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)  
Tags: , , , ,

On the Advantages and Disadvantages of Cultural Christianity for Life

Two weeks ago, Toronto’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (OCA) welcomed a visit by the relics of the holy right-believing prince Vladimir of Kiev, “equal-to-the-apostles and baptist of all the Russias.”  (Announcement here; video, with our beloved and embattled Archbishop Seraphim Storheim, recently accused of sexual indiscretions with boys some twenty-five years ago, here.)  I betook myself to church mid-day that Monday, in a spirit of some gratitude for recent progress toward the completion of my doctoral dissertation.   I kissed the reliquary; I received my prayer cards (two of them) from the hands of a young-ish Ukrainian hieromonk with doubtful English; and went my way once again.

The story on this particular saint is not pretty.  He was a Viking, and did what Vikings did.  He was a fratricide and a polygamist in the old, cruel style.  His mother was regarded in Norse saga as a prophetess; his grandfather twice lay siege to the Christian capital of Constantinople.  Vladimir’s reasons for accepting Christianity, moreover, and in its Greek form, were infamously less than completely pious.  Islam prohibited the consumption of pork and alcohol, a prohibition impossible for Slavs to observe; and the Greeks presented a richer, more powerful potential ally than did the Latin-rite Germans, and (at least in the judgment of Vladimir’s ambassadors) the Greek liturgy was aesthetically more pleasing.

The popular veneration of Vladimir, indeed according him the honorific title isapostolos, distills in a single observance everything legitimately said to be wrong with the Orthodox churches.  There is the mere ritualism; there is the coarse sensuality; the slavish subservience of the clergy to secular power; the rabid nationalism.  No doubt.

And yet (my dear moderns), “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

So there I was, making full prostrations before the corruptible remains of a tenth-century Viking, covering the bits of glass and precious metals with my kisses, as might any superstitious grandmother … or as I might, in a different but not unrelated context, when nobody was looking, kiss a picture of a deceased and fondly remembered relative; or kiss a picture of my boyfriend.

A bisexual reader of this blog commented to me recently that a secular friend, herself a lesbian, had asked how anyone could belong to a church which at best ignores us, and at worst condemns us.  Perennial question. 

The fundamental answer, or mine at any rate, goes something like this: you don’t abandon your family.  The Church even in the New Testament is imaged as the oikos or the domus of God, that is, as a Graeco-Roman household.  An individual bishop in his diocese may, by analogy, be a tyrannical paterfamilias; but you don’t deny his authority, any more than you would or could deny your own flesh and bones, your very own genetic structure.  I returned to the Russian Orthodox Church at the age of 18 primarily out of a sense of loyalty to the faith of my birth and baptism, and though as time has progressed, and my reasons for adherence to the Christian religion and philosophy have become (I hope) at once more intellectually sophisticated and more charitable, the gut sense of belonging remains.

Throw the Priest in the Volga

Communal bondage to the altar has its advantages.  One of the most important is that when an ecclesial body by accident or design comes to sanctify an entire human society, it has to take human nature as it actually finds human nature, and not as it might desire human nature to be.

There is a charming anecote in the autobiography of the archpriest Abbacum Petrov, the bigoted but revered founder of the schismatic “Old-Believer” sect in Russia.  In September 1647, travelling to the city of Kazan with the newly-appointed governor, a Sheremetev, he refused to hear the confession of the governor’s son, for the latter, a friend of the tsarevitch, had, in a most “effeminate” and “unnatural” manner, shaven his beard.  Whereupon Papa Sheremetev threw the bigoted but revered protopope of Kazan Cathedral into the river Volga.  (According to the same autobiography, they were subsequently reconciled.) [1]

I call this attitude “pro-clerical anti-clericalism.”  Educated in a society long sanctified by Christianity, the Christian layman with an appropriately formed conscience knows when and how to take the clergy seriously, and when and how to take the clergy down a peg—because it’s all in the family.

V.M. Vasnetsov's "Baptism of Vladimir": Or, It's All in the Family

Back to S. Vladimir.

The Primary Chronicle relates a suggestive story about one of Vladimir’s sons, the Russian protomartyr S. Boris.  Assassinated without resistance in 1015, and formally canonized by Pope Benedict XIII in 1724, Boris’ life demonstrates the rapidity with which the highest, evangelical counsels of the Gospel may be adopted, even by the most pagan of social orders.  We read:

After offering this prayer [Matins], he lay down upon his couch.  Then [the assassins] fell upon him like wild beasts about the tent, and pierced him with lances.  They stabbed Boris and his servant, who cast himself upon his body.  For he was beloved of Boris.  He was a servant of Hungarian race, George by name, to whom Boris was greatly attached.  The prince had given him a large gold necklace which he wore while serving him….  But since they could not quickly take the necklace from George’s neck, they cut off his head, and thus obtained it.  For this reason his body was not recognized later among the corpses. [2]

SS. Vladimir Equal-to-the-Apostles; Boris Protomartyr of Russia, his son; and George the Hungarian, co-martyr and beloved: pray to God for us, and deliver your family from the tyranny of the criminal archpriests.


Victor de Villa Lapidis

[1] A French translation of the autobiography is available: La vie de l’archiprêtre Avvakum écrite par lui-même, trans. Pierre Pascal (Paris: Gallimard, 1938).

[2] The Russian Primary Chroncile: Laurentian Text, trans. Samuel Hazzard Cross and Olgerd P. Sherbowitz-Wetzor (Cambridge, Mass.: The Medieval Academy of America, 1953), pp. 126-27, 132-35.

Published in: on October 16, 2010 at 4:01 pm  Comments (5)  
Tags: ,