Theological Meditations, Uncategorized

Art, Authenticity, and God

“Such an experience seems to me to belong to the soul which loves what is beautiful. … Therefore, the ardent lover of beauty, although receiving what is always visible as an image of what he desires, yet longs to be filled with the very stamp of the archetype.”

-St. Gregory of Nyssa

 

 

At the beginning of this year, it was announced that the Vatican was in the midst of a series of talks with the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh to arrange for some of his works to be brought to the Vatican for a showing in 2019. Barbara Jatta, the head of the Vatican Museums, commented on this, “It is very, very important for us to have a dialogue with contemporary art.” [1]

 

These statements ring especially true considering a little-known fact about Warhol: his strong sense of Catholic identity. Some Catholic news sources ran stories describing this facet of Warhol’s identity. Born to two Byzantine Catholic parents who migrated to Pittsburg from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he grew up in a very devout household. Even as an adult, he continued on with the sense of devotion instilled into him by his parents, attending mass nearly every day, praying with his family on a regular basis, and spending every Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving working at a local soup kitchen. Though openly gay, Warhol stayed true to Church teaching – he remained celibate throughout his life, and was never involved in the Gay Liberation Movement, of which he was critical of at times. He was even afforded the opportunity to meet Pope St. John Paul II in 1980. [2] He always carried with him a Rosary bead and a pocket Missal, and, according to a story run by The Guardian, some who knew Warhol said that his studio was filled with Crucifixes. [3]

The importance of creating a dialogue between Catholic theology and contemporary art is especially important in light of the immense significance Warhol’s faith played in his life. It, more specifically, raises the question of what role religious faith, if any, plays in art.

 

Warhol himself was a pioneer of the Pop Art movement. Pop Art was known for challenging some of the norms of traditional art by making use of styles and themes found in popular culture, such as advertising and comic books. Some of these works could be abstract – such as Charles Demuth’s I Saw The Figure 5 In Gold (1928), or Richard Hamilton’s Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing (1956). Some of them were merely images of mundane, day-to-day objects. It is these latter subjects which Warhol was best known – including his 1964 classic Campbell’s Soup Can, or Claes Olenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s 1999 sculpture Typewriter Eraser, Scale X.

 

In the website connected to the Museum of Modern Art, it was noted that the Pop Art movement first emerged in Britain and America in the mid and late 1950’s, and was in many ways born out of the ethos of the cultural revolution. Wanting to challenge the norms of traditional art, Pop Artists began to look for inspiration in day-to-day life. Painters and sculptors often used subjects, themes or styles which would have previously been seen as taboo, irrelevant, or even low art. The Pop Art movement thus emphasized “realism, everyday (and even mundane) imagery, and heavy doses of irony and wit.” The Pop Art movement was also influenced by the rejection of the often rigid social norms and consumerist mentality that defined the post-War, middle of the century period. [4]

 

Thus, there was an element of cultural self-introspection that defined the Pop Art movement. This can be seen in Warhol’s art in a way particularly connected to our larger theme. In 1986, a year before his death, Warhol released the painting The Last Supper, which included a black and white sketch of the Last Supper with various corporate logos stamped all over it. One of the purposes of the painting, according to many commentators, is to contrast two opposing themes – religion and consumerism. Warhol made a few different variations on this painting in the last few years of his life. The exact meaning is nuanced and, at times, ambiguous, like many of his paintings. Some sources have described it as a more cynical look at religion, namely that Warhol is calling our attention to the commercialization of religion, or its proclivity to take on more commercial aspects. [5] Others see the painting as a more straightforward attack on consumerism: it is an attack on how consumerism is a distraction from man’s ultimate end, namely Christ. [2]

 

This leads to an important point: art is always about authenticity. Artistic endeavors provide man with another medium by which to express the reality of what it means to be truly human. Certain aspects of Warhol’s art, especially when looked at in light of his personal religious convictions – and a similar case can be made for any Christian poet, artist, or scholar – show us what the proper context for the realization of human authenticity is, namely union with God.

 

Many philosophers and social commentators have bemoaned consumerism, asphalt culture, or – to use a phrase of Pope St. John Paul II – the “throwaway culture.” It keeps man’s mind distracted from reflection upon anything significant or meaningful, and makes man’s relationships shallow, since it provides a context for selfishness and self-centeredness to flourish. This has been a recurring theme in the art of the last half a century. But, like most things in the secular realm, it may be on to something, but is, at best, incomplete. The starting point of Christian anthropology is the belief that the core of personhood is the image and likeness of God within us. It is when this image and likeness of God within us is most fully expressed that true authenticity takes place.

