Analysis

The Reactionary Case for Andy Warhol

Any casual observer of modern art can look at this very title and conclude that it is a patent miscalculation, or an utter absurdity that the visionary leader and Ace of American modernism, Andy Warhol, who’s name is a synonymous with pop art, a name that suddenly invokes an immediate image in everyone’s mind, would be a “reactionary” in any way. Before trashing this article completely, let me assuage everyone’s guffawing and skepticism; Warhol was intentionally vague about his politics, and was not “right wing” or “reactionary” in any conventional sense, this is merely an interpretation of some aspects of his work based on his life. Where Andy Warhol shows subtle and latent signs of so-called “trad-ness” throughout his work rests on the linchpin of a huge part of his artistic and life-motivation, his deeply felt faith in Catholicism.

Warhol and his machinic approach to art was a style that was unique to, and transcended an era in post-war American life, one of mass production, mass culture, and the promise of the new American century spanning across the Globe. Communism could be conquered with consumerism, and as the dream of the post-war End of History Americana slowly boiled over into mass apathy, cynicism and internal emptiness; Warhol’s work started to be viewed with suspicion. Pop art, with its seemingly celebratory take on American globalized consumerism and its “kitschy” aesthetic was shunned by the Avant-garde of the western art world. Warhol still lives on as a parody in the pop-culture psyche, but any depth or originality of his work was exhausted years ago (or so it would seem). After all, there are tens of thousands of his mass-produced pieces, and we all know about the behind-the-scenes inflationary practices of art collectors and auction houses.

Despite the cold shoulder given to Warhol by the most sensationalist and ideological of art world players, he still maintains a sort of mystical reverence. He is a product of an age where modern art was “big”, larger than life, consuming whole gallery floors, and elaborately staged with a boldness and sensationalist grandeur. Warhol started the trend of mass produced “factory art” as spoofed in one scene from Jodorowsky’s seminal acid-cinema film “The Holy Mountain,” the artist and the technician become one in the same. With Warhol, unlike a litany of modern self-indulgent art luminaries, this was all for a purpose in mind. The art should always reflect the age, this is a constant.

What people did not find on the surface of Warhol’s work was the signature cardinal rule of modern art: art should always be grounded in the purpose of critiquing the current age. Some art critics and academics viewed Warhol’s work as presenting a celebratory look at modern industrial capitalism and mechanical reproduction. Warhol did state certain positive things about modern American-led capitalism such as “What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest”. Let us keep in mind that by time in the 60s and 70s, contemporary art had ceased to function as a psychic conveyor of grand narratives and forms, archetypes that informed people on a cultural and spiritual level. Warhol was the foremost artist that was coming to terms with the age of mechanical reproduction and mass media.

The social critique that is latent in Warhol’s work comes from his choice of subject and media itself. By highlighting the products and everydayness of objects present in his art, such as the stacks and stacks of Brilo boxes, or silk screen paintings of Coca-Cola bottle rows, Warhol is presenting to us in a vivid fashion the underlying truth of the consumerist modern world; To understand this, we must first absorb the catholic teachings on modern consumerism.

Warhol And the Catholic Church Contra Consumerism

Being a devote catholic, even to the point of being a lifelong celibate gay man, Warhol made the pilgrimage to personally meet the Pope that immensely inspired him, Pope John Paul 11. PJP’s words echo in the sentiments of numerous critics of modernity, mass modern media and corporate driven consumption, as well as the colonization of the world under the globalization of Americanized culture and economic determinism. Quote:

…an excessive availability of every kind of material goods for the benefit of certain social groups, easily makes people slaves of “possession” and of immediate gratification, with no other horizon than the multiplication or continual replacement of the things already owned with others still better. This is the so-called civilization of “consumption” or “consumerism,” which involves so much “throwing-away” and “waste.” An object already owned but now superseded by something better is discarded, with no thought of its possible lasting value in itself, nor of some other human being who is poorer.[1]

Saint John Paul saw the debilitating effects of consumerism on the human spirit, one that is harmed by excessive focus on the greed-driven and the material, going so far as to say modern consumerism “deadens the soul.”

Warhol has a nuanced relation to modern American consumerism, in once instance implicitly warning us of its effects, and at another, keeping away from the usual scorn the art world has for the common mass of ordinary people (normies). His faith guided his artistic practice, in representing an artistic mirror upon modern society, attending daily mass while also worshiping artistic creation in the “art factory.” The Vatican has even had numerous collections and exhibitions of his work[2].

John Paul and Catholic theology maintain the emphasis on the utmost dignity, sanctity and divinity of the human being, and in an odd and Avant-garde way, Warhol does the same; Warhol’s guiding philosophic justification for the work that he did was his striving to give an insight into the human condition in modern post-war consumer society. What better way to exhibit and reify the human condition then making everyday object of ordinary life the subject of artistic exploration. The modern subject is (cue McLuhan) a product of media, constant and incessant media bombardment. As media takes over the psyche of humanity, and as metaphysics reaches a crisis stage in western civilization, the modern subject worships the celebrity, the efficiency of technics, etc. So Warhol wanted to represent these spaces through the artistic conjecture of pop art, even going so far as to produce a rather large silk screen paintings of Marilyn Monroe with a golden background one often finds in Orthodox iconography.

