JANUARY 20, 2020
The Warhol Effect
In 2018, I wrote a column for my then-employer, the Catholic Herald, titled “Andy Warhol’s Devotion Was Almost Surreal”; the piece became our most-read article of the year. It followed on the announcement that the Vatican Museum would be exhibiting a few of Warhol’s works in the Holy See. Social media was abuzz with the news that this pop icon was a Catholic. Many of our co-religionists who had never taken a passing interest in Warhol suddenly became connoisseurs and devotees because he was “one of us.”
And no doubt he was. As I wrote in the Herald:
He attended Mass almost daily… He spent his Thanksgivings, Christmases and Easters volunteering at a soup kitchen, and befriended the homeless and poor whom he served. He put his nephew through seminary… He lived with his mother until she died, and every morning they would pray together in Old Slavonic [he was a Ruthenian Catholic] before he left for [his studio]. He always carried a rosary and a small missal in his pocket.
This is all true, and there’s a great deal more to Warhol’s spiritual life besides. One could hardly doubt the man’s faith.
But my superiors had me remove an observation from the article that I felt was indispensable, but which they feared would compromise the article’s popularity—namely, that Warhol is one of the worst artists who ever lived.
The Pop Art movement he pioneered has done more to undermine Western culture than any since the Beeldenstorm of the 16th century. What he created wasn’t art, but a mockery of art—and not a particularly imaginative one, either. I allowed the hagiography to be published in my name, but I’d be much more inclined to agree with Brian Sewell, who noted that “few men have had a more destructive influence on art,”
reducing it to the mechanical processes of the production line; few men have so blunted the perception and aesthetic judgment of other men that any nincompoop with a camera and access to the expertise of printers can pretend to be an artist; few men have so exploited their personal publicity that merely being an artist has become more important than any work he might produce.
Warhol never hung any of his own “artworks” in his apartment. And no wonder. His sketches of shoes for ladies’ magazines, which gained him critical attention, are on par with anything you would find in the margins of a schoolgirl’s social studies notebook: flat, monotone, and utterly without texture. His iconic Campbell’s Soup Cans are an exercise in banality, as Warhol himself would have told you. His rendering of The Last Supper—a mechanical, black-and-white sketch of Da Vinci’s masterpiece with Dove Soap and General Electric logos stenciled over the scene—would only dodge the charge of blasphemy because it’s both tedious and incomprehensible. Even his Jesus Statue, which is the nearest he comes to proper devotional art, is two steps below the sort of thing you might find in the makeshift chapel of some desolate favela.
However admirable Warhol’s piety (and there’s more to the story than the hagiographers let on, myself included) he’s not known for being a devout Catholic. New York must be home to hundreds of eccentric, antisocial gay men who pray the rosary with their immigrant mothers. Warhol is known for being an artist. And, as an artist, he was a fraud and a hack.
He may have been a Christian—but so, too, were the Vandals and the Goths. I have no doubt that future historians will consider their respective influences on Western civilization as being more or less comparable.
The myth of Saint Andy has resurfaced as the Warhol Museum launches its new exhibit, Andy Warhol: Revelation, highlighting the man’s religious “art.” No doubt the museum is riding the sudden wave of public fascination with Catholicism: The Young Pope, The Two Popes, The Next Pope, etc. Or maybe they’re just politely reciprocating the Vatican’s interest in their master’s estate. Still, it’s difficult to (yet again) watch conservatives and Catholics falling over themselves to claim Warhol as “one of us.”
Usually, I’d keep mum on all of this. I’m not much into speaking ill of the dead. But what’s truly outrageous is that many of the magazines publishing tributes to Warhol were, less than a week prior, publishing tributes to the late Sir Roger Scruton, that great enemy of the pretentious, hideous con that is modern art. Scruton himself called Warhol’s work “corny” and “kitsch,” and described his formula thus: take any vulgar or commonplace thing, “put it on display, call it art and brazen it out.”
