Warhol: His Catholicism, His Celibacy, His Art

There’s a bit of a contretemps in la Casa Patheos today between the Bad Catholic (Marc Barnes) and the Feast of Eden (Dawn Eden). In brief, Marc’s post on Andy Warhol (Catholic, gay, possibly celibate) offers some striking observations about the pop artist:

According to the wonderful book The Religious Art of Andy Warhol, by Jane Daggett Dillenberger, the man remained celibate, a fact revealed by his own declaration of virginity and at his eulogy, where it was recalled that “as a youth he was withdrawn and reclusive, devout and celibate, and beneath the disingenuous mask that is how he at the heart remained.” He deliberately concealed who he was to the public — famously answering questions with “uh, no” or “uh, yes” — and he certainly concealed the fact that he wore a cross on a chain around his neck, carried with him a missal and a rosary, and volunteered at the soup kitchen at the Church of Heavenly Rest in New York. He went to Mass — often to daily Mass — sitting at the back, unnoticed, awkwardly embarrassed lest anyone should see he crossed himself in “the Orthodox way” — from right shoulder to left instead of left to right. He financed his nephew’s studies for the priesthood, and — according to his eulogy — was responsible for at least one person’s conversion to the Catholic faith.

Dawn objects, noting that Warhol was not merely a pornographer, but a gleeful one:

Andy Warhol spent a lifetime creating works of “art” that consisted in “removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties.” And now he is a role model of intentional celibacy? Is this where promoting the “gay Catholic” label leads? If so, I can’t help but believe that Daniel Mattson is right when he writes that the claim for such a thing as “gay Catholic” identity does not do justice to the Church’s teaching of the fundamental identity of the human person as a child of God in Jesus Christ.

Reading both posts one right after the other, it’s pretty clear that they’re saying largely the same thing with a different emphasis. I appreciate what Marc was trying to do with this post (ie, the truth is not what you think, and we can learn from that), but couldn’t help remembering my film school experience with Warhol’s half-hour film “B*** J**.” Warhol’s celibacy is undermined by his role in making art-porn. This certainly gave him a thrill, which is already sexual sin. Certainly celibacy is honorable if indeed Warhol was a celibate gay man, but there’s something rather twisted in a person who holds out an ideal of sexual morality for himself while encouraging others in their debauchery.

That said, Marc is right to tell the more complete story of Warhol, which is considerably more complex than the “Yay! Gay!” narrative we usually see in the media. This is a needed corrective for the binary division of bad ole sex-hating church against wonderfully awesomely liberated sexual culture. “Free yourself from bondage to dogma!’ we’re told. “There’s nothing to lose but your chains!” And your self-respect. And your soul. Here we have someone (Warhol) who appeared to cling to one set of morals (and encouraged others to do the same) while holding another set of higher morals in his heart. That heart was the battleground, as it is for all of us. He failed, and encouraged others to fail, and God no doubt sorted that out with Andy when the time came. But there is, indeed, something admirable and unlikely in the fact that the battle even took place.

The story of individual human beings struggling with issues of faith, identity, and sexuality doesn’t fit into neat divisions. It’s a hard road, and Dawn knows that. She’s right to emphasize the ideals, particularly those of the Theology of the Body, and to call Barnes out for not delving a little deeper into those issues. That’s why the blog format works: there’s a level of dialog that can take place to flesh out complex topics. I’m glad Marc Barnes wrote the original post, because it told me things I did not know. I’m glad Dawn Eden wrote a reply, because it corrected and deepened some of Marc’s ideas.

The Nude and the Photographic Arts

I do take exception, however, to her suggestion (if indeed I’m reading her correctly) that the photographic image of the human form cannot be art. John Paul II made the point in his April 15, 1981 TOP talk that, to quote Eden, “Whereas the fine artist has the means at his disposal to depict the nude in a manner that is faithful to the truth of the human person, the photographer, filmmaker, or videographer, regardless of intention, is at a very high risk of turning the subject into ‘an anonymous object.’”

