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a fact revealed by his own declaration of virginity and at his eulogy, where it was recalled that “as a youth he was withdrawn and reclusive, devout and celibate, and beneath the disingenuous mask that is how he at the heart remained.”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.