 

All human endeavors are ordered towards this end as their higher calling. This even includes art. This is the rationale behind the quote that introduced the article. It is derived from St. Gregory of Nyssa’s work The Life of Moses, which is an extended ethical and mystical commentary on the Exodus. In Exodus 33:17-23, Moses asks to see God, and God agrees to pass before Moses, though, because God’s presence is too overwhelming for man to handle, Moses will not see God’s face, but only His back. In Exodus 33:18, Moses asks to see God, and in Exodus 33:19, God agrees to show Himself to Moses. Yet, the term used here to describe what Moses asks to see, and what God agrees to show Moses, was כְּבֹדֶֽךָ׃ (pronounced kābōd), which has been translated different ways by different translations of the Bible – “Your Presence” in the Jewish Study Bible, “Your Glory” in the New American Bible, the New Revised Standard Version, the King James Bible, the New International Version, and the English Standard Bible. Strong’s Hebrew Concordance claims that other levels of meaning include “goodness” or “beauty.” [6] William H.C. Propp claims that one way to translate the word is as “splendor.” Propp also suggests that there is a regal element to it as well. [7]

 

So, what Moses asks to see, and what God agrees to show Moses is His Beauty, His Goodness, His Glory, His Presence, His Kingly Majesty. All of these are concepts that are closely related. But, Gregory, in his commentary on the text, concentrated primarily on the element of this phrase that concerned God’s beauty. Gregory believes that all beauty in the created realm is a reflection of the beauty of God, Who is the archetype of beauty. The beauty that we perceive through the senses or comprehend through the mind is merely a manifestation or reflection of the beauty of God; yet, what the virtuous soul desires to see is the source of all beauty. What such a person experiences when experiencing the beauty of God is akin to what Moses experienced on the mountain. [8]

 

There is thus objective beauty. And this implies an objective standard of beauty, of which God is the source, making Him the epitome or the highest manifestation of beauty. This thus underlines a trend in certain elements of Pop Art: Pop Art can often shock us, get us to think, confuse us, and get us to think beyond our immediate, intuitive ways of thinking. This is something good, even necessary at times, since human society, like all human endeavors after the Fall, has been contaminated by the stain of sin. We need to think beyond what is immediately obvious. Yet, Pop Art can also turn against that which is good. The very concept of culture – itself a good thing when considered in itself – or the things above the merely societal, the things of God, are often subject to (often crude) mockery or even outright contempt in contemporary art. Thus, Michael Davis writes in the Catholic Herald: “Even more strikingly, Warhol draws on his faith while avoiding the two pitfalls of art: pompous sneering at all things ‘bourgeois,’ and outright blasphemy.” Warhol was simply reflecting what he saw in society, throwing back at society what it had thrown at him – the cult of personality, consumerism, a lack of any sense of the transcendent.

 

This is where faith and art can meet. Faith is an assent to certain truths that transcend the ability of the human mind to understand. Yet, in assenting to such truths, we look at things with fresh eyes – that is, through the lens of the Gospel. By looking at things through the lens of the Gospel, we place our hope in the grace of God, which allows us to become more authentically human, to become all that we are called to be; yet, we also recognize that, due to sin, we are not there yet. Faith thus should lead us to question everything: Is this an obstacle to our salvation? How does this help me become all that God has created me to be? Art plays a similar role: it applauds human achievements, it recognizes human potential, it points out the stumbling blocks to the full manifestation of human potential. When one’s art is informed by their faith, there is great potential for art to accomplish this goal. Art, when informed by faith, can make manifest deeper truths, and direct man’s thoughts and feelings to his higher calling. Thus, art, like few other things, can truly manifest the eternal archetype of beauty – God Himself.

 

 

 

Sources:

  1. Cristina Ruiz, “The Vatican to host major Andy Warhol exhibition,” published in The Art Journal, January 26, 2018, accessed at https://www.theartnewspaper.com/news/vatican-to-host-major-andy-warhol-show

 

  1. Michael Davis, “Andy Warhol’s devotion was almost surreal,” published in The Catholic Herald, February 9. 2018, accessed at catholicherald.co.uk/issues/february-9th-2018/andy-warhols-devotion-was-almost-surreal/

 

  1. Stephen Smith, “‘He loved weightlifting and buying jewls’: Andy Warhol’s friends reveal all,” published in The Guardian, August 14, 2015, accessed at https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/aug/14/andy-warhol-friends-reveal-all

 

  1. “Pop Art,” in MoMALearning, accessed at https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/themes/pop-art

 

  1. Andrea D., “Mixing Christ and Commercialism: Warhol’s ‘Last Supper,’ published in The Modern, May 7, 2010, accessed at https://www.themodern.org/blog/Mixing-Christ-and-Commercialism-Warhols-Last-Supper-1986/136

 

  1. James Strong, A Concise Dictionary of the Hebrew Bible; with their renderings in the Authorized English Version, in Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (Reference Library Edition) (Iowa Falls: World Bible Publishers), pg. 45

 

  1. William H.C. Propp, Exodus 19-40: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New York City: Doubleday, 2006), pg. 607

 

  1. Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006), pg. 104

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