Yes, he did make that point, but he also had this to say:

Is it possible to also put films or the photographic art in a wide sense on the same level? It seems so, although from the point of view of the body as object-theme, a quite essential difference takes place in this case. In painting or sculpture the human body always remains a model, undergoing specific elaboration on the part of the artist. In the film, and even more in the photographic art, it is not the model that is transfigured, but the living man is reproduced. In this case man, the human body, is not a model for the work of art, but the object of a reproduction obtained by means of suitable techniques.

Quite clearly, the pope was trying to find a fine line here between the “reproduction obtained by means of suitable techniques,” and mere pornography. He appears to want to move the photographic arts into a special category while still acknowledging their potential as art. His idea is that other arts use the human form filtered through the sensibility and techniques of the artist, while the photographic arts use the human form directly. The mediating process in sculpture and painting is what allows the nude form to be a suitable subject for art, while the lack of this mediating process in the photographic arts risks merely “reproducing” the human form, without a similar mediation. He doesn’t firmly conclude that this problem removes the nude from the photographic arts, but merely draws attention to the issues involved.

In fact, he’s making two points at once, and not being particularly clear about it. (John Paul II was a saint with many gifts, but being a clear and concise writer was not among them.) In a subsequent talk, he makes his main point about the body being a gift we give, and how that impacts its use in art differently for photographic and non-photographic reproduction: “In each of these dimensions—and in a different way in each one—the human body loses that deeply subjective meaning of the gift. It becomes an object destined for the knowledge of many. This happens in such a way that those who look at the body, assimilate or even, in a way, take possession of what evidently exists, of what in fact should exist essentially at the level of a gift, made by the person to the person, not just in the image but in the living man.”

He says:

The artistic objectivation [sic] of the human body in its male and female nakedness, in order to make it first of all a model and then the subject of the work of art, is always to a certain extent a going outside of this original and, for the body, its specific configuration of interpersonal donation. In a way, that constitutes an uprooting of the human body from this configuration and its transfer to the dimension of artistic objectivation—the specific dimension of the work of art or of the reproduction typical of the film and photographic techniques of our time.

I don’t get a sense from my reading of John Paul II that he ever firmly came down against the use of the nude form in the photographic arts. His distinction between art and pornography is fairly clear. His distinction between a nude painting and a nude photograph (assuming both are executed with artistic techniques and standards) is less clear, but seems to indicate some level of disapproval without coming to a firm conclusion either way.

Dawn Eden is the expert on the Theology of the Body, so I’ll defer to her superior knowledge of the subject. However, if John Paul is saying the lack of an intervening artistic sensibility and technique (one present in painting or sculpture and not present in photography or film) renders the human body less fit for the photographic arts, then John Paul is incorrect. Certainly, it is less likely that high-art rather than mere prurient reproduction is the result of photographing nudes, but it is not impossible. The artistry required to do so–color, lighting, film stock, angles, posture, subject, image manipulation–is of a different order of artistry than painting, but not of a different degree of artistry. Go ahead an try to take a picture like Ansel Adams or even Robert Mapplethorpe. Mapplethorpe’s nude subjects did indeed veer from art into pornography because sexuality was their focus. But they didn’t have to, and some of his nudes are just artistic studies of the form without a sexual element.

If the intervening artistic techniques and sensibilities allow the painter or sculptor to use the nude form without stripping the model of his or her gift or modesty, than the same applies to the photographer or filmmaker. It’s slightly harder to make a pornographic painting than to make a pornographic photograph, but it’s not at all uncommon. The medium is not relevant to preserving the gift of self-donation that is the central theme of the Theology of the Body. If this is art, then so is this (links contain nudity). One is certainly better art than the other, but they are both art, and they are both fit subjects for the artist.


Warhol’s case was more complex, since his goal was often to shock or titillate. Trash, Flesh, Lonesome Cowboys: none of these are good movies by any measure, and their artistic intent is compromised by their deliberately sordid content. They’re little more than a high-brow attempt at creating low-brow exploitation cinema. Warhol’s goal was to transform low or popular culture into high-culture. By removing it from its place (the kitchen shelf, the grindhouse) and placing it in a new context (the museum, the art gallery), he called attention to the artistic aspect of the mundane.

