Modern Art and Spirituality: Warhol

Introduction: Reading Notes

Crack Open the Velvet and Coke

While reading this post, I recommend listening to The Velvet Underground, eating your can of Campbell Soup, and cracking open a Coke. Yes, today we will consider the one, the only, Andy Warhol, or whatever copy of him you prefer. Now, a word of initial warning – Warhol is so familiar, and opinion about him differ so profusely, that I will disturb someone.

Embrace Your Inner Portfolio Manager

In many ways, Warhol is the complete opposite of Beuys. He is the epitome of the art portfolio manager Taylor described in an earlier post. Here, however, we should allow another art theorist to weight in. William Stoker’s [1]  Where Heaven and Earth Meet: The Spiritual in the Art of Kandinsky, Rothko, Warhol, and Kiefer was published about the same time as Taylor’s [2] Refiguring the Spiritual: Beuys, Barney, Turrell, Goldsworthy. Stoker, however, believes his four, not Taylor’s, are the real secular spiritual artists binding heaven to earth. Indeed, Stoker claims an imminent Spirit hovers over the waters of Warhol’s work.

Cutting to the Soup

Browsing Our Way to Everywhere and Nowhere

Because Warhol is so well-known and his work so voluminous, I’ll skip standard background preamble and avoid choosing a single work. Let’s rather look at what pops out if we just place Warhol’s work in front of us.
Warhol’s art illuminates something profound and disturbing about our spirituality today: we are more and more browsers. Popular culture browses through the newest hot musician, movie star, and products. We scan thousands of websites and emails like cows grazing grass. Many a time I have walked through the Met or Moma and noticed a phone pointed at a Monet, the photographer in a scattered frenzy running to the next master.

The Unbearable Heaviness of Transparency

Three aspects of the perpetual browser strikes me: repetition, nostalgia, and memory. First, the continuous browser seeks transparency. [3] Everything must always be open for browsing leisure. Never closing means demand for the ever new, never ceases. Warhol’s various mediums serve here as a reminder that often new means regurgitating in mass. A Campbell Soup is reproduced a thousand times over, which should arrest the browser. The new and familiar are shown to be permutations of mere repetition. Nostalgia, the second effect of Warhol’s art, was not intended by the artist. When faced with one of his Monroe or Mao prints, the image is now almost nostalgic. One dreams of an imagined simpler time, which exists as a mere illusion of the historical image, seeming from another world. Repetition and nostalgia combined rises into textured externalized memories. Does not liturgy draw on the same three elements: repetition, nostalgia, and memory.

Liturgy Short-Circuiting Museums

On a recent museum visit, I was again struck by the disjointedness of the architecture, artefacts, and museum-goers. Even before the selfie-obsessed browser-centered world many inhabit today, museums faced the problem of making history and art accessible. But taking art out of its religious, regal, or public contexts meant viewers and curators had to do the hard work of reconstructing the background. With all the required labour, one might remember or explore one or two pieces during a visit.
Warhol short-circuits the background problem. Repetition, unintended nostalgia, and historic memory gives his art  an almost liturgical flavour. Remember, Warhol was a devote Byzantine Catholic, a church with deep liturgical roots. In an age of transparency seeking browsers, maybe we need more such public liturgies forcing a moment of arrest, so we can stop and contemplate the occluded in the everyday. Even if, perhaps especially because, commercialisation now strips everything of meaning.

Footnotes
[1]W. Stoker, Where Heaven and Earth Meet, Brill, 1/1/2012
[2]M. Taylor C., Refiguring the Spiritual, Columbia University Press, 20/8/2013
[3]B.-C. Han, The Transparency Society, Stanford University Press, 19/8/2015

References

Han, B.-C., The Transparency Society, Stanford University Press, 19/8/2015.
Stoker, W., Where Heaven and Earth Meet, Brill, 1/1/2012.
Taylor, M., C., Refiguring the Spiritual, Columbia University Press, 20/8/2013.

Author Details

Calvyn du Toit

Calvyn C. du Toit is a PhD-candidate in Christian Spirituality at the University of South Africa (UNISA), and a Research Associated in the Department of Christian Dogmatics and Ethics at the University of Pretoria. He lives in New York City, where he is h(o)us(e)band to Christine, and 6PM Music Director at the Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal).

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