several Smithsonian exhibitions over the last three years to the tune of $375,000, has responded to this act of censorship by threatening to withdraw all future support from the Smithsonian. The open letters may be found here and here.

Both statements, unsurprisingly, emphasize the value to society of freedom of expression. What they do not emphasize, however, but might well have done, given Warhol’s legacy and the specific nature of this controversy, is the queer contribution to Christian or Christian-inspired art and iconography. For it is a fact to which indeed some art historians and museums have called attention (notably Jane Daggett Dillenberger in her monograph The Religious Art of Andy Warhol, James Romaine in an essay “Transsubstantiating the Culture,” and the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens in its exhibition “Warhol/Icon”), but of which the general public probably remains mostly unaware: Andy Warhol was a pious Christian.

That fact is for me of some personal relevance, as it is “all in the family.” Andy grew up in the Russian Dolina in Pittsburgh. His ancestral village, Mikova, is not so very far to the east of Kamienka and Bardejov, my own. And reading the eulogy delivered by John Richardson at his April 1987 memorial service in New York played a small but significant role in my own decision to come out of the closet.

What Richardson’s eulogy offered me was one possible model for a way forward. Here was a queer man, culture-maker, from his youth a producer of homoerotic images …

Reclining Male Torso

… hailing from my part of the world moreover, and an Orthodox Christian in the Roman obedience, a Uniate …

The Last Supper

… whose individual form of witness, largely silent but hugely stubborn—attending the liturgy, occupying a place toward the rear of the church, hiding behind big celebrity sun-glasses, but attending, day after day, year after year, irrespective of what clergy said or whether they deigned to communicate him—whose form of witness, as I say, could perhaps be imitated:

Although Andy was perceived—with some justice—as a passive observer who never imposed his beliefs on other people, he could on occasion be an effective proselytizer. To my certain knowledge, he was responsible for at least one conversion. He took considerable pride in financing a nephew’s studies for the priesthood. And as you have doubtless read on your Mass cards, he regularly helped out at a shelter serving meals to the homeless and the hungry. Trust Andy to have kept these activities very, very dark.

The knowledge of this secret piety inevitably changes our perception of an artist who fooled the world into believing that his only obsessions were money, fame, glamour, and that he was cool to the point of callousness. Never take Andy at face value. The callous observer was in fact a recording angel. And Andy’s detachment—the distance he established between the world and himself—was above all a matter of innocence and of art. Isn’t an artist usually obliged to step back from things? In his impregnable innocence and humility Andy always struck me as a yurodstvo—one of those saintly simpletons who haunt Russian fiction and Slavic villages, such as Mikova in Ruthenia, whence the Warhols stemmed. Hence his peculiar, passive power over people; his ability to remain uncorrupted, no matter what activities he chose to film, tape, or scrutinize. [1]

If I may gloss the text of Richardson’s eulogy, what “the world” mistook for callousness in Andy’s personal relationships and attitudes, was in fact the supreme ascetic virtue of apatheia, “dispassion” or perhaps “purity of heart”; and the spiritual motivation for much of his pop-art was “foolishness for Christ’s sake,” that is, the hard-earned right to (constructive) criticism, irony, and satire.

There are two points here. One is academic. Concerning Warhol’s artistic “detachment,” which I have glossed as ascetic apatheia, I think we can situate the implicit philosophy behind his artwork in the long and venerable tradition of Christian realism which stretches all the way back to the unpolished, popular prose of the Bible itself, and to the encaustic and tempera mummy portraits of the Egyptian Faiyum. In a world sanctified by the Incarnation, where God may be located “betwixt an ox and a silly poor ass,” no detail of history, be it material or psychological, and however obscure a detail it may be, can be utterly without genuine human interest. The Incarnation means, amongst other things, that Campbell’s soup cans and Coca-Cola bottles may be suitable subjects for artistic representation.

The second point here is experiential. “The artist who held the most revealing mirror up to his generation,” as Richardson called him, was in some sense Christian because he was queer, queer because he was Christian. His whole life confirmed an ancient precept, dressed in modern garb, that it is not necessary to preach using words, especially not loud or angry words; there are subtler ways to get one’s point across. At the same time, his whole life also confirmed that we are who we are (“just look at the surfaces of my paintings and films and me, and there I am”) and that we are not going away.

These seem to me to be some of the deep issues which substantiate and humanize (or ought to) The Warhol Foundation’s commitment to the principle of free expression.


Victor de Villa Lapidis

[1] Farewell, Godspeed: The Greatest Eulogies of Our Time, ed. Cyrus M. Copeland (New York: Harmony Books, 2003), pp. 23-24.

Published in: on December 17, 2010 at 5:03 pm  Comments (2)  
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