This is a pretty limited achievement, and his value as an artist is, frankly, negligible. The art itself will probably not endure (nobody is pining for a director’s cut of Empire), but this new way of seeing was indeed important. I’ve said before that I consider the ink line of Charles Schulz one of the great artistic gifts of our time, and believe that Jack Kirby is a better artist than Pablo Picasso. It’s unlikely those would be “safe” opinions to have without the influence of Warhol, who once said Walt Disney was the greatest artist of the 20th century. (I agree.)

Was Warhol an artist or a pornographer? Both, actually. Was he Catholic? Most certainly, devoutly so. Was he a sinner? Hey, aren’t we all? St. Peter probably had a long, long talk with him about Flesh for Frankenstein, starting with, “What were you thinking?!” Was he a hero, or a villain? Dunno. I’d say neither. Just another fallible human, doing his best to listen to the angel on one shoulder while fighting the demon on the other.

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Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • victor

    Another great essay on a subject that I admit I never really thought about before (Warhol) but now immediately want to know more about! As to the JPII nude in photography discussion, I get the impression that, being somewhat of a phenomenological existentialist (in my opinion), JPII’s reservations in this area were more around the dangers of objectivization inherent in the medium of photography — since as a medium it is by its nature more reductivist than sculpture or painting or even theater — than they were around any lack of artistic skill on the part of the photographer.

  • Robert King

    So… photography risks objectifying the person because it is a more immediate representation than painting or sculpture or other mediate art forms?

    If this is so, wouldn’t it argue against photographic portraiture at all? Is it any less objectifying to photograph the human face than the human genitals?

    I can see an argument based on the immediate, recognizable, and direct representation of an individual, whereas a painting (etc.) necessarily abstracts from its model, so the painting is not of the same body as the model, in the way that a photograph is of the same body as its subject. Since *my* naked body is for my spouse, to have *my* nude body photographed could be considered unjust to my spouse.

    But in the age of Photoshop, a photograph itself becomes a kind of raw material, and is as subject to manipulation, augmentation, and interpretation as paint or ink or bronze.

    I guess I just don’t follow the logic of the argument that distinguishes photography from other art forms specifically with regard to the nude, but not with regard to other models/subjects.

  • victor

    Exactly — it is easier to objectify someone with a photograph than with the other art forms you list… which is why most advertising now is done with photographs.

  • http://thebodyguardtob.wordpress.com DeaconJR

    The guy (Warhol) who says:

    “Sex is more exciting on the screen and between the pages than between the sheets.”

    And who says:

    “Love and sex can go together and sex and unlove can go together and love and unsex can go together. But personal love and personal sex is bad.”

    …does not win points for being “celibate,” as I see it. We have to be considerably more careful in our “Catholic” assessment of homosexuality and move beyond any concept that the only thing the Church requires of homosexuals is that they refrain from physical same-sex behavior.

    Warhol was gay, Catholic, and objectively unchaste in his words and art. Not sure what more ought to be said or inferred. God bless you, Deacon JR

  • http://www.accordeonaire.blogspot.com Gary Chapin

    I think that the problem with Warhol (and his school) isn’t so much that they were trying to shock or stimulate, but that they were the epitome of the conceptual artists. They tried to communicate an “idea” with small consideration of aesthetic or, dare I say it, beauty. This isn’t true of all the avant garde … I find Jackson Pollock’s to be beautiful … overwhelmingly so when I’m actually in the room with one. Matisse’s ideas were supported by a wonderful aesthetic. The trouble with conceptual art (as opposed to slamming all of modern art) is that once you “get it” there’s no need to go back … it’s closer to editorial than art. The famous piece in MOMA, for example “can of the artist’s s***” is making a pretty valid point about the culture of post-modernism and it’s tendency to slap a frame around anything and call it art. A trenchant comment, but it’s not art. “There’s no there, there,” to quote another modernist of genuine value.