So, my fellow Catholics and conservatives, what will it be? Will you side with Warhol or Scruton? Will we defy passing fashions for the sake of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty? Or are we slaves to public opinion? Are we trying to win a culture war or a popularity contest?
These questions don’t even occur to our thought-leaders. In one breath, they decry the hideousness and brutality of modern life; with the next, they’re claiming every celebrity who makes vaguely favorable noises about Christianity as “one of us.” We want to give a clear diagnosis of our cultural malaise, but we also cling desperately to these touchstones in pop culture as proof that our views aren’t so very far outside the norm. We want to be radical and mainstream at the same time.
Yet this desperate effort to remain within the bounds of acceptable opinion blunts our critique of modernity. The Titanic is sinking, but—lo! the fourth smokestack is still high and dry. Rather than abandon ship, we go on arranging deck chairs, holding onto a false and pitiful hope that she’ll right herself.
Call it the Warhol Effect: the existence of some vaguely sympathetic public figure prolongs conservative Christians’ hope that modernity can be redeemed—or, at any rate, salvaged.
We saw the Warhol Effect in full force just a few months ago when Kanye West released his album Jesus Is King. The album got pretty lousy reviews from critics and people who, you know, actually listen to rap. But the Christian intelligentsia lapped it up. Mr. West suddenly ceased to be a megalomaniac married to an amateur porn star and became a prophet of the counter-revolution. He even moved to Wyoming and asked his collaborators not to engage in premarital sex.
I don’t know if Mr. West has actually undergone some sort of spiritual awakening. I sincerely hope he has. But 99.9 percent of Americans will still look upon him as another brilliant eccentric—a gifted but deeply unstable pop artist who constantly and obsessively reinvents his own public image. Mr. West endorsed Trump and converted to Christianity; it would hardly make a difference in anyone’s eyes if he embraced Theosophy and threw his weight behind Marianne Williamson.
Then, a little closer to home, we have Marco Rubio’s embrace of “common good conservatism.” Senator Rubio is, without a doubt, one of the shiftiest politicians in Washington. He ran for a seat in Florida’s state senate as a moderate, for the U.S. Senate as a “movement” conservative, for president in 2016 as a neoconservative, and now he’s billing himself as a champion of Catholic social teaching.
Again, I hope his change of heart is sincere. Crisis ran an article praising Senator Rubio’s First Things essay “What Economics Is For” shortly after it was published last August. After his October speech at the Catholic University of America revisiting the theme of “common good conservatism,” I was inundated with articles offering further plaudits. I rejected all of them, on one simple premise: talk is cheap. If he wants good press from us, he needs to translate all that high rhetoric into legislation. If he wants the support of Catholics who uphold the Church’s social doctrines, let him earn it.
In the months following the First Things essay, the Catholic commentariat was ablaze with ringing endorsements of the Senator’s vision for a new Catholic politics. He was hailed as the second coming of Leo XIII. And what has it gotten us? Has he introduced or voted for any legislation that wasn’t also supported by his evangelical colleagues in the GOP? Nope. And, until he puts his votes where his mouth is, he won’t get another whisper of support from this magazine.
I don’t say any of this to discourage Catholics. On the contrary. How many of these pseudo-messiahs can we endorse before we lose heart completely? How much ground can we cede to the rising tide of liquid modernity before we take to the lifeboats?
Warhol, West, and Rubio will not cure what ails us. They’re placebos. The real remedy will demand more from us than listening to Christian rap albums and retweeting stump speeches. As wiser diagnosticians have warned, the entire liberal order has become gangrenous. There’s still time for conservative Christians to seek a proper course of treatment—to sever ourselves from the artifice of modernity before it’s completely putrefied.
But are we brave enough to bite the bullet? I pray to God we will be. For His sake, we must.
Photo credit: AFP via Getty Images
Michael Warren Davis is the editor-in-chief of Crisis Magazine.