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Andy Warhol, St. John Paul II, and St. Sebastian

The Andy Warhol: Revelation exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum raises many fascinating questions about sex, chastity, faith, and Catholicism, but makes no real attempt to acknowledge or answer them.

(Image: www.brooklynmuseum.org/YouTube screenshot)

While walking recently through Andy Warhol: Revelation at the Brooklyn Museum, I came across a display of Warhol’s holy card collection. One of them included a card of Pope St. Paul VI.

“I wonder if Warhol read Humanae Vitae…?” asked one of my friends accompanying me through the exhibit.

This made us wonder even further about Warhol’s attitude toward chastity in general. Warhol was known to be sexually attracted almost exclusively to men, which he made clear in his art and films. The curators of the exhibit seemed intent on the existence of an irreconcilable conflict between Warhol’s homoerotic tendencies and the doctrines of the Catholic Church. There was commentary on this alleged “conflict” on nearly every other caption throughout the exhibit.

Warhol was raised in the Ruthenian Rite and attended Mass in the Roman Rite often in Manhattan as an adult, though he abstained from receiving the Eucharist. It seemed strange to me that the exhibit never mentioned Warhol’s celibacy. Could it perhaps be that Warhol found meaning in attempting to live a chaste life (emphasis on “attempt”–he was known for his voyeurism and pornographic art)?

Perhaps his attempt to live in the tension between sin and sanctity, rather than to reject these teachings wholesale, sharpened his artistic sensibility? Apparently not.

Judging by the keen sense of paradox in Warhol’s art, and by the profound understanding of human nature, sin, beauty, and artifice his works often demonstrate, I would dare to say that he would at least have understood and appreciated Humanae Vitae and the Church’s broader vision of chastity, even if he may not have followed it perfectly.

Further in the exhibit, there was a photo of Warhol shaking hands with Pope St. John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square on April 2, 1980. After doing some research, I realized that this meant Warhol had been present for the delivery of John Paul II’s twenty-third Theology of the Body catechesis, on the subject of “Marriage in the Integral Vision of Man.”

I began to wonder if Warhol would have been more drawn to Paul VI’s Thomistic approach to sexual morality in Humanae Vitae, or to John Paul II’s more phenomenological approach in the Theology of the Body.

Though Warhol attended St. Vincent Ferrer’s Church in New York City, which was run by Dominican friars whose preaching was surely steeped in the theology of Aquinas, I’m inclined to think that Warhol would have been drawn more to the Theology of the Body, whose phenomenological foundation borrows more from the subjective, experience-based postmodern sensibility that shaped Warhol’s art.

In the particular catechesis that Warhol was present for, John Paul II mentioned modern culture being subject to “pressure of a materialistic and utilitarian way of thinking and evaluating,” which has shaped the normalization of separating sexual pleasure from procreation. He went on to describe the marital union of man and woman as “the path of the redemption of the body,” which “must consist in regaining this dignity. In it there is simultaneously accomplished the real meaning of the human body, its personal meaning and its meaning of communion.”

His emphasis on recovering the dignity of the body from utilitarian and materialistic reductions reminded me of Warhol’s fixation with consumer culture. His prints of famous brands and logos, such as the Campbell soup cans, served as a commentary on the beauty within mundane everyday things (my friend shared with me that the Campbell can paintings were inspired by the times Warhol’s brother used to bring him soup in bed while he was ailing), but also an ironic critique on the vapidity of consumer culture. True dignity and fulfillment come not from endlessly consuming finite things, but from communion with God and others.

Warhol further commented on the ideal of self-giving communion in his many reproductions of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Last Supper. The most noteworthy of them juxtaposes Christ consecrating the bread and wine superimposed over an image of a young, topless bodybuilder, with the inscription “Be Somebody with a Body.” It was as if he was commenting on the emptiness of consuming aesthetic beauty and homoerotic lust compared to consuming the everlasting love and beauty in Christ’s eucharistic body.

Next to that image was a photo of Warhol after he was shot by Valerie Solanas in 1968, taken by Richard Avedon. Warhol is covered in scars and stitches, and is standing in a manner that evokes depictions of St. Sebastian.

St. Sebastian has historically been known to speak to those who experience same-sex attractions, and he symbolizes the Christian inversion of the pagan god Adonis, who represents youthful male beauty. Adonis’s beauty exalts aestheticism and temporal pleasure, which ultimately fades, as Adonis is stabbed by a boar’s horn and dies. His death is symbolic of the vain attempt to hold onto youthful beauty and possess it for oneself.

Sebastian, on the other hand, was a male youth who recognized that true Beauty is not the earthly ideal of good looks, but the heavenly Beauty of charity and Christ’s love. Rather than attempting to possess this earthly beauty, he allows himself to be possessed—even penetrated by it, as he is shot with arrows for refusing to renounce his faith in Christ. His beauty lives on into eternity as he is now possessed by and united to Christ, while Adonis’ beauty fades.

The photo of Warhol seems to affirm that his true fulfillment lay not in possessing earthly beauty, fame, or wealth, but in embracing his suffering, the ugliness of his wounded body, and uniting it to Christ, as did St. Sebastian.

