Warhol: Empty, Critical, or Optimistic? Pt 2

Last time we looked at a few of Warhol’s quotes and one example of his art. We will now turn to some of his most famous works, known as the “Marilyns.” Warhol adopted the same method as that appearing in the diptychs; he also used unreal, cotton-candy colors for the Marilyn paintings. On the surface, as always with Warhol, it seems pretty shallow. When asked about his Marilyn painting, he said: “As for whether it’s symbolic to paint Monroe in such violent colors: it’s beauty, and she’s beautiful and if something’s beautiful it’s pretty colors, that’s all. Or something.” If he hadn’t thrown in the “or something” at the end, it would be easy to dismiss the first part of the statement as what he actually was doing with this work.

But, let’s rethink this: Warhol grew up as a Byzantine Catholic. Byzantine Catholics are similar to Greek Orthodox, and have a high view of icons.

Now, with this in mind, let’s compare this Marilyn to a Byzantine icon:

icon Marilyn 62

Notice the similarities? They both are flat; both have unrealistic colors, both have a gold background. Warhol takes the pop culture colors of the 60s and uses them to color his “icon.” Warhol was making icons of celebrities to, in some regard, criticize the celebrity culture that had begun by the 60’s in America.

Another thing to keep in mind regarding Warhol is that he was a conceptual artist in the general sense. Conceptual art “prizes ideas over the formal or visual components of art works.” This form of art comes up with an idea or formula, then lets that dictate what the work itself becomes. If you apply this to Warhol, he used the idea of mass image-making by a mechanistic means; when he started running images through this concept, the result was a distortion of the image.

In the end, Warhol seems to be doing two things with his work: criticizing both the mass making of images, as well as the near-worship of celebrities. In the first aspect, he seems to be criticizing how mechanical processes and mass image-making is marring the human form. We lose the ability to see the person, after a while, and merely know their image. But even their image becomes distorted after a time. They aren’t people anymore. And, we are taking celebrities and elevating them above where we should; since they are no longer human to us, it becomes easy to see them as above and beyond us. If this was true of Warhol’s time, I think it’s more true of current culture.

As I mentioned previously, this is not the only interpretation of Warhol. Some people have gotten something else out of his work, claiming he was opportunistic, empty-headed, and all-around decadent. But, I don’t agree with these interpretations. I think if you consider all of his work as well as his life (he was a devoted church-goer, regularly volunteered in a soup kitchen, and was very kind to his mother who lived with him), a simple dismissal of his work becomes problematic.

The interpretation I have given, if it holds, gives the Christian a great tool in pointing to the damage mass consumption of images (via media) could be doing to us without our knowledge. Warhol simply visualized something that is happening on a metaphysical level. Is his artwork ugly? Is it bad art? Notice that if it is both ugly and bad, it makes the point he was intending to get across more effectively.

Did the society of his time understand his point? Not really (the elites of his day contracted him to make their portraits in the same vein as the Marilyns). But, this doesn’t mean that he was irrelevant, it just means society didn’t read his artwork well. It seems, then, as though Warhol may have been doing something with his art which was dark and haunting; if we only interpret it as garish coloring, exploitative, and consumerist, we may just miss the point. This would be a shame, for he made a deep and meaningful point which we have long since forgotten.

So, I have given one example of how a contemporary artist could be used to show a deeply Christian point: consumption of images and celebrity worship damage those whose image we use. Again, this is not the only interpretation of Warhol. But I do think it’s a good starting point. Maybe we would do well to attempt doing the very difficult work of trying to make sense of what’s going on within contemporary art. And true, some things are just too ugly and meaningless to bother trying. But throwing everything out is probably the wrong approach. I think we can do better.


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