  • http://thebodyguardtob.wordpress.com DeaconJR

    Thomas–one more thought re TOB and this subject–one potentially important distinction between the medium of photography and all other media when it comes to nude portraiture is the question of specificity related to the subject “as person,” let’s say. That is, even the statue of David, while portraying a real and historic figure, nude, is understood to be an artistic portrayal of the human form, only generally connected to the “person” himself (in terms of the most basic physical description). But with photography, we’re not seeing a depiction in *stone* (or on canvas), which we humanly know is not really “personal”–instead we are seeing the actual “body-person” depicted. This raises a whole other level of consideration regarding our deeply human response to the depiction, in my view at least, because we actually see not just a “person depicted in stone (or on canvas, etc.)”, but we see a “person depicted…in himself/herself.” This applies to photography/videography, I think. And it’s why the “objectification of the person” is so easily achieved in photography/videography, because the *person* is possibly being used and subordinated to some other commercial or artistic purpose. If said purpose does not comport with human dignity, the image can only objectify the person. (sorry so long!) God bless you, Deacon JR

  • http://www.winefredswell.blogspot.com Winefred

    I know little more of Warhol than his soup can/Marilyn”‘contact sheet” paintings, and his 15-minutes-of-fame pronouncement (which turned out to be profound). My question would be, how much of his “art” would you be willing to post on this page, to bring people like me up to speed on it? Is there anything you would hesitate even to link to? If your answers are “little” and “yes”, it may be necessary to re-think a positive take on who and what he was.

  • http://cinecon.blogspot.com Victor Morton

    “I guess I just don’t follow the logic of the argument that distinguishes photography from other art forms specifically with regard to the nude, but not with regard to other models/subjects.”

    Is there any difference, either moral or anthropological, between “objectification” and “sexual objectification”? If there is (and I’m genuinely asking; kind of two minds about that), then that’s your answer.

  • http://vjmorton.wordpress.com Victor Morton

    Or to put the question another way — is there such a thing as “non-sexual objectification,” and, if there is, does it have the same moral quality as “sexual objectification.” My “common sense” says there should be such a thing and that this is a morally relevant difference.

  • http://etc.victorlams.com victor

    There very much is non-sexual objectification. Whenever you stop seeing the other person as a person and treat them as functional object, you’ve objectified them. That call center employee with the cable service you (generally, not you in particular) yelled at because they weren’t fulfilling their functional role in a satisfactory fashion quickly enough? You objectified them. That Obamaphone lady you laughed at in the video? You objectified her. As to the moral gradations of objectification, I imagine you follow the general framework of the Ten Commandments to work out which forms of objectification are worse than the others. Objectifying someone (or a class of people) to in effect murder or negate them in your mind is worse than sexual objectification, which is worse than objectifying someone to finagle a few extra premium channels into your package.

  • http://vjmorton.wordpress.com Victor Morton

    Your examples aren’t terribly suggestive of something that would be relevant to works of art, though.

  • Thomas R

    Some works of, for lack of a better term, “racist art” might objectify the person in a non-sexual way. Some paintings or even photos of dwarfish or deformed people, like myself on both counts, may have objectified them non-sexually at times.

    Of course this could get into dicey areas. Some great Medieval Christian art intentionally depicted “hook-nosed” Jews as objects of derision. It seems like some of the Spanish painters maybe “objectified” the “court dwarfs” that the royalty sometimes had. Although some of the paintings I’ve seen of “court dwarfs” were really quite respectful and humane.

  • http://coalitionforclarity.blogspot.com/ Robert King

    I’m not sure whether all objectification is bad. At least, it seems unavoidable. An infant “objectifies” his mother and father, an employer objectifies employees and vice versa, my friends who have weak backs call on me to help them move heavy stuff – not because of our intimacy or some unique aspect of my person, but because the strength of my back is convenient to them. Yet none of these are (necessarily) dehumanizing.