Gold Marilyn Monroe, 1962

What Warhol understood and was coming to terms with in his own artistic practice is the reality of our post-metaphysical age in art. Art no longer conveys spiritual meaning or represents the human or naturalistic form, at least that is no longer its main purpose. Art does not even have to be attached to “beauty” per-say but has become a barometer for the profound alienation and void-like purposelessness felt by the modern subject. Warhol came to realize that the things we consume, and the people we consume as things, become personified and deified. The Brilo box or Campbell’s soup or celebrity starlet can become just as ubiquitous and deified as the Holy Spirit. When you mass produce a thing via mechanical reproduction, you have in a sense infused that thing with a globalized aura of deification. Through an object’s ubiquitous seriality and function within the life-blood of a society’s economy and culture, objects become like divine entities[3].

Warhol drew a frame or bracket around the banal and mass-produced “thing in the world” and put it into the art process and context as an object of contemplation. The old signifiers of spiritual importance have now been deconstructed in the modern world, and replaced with new ones, to which Warhol gives an impartial and extensive artistic lens to. The dead celebrity becomes the new stained-glass saints of the modern world. Media replicates the image, and then these images creates an ersatz “larger than life” deity of the celebrity. Warhol would play with silk screen negatives and different copies of celebrities, thus stating that the copy of a product or person is what is most meaningful to us, not the actual person, but our own mass-produced, yet individualized copy of a modern icon. They are Dionysian, filled with life and frivolity, yet the actual person is more unremarkably empty and banal, or plagued by demons that usually accompany being a modern celebrity; Warhol painted these movie stars and musicians as immortal gods, but through repeated prints, he cleverly depreciated them by printing negatives and faded screen prints that are purposely degraded, usually in a black and white frame next to the colorful originals. Warhol is saying to us that yes, we have replaced the monotheistic Godhead of old with a crop of resurgent neo-pagan celebrity gods, but these ones bath in modern media and mechanization, and in time will be revealed as impermanent.

elvis-presley(1).jpg!Large

Warhol gave rare glimpses into the feelings and thought-processes behind his enigmatic studio artistic practices, and the quote that best summarizes his artistic trajectory is thus:

“Everybody has their own America, and then they have pieces of a fantasy America that they think is out there but they can’t see…So the fantasy corners of America…you’ve pieced them together from scenes in movies and music and lines from books. And you live in your dream America that you’ve custom-made from art and schmaltz and emotions just as much as you live in your real one.”[4]

Warhol and Christ

As an artist, Warhol’s work shows an obsession with death and the mortification of both religious and secular iconography. Near the end of his life before his early death, Warhol re-evaluated the very sources of his artistic inspiration, and became obsessed in the 80s with reprinting and re-configuring the image of Christ, more specifically, Da-Vinci’s famous Last Supper painting. Warhol would attend daily mass regularly, then go back the art factory and create more series of prints based on the last supper, this time with a less neon color palette, often using muted golds and earth tones found in the Byzantine Catholic iconographyy he was surrounded by during his upbringing[5].

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Warhol on his last visit to the Vatican display of his large screen print of the last supper, 1987.

Warhol would also do a series of prints that focused on the Christ-image in his signature style of American Kitsch. One piece placed the faces of Christ in juxtaposition with American motorcycles, a red eagle and a 6.99 price tag. By placing the figure of Christ within the iconic image’s of 60s American consumerism and excess, Warhol is entering Christ into the dialogue of modern living via an artistic frame of reference. Warhol is careful to be impartial here, he is stating that the icon of old (Christ), and of the world of tradition is now coming into dialogue once more in the collective psyche, but this time is clashing and bleeding into the new gods of western consumer capitalism.

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Warhol is making a comment on American society currently, stating that the Honda motorcycle is “like an angel’s wing next to Christ.” Americans worship the speed and intensity of open highways, of faced-paced consumption and economic efficiency. Even a device as complex as a motorcycle can be mass-produced and ready for purchase anywhere[6]. Furthermore, Warhol, in the mere act of printing the famed image of Christ, is trying to demonstrate that the only way most moderns can understand the revitalized image of Christ is by placing Him within the same artistic current as any other celebrity or iconic modern figure. Marilyn Monroe, Elvis and Christ all envelop the modern pantheon of our cultural zeitgeist. What is remarkable about Warhol’s use of the Christ-image is that he is not simply and crassly deprecating it like other in vogue performance and conceptual artists, who love demonstrating their derivative, and ultimately nihilistic acts of artistic iconoclasm against Christianity. What Warhol is doing instead is coming to terms with the modern, celebrity-driven profane reality of the world, and through profane artistic means, Warhol attempts to resurrect Christ once more for a modern audience. This makes his work as reactionary and against the current as any meme-maker and reactionary internet troll of today.

SONY DSC

 

[1] https://capp-usa.org/contemporary_issues/19

[2] http://catholicherald.co.uk/issues/february-9th-2018/andy-warhols-devotion-was-almost-surreal/

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1b1egysFRoY

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tkTk7IT9Xbg&t=272s

[4] Warhol, Andy. America. (New York: Harper & Row, 1985).

[5] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-finearts-warhol/show-unveils-andy-warhols-catholic-abstract-side-idUSTRE65A43C20100611

[6] https://www.themodern.org/blog/Mixing-Christ-and-Commercialism-Warhols-Last-Supper-1986/136

1 thought on “The Reactionary Case for Andy Warhol”

  1. I am not a big fan of Andy Warhol, and personally think modernist art in general is low effort, bourgeoisie, and often profane. Certainly Warhol can be considered a good designer, but an artist, I don’t really think so. In a better timeline Andy would have painted the Saints with egg tempera, instead of produce iconography of Campbell’s Soup!

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