Though Warhol was hardly a paragon of sanctity, his witness was that of a sinner wrestling with his concupiscent nature and the higher ideals of a life in Christ, and–in the least–reminds us that these ideals are worth struggling toward.

Why wasn’t any of this considered by the curators of the exhibit? I wasn’t surprised to find Warhol-style advertisements for Perrier, the main funder of the exhibit, scattered around the exit of the exhibit, complete with a vending machine selling bottles of the overpriced mineral water. As I walked out of the exhibit, balking at the outrageous price for an eight ounce bottle of water, I couldn’t help but find this all amusingly ironic.

What more can you expect from an exhibit funded by a major corporation like Perrier? The Church’s moral teachings can only be understood as an “oppressive” force by global elites whose allegiances lie more with the utilitarian values of profit, power, and pleasure rather than charity, chastity, and spiritual poverty.

I walked away from the exhibit with a deeper appreciation of the prophetic nature of both John Paul II’s catechesis and Warhol’s art.


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About Stephen G. Adubato 11 Articles
Stephen G. Adubato studied moral theology at Seton Hall University and currently teaches religion and philosophy in N.J. He also is the host of the "Cracks in Postmodernity" podcast.

7 Comments

  1. Imagine if the exhibit and its associated commentaries were housed at a truly orthodox Catholic College (of which there are only a handful). What a wholly different experience it would be. It is the difference between a viewpoint grounded in man-as-god vs God-as-God.

  2. Thank you so much Mr. Adubato for this wonderfully written piece. I think of so many other troubled artists who nevertheless tried to reconcile their personal demons and Catholic faith through their art and literature. Your article also reminds of how much I miss Sister Wendy – she was able to show the world that our Church is not only about adherence to Dogmas and mental self-flagellation but also curiosity, understanding, empathy and yes even whimsy.

  3. As Warhol’s biographer (and a former medieval historian) I was pleased to see an article on Warhol that for once took Christian theology seriously, in all its complexity.
    Unfortunately, I have to debunk the long-standing myth of Warhol’s celibacy: he was an eager and active proponent of homosexual sex. (His complaint was often that he couldn’t have more.) I have good records for at least a dozen men who Warhol had sex with, and have spoken to several of them.. One assumes there were many more that went unrecorded.

  4. There are some artists who have transformed their wrestling with homoerotic inclinations into works of art that are universal – Tennessee Williams and Somerset Maugham come to mind. (The latter interestingly thought that civil laws against sodomy should be retained rather than abolished.) One can find such alchemy both in some of the characters of “The Razors Edge” and in the main character of “Of Human Bondage”, as well as in many of William’s characters. It is unclear to me whether Warhol belongs in that category, I find the attempts to put a positive spin on his works often labored (though that says nothing about his heart).

  5. “Warhol was raised in the Ruthenian Rite and attended Mass in the Roman Rite often in Manhattan as an adult, though he abstained from receiving the Eucharist.”

    Never knew this until now.

  6. Having met him once through a relative of mine who was a very close collaborator with and friend of his for many years, I have to second the observation that AW was very far from celibate. He was riding an angry tiger, having a thrill while it lasted and was devoured at the end. Yes, he was conflicted and that has much to do with his attachment to his devout mother. If he and my relative were alive today and read about this deep analysis of the “deep” meaning of them and the “art” they produced, there would be a great deal of laughter. Instead of something to be admired, it was all a tragic human waste.

  7. The fact that this man Abstained from receiving the Eucharist should maybe be considered a Plus in His attempt to Honor His Creator? We need to re-Visit Humanae Vitae, as I know of couples who Abstained from Receiving the Eucharist — while using birth control – for health reason. Pope Paul V! warned about the Slippery Slope that we are facing in Society today. Most all the Clergy rejected the Humanae Vitae encyclical — even the Pope’s close friend at Notre Dame — Father Hessberg (sp) Having studied abnormal Psych at Elgin State Hospital, we were taught that the Etiology of same sex attraction during adolescents had to do with young males who were taken advantage of by those who Preyed upon their innocence and very often these males had ABSENT FATHERS, and perhaps Mothers who were the Controlling parent. In my nursing career, I have found that these men Respect Women more than the average male, There is a book that we all need to read again — GRACE and ADDICTION (by Earnest BECKER? This Doctor tells about the fact that Each of us has some addiction, and the Power of GRACE. I am here remembering a Young male Nurse who considered me a MOTHER FIGURE in his life. When our Medical Floor closed, there were Staff that had to find Jobs, and my friend, Bill said that he was going with the Traveling Nurse Corps.I mentioned that If I were younger, that I would Pursue the Nurse Corps, and Bill right away quipped that He would Marry Me and I could go with Him — Bill was always a Prankster, and we loved him — unfortunately Bill also had ETOH problem, and did not live a Long Life. I just prayed for Bill, and hope that God has a Place, as Jesus says — there are many Mansions — AND. there is One other Book I would liked to have read before my macular degeneration worsened — Would like a BOOK Report on — In Heaven, We will know our own (Pope francis told us from Day One to hang on to Hpe, and asked us to Pray for Him . Totus Tuus. Ad Jesum Per Maria!! — John Bosco envisioned 2 Ships that would come to Shore. One with the Eucharist, and the other in Honor of Mary

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