    Is it when a person is reduced to nothing more than his functionality that we really have a dehumanizing objectification? In this case, a husband and wife “using” each other to enter into communion and have children is essentially different from someone “using” a pornographic model or a prostititute to achieve sexual satisfaction, even though both could be called “sexual” and to some extent “objectifying”. Indeed, as I’m thinking about it, one test may be whether the “objectifying act” reduces the agent as well as the patient. Am I at all on the right track here?

    This remains a live question for me, so please don’t take the above as my definitive position. Thanks to the two Victors for chiming in on my question!

  • victor

    If a husband and wife are “using” each other for sexual gratification (cut off from the unitive and procreative aspsects of sexual union), then they are objectifying each other, similar to someone using pornography for the same purpose.

    An employer objectifies their employees when they treat them as mere cogs in a machine (think children in the factories during the industrial revolution). I’ve been very lucky in my various corporate careers to have employers who have treated me like a human being first and foremost: offering good wages, health benefits for myself and my family, flexible work schedule to accomodate my family life. That may not be the norm, but it’s certainly the ideal: treat people like human beings and respect their inherent human dignity first (image and likeness of God and all that), and then regard them in their fuctional capacity only second.

  • Eve

    Velazquez’s court dwarves are beautiful examples of the artist seeing the man in all his dignity.

  • Manny

    I wound up agreeing with both sides…lol. They were both very convincing. And like you say, they are both right.

  • Dan

    I would be very curious to know how you have determined his “celibacy”. Presumably that would make for interesting reading.

    But prudent drunks who want to overcome their sins don’t stack their homes with bourbon bottles, nor do adulterers who want to give up their mortal sins sit around and read pornography all day. But drunks, murderers, child molesters, felons and wife beaters are not “born that way”. Neither are homosexuals. They succumb to temptations and that is when they compound their sins of thought and word by adding to them deeds. Mr Warhol, one of the great charlatans of the art world, never flinched, for example, in his rather deranged motion pictures from showing the worst sins against purity his small, unimaginative mind could think of.

    As I find the homosexual perversion, the sin that cries to Heaven for vengeance, disgusting I am not terribly interested in articles which try to sanctify it.

  • http://davidgriffey.blogspot.com/ Dave G.

    The real question isn’t ‘was Warhol a sinner’? The real question was ‘did he openly celebrate his sin’? That’s the issue. There’s something disquieting about lifting up someone like Warhol as some model of Catholic devotion. There seems to be so many others we could look to. Others who struggled with a variety of sins, and not just overcame one in a particular way while gleefully promoting others. I don’t think it was to hear himself talk that Jesus warned those who would lead any of these little ones into sinning. And if Warhol can be praised as a Catholic despite actively promoting and advancing a cultural ethic diametrically opposed to Christian morality, then any Catholics can (and should) be praised for their devotion no matter what they advocate, promote, or advance.

  • http://decentfilms.com SDG

    Thomas, great, great commentary. Really first rate.

    I hate to write with my lone caveat, but that’s the way it goes, so here it is: I love Jack Kirby, and if you want to say that Kirby’s best work was better than Picasso’s most celebrated work, I won’t argue with that. But was Kirby a better artist? Not even close.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    Quite correct. I remember seeing the celebrated Picasso exhibit in the 80s and watching as his style transformed from realist to modernist. He mastered his technique, and then subverted it. I agree with that distinction, and it’s an important point to make.

  • Michelle

    I think this is the best comment I’ve read so far. It sums up why I keep getting the uncomfortable feeling in my gut when I read about Warhol being a devout Catholic. Isn’t this the same as the “personally opposed” but actively pro-choice politicians we are all so hard on? Why not have the same mercy on Nancy Pelosi? My Sister-in-law attends the same parish as her in San Francisco and sees her at Mass appearing very devout. Is she not just a mere sinner like the rest of us? We could very well apply the last line of this article to Ms. Pelosi…
    “Just another fallible human, doing his best to listen to the angel on one shoulder while fighting the demon on the other.”
    I think a misguided charity leads people to make comments like this. Not everyone (myself included) is always doing there best to listen to the Angel. Sometimes we very willingly listen to the demon and even carry out his suggestions.