Author: Emily Stevens

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.

Warhol: Empty, Critical, or Optimistic? Pt 1.

Numerous Christians think modern and contemporary art is worth very little. But I’m not convinced this has to be. I’m also not as convinced as many that this type of art is inherently acidic and detrimental to a society. Granted, some pieces of art are not worth reflecting on. But, to throw everything out is also unhelpful. I think a lighter-handed approach is needed; this is far more difficult than standing in opposition to the entire movement, especially if you’re not trained in art. But this doesn’t mean you can never understand modern/contemporary art; it just takes hard work.

It seems as though the Christian’s job in this field is to wade in, bring order to chaos, and help interpret pieces of artwork as true to the artists’ intention as possible while also pointing to the deeper connections beyond the art itself. I’m going to attempt to demonstrate this with the artwork of Andy Warhol. This could take an entire book. I’m  attempting to do it in two blogs. I also have no formal training, so my thoughts are by no means authoritative, nor are they the only interpretation of Warhol’s work. This is one interpretation, but I think it’s a feasible one. And even if you decide to do your own research and come to the conclusion I’m wrong, notice that you have done what my main point is: you’ve interacted with pop art rather than dismissed it.

A more popular interpretation of Warhol is that he was an opportunist who emptily did things without reason. This interpretation points to quotes of Warhol such as “I’m a deeply superficial person,” and “If you want to know about Andy Warhol, just look at the surfaces of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.” On the surface, these do seem to imply a sort of empty-headed motivation for Warhol. Another interpretation is to think that when Warhol said he liked everything, he meant it. Or when he said everything was great, he meant that, too. This interpretation says “. . . that’s Warhol’s message, that’s what he’s been saying all along: Here is the modern world – and it’s great.”

I think these are an overly simplistic view or a simplistically positive view, respectively. The former view doesn’t take into account such things as his deeply held religious beliefs; the latter doesn’t take into account some of his darker work, such as the death series. Neither of these views seems to fit the entirety of his work and an aspect of his personal life. I’ll now try to interpret his work differently from both of these, and I’m hoping to give a more accurate view.

Since Warhol had such a vast amount of work, I am going to interact only with two of his works. In part 2, I will interact with his Marilyn paintings. Below is the example of his diptychs of Troy Donahue, a celebrity of the 1960’s.

TroyAuto 62-Troy-s Troy

The picture on the left is the original, the pictures on the right are the Warhol versions; both are close-ups of this painting. Warhol reproduced the image of Donahue numerous times on one canvas. None of these were hand-painted. This is important. Warhol used a method known as silk-screen printing. To do this, the artist places a stencil (in this case, a stencil of a photo) into a piece of silk, then uses a squeegee to drag paint over the silk, depositing ink onto a canvas underneath. This allows for miss-printing at times, as the ink of two different stencils don’t line up. This is a highly mechanical process, with the artist not leaving his touch on the canvas.

How the mechanical process (such as pictures being reproduced in magazines) affects an image is a central element to allot of Warhol’s work. Notice that the image becomes smudged in places. The mechanical process is ok when applied to things like soup cans (which Warhol also did); but even in that context it pointed out that mechanical reproduction reduced what it touched to less than it once was.

But something dark and tragic happens when this process is applied to a human (similar to how Charlie Chaplin represented a mechanistic workplace in his film Modern Times). We lose the ability to relate to Troy Donahue as a person when he is reproduced in this fashion. But, when a newspaper or magazine reproduces an image, it is a better reproduction, so we don’t notice what it has done to him, or how it has affected the way we see him. In essence, Warhol has made a potentially damaging medium become non-transparent; we can see how this affects the humanity of Troy Donahue. He becomes distorted as the process continues. This only becomes more painful with Warhol’s Marilyn paintings, as we’ll explore in the next blog.

Truth: Objective or Relative?

When it comes to truth, it seems the most popular theory within the public square  is relativism, which says that truth is relative to the individual making the claim and that there is no objective truth which applies to everyone. I have had many conversations at work where the conversation abruptly ends with the comment: “well, that’s true for you.” This is a non-starter for this type of conversation. Ironically, if we apply relative truth claims to the world around us, it becomes clear that it is unlivable. For example, while crossing a street, it is either true or false that a car is coming towards me. What I believe about the car is quite irrelevant. Some relativists would agree with this claim, seeing that being run over by a car will easily defeat my belief that there is no car present.

When thinking about truth claims, it’s helpful to remember that it’s possible for a statement to refute itself. This means that in order for the statement to be true, it must be false. For example, the statement “No sentences have five words” refutes itself. What’s wrong with this statement? It has five words. But since the statement is a universal exclusive, it rules out all sentences, including itself, and consequently has refuted itself. Here is another example of a self-refuting statement: “This statement is false.” If the statement is true, then it is false by its own definition. But if it’s false, then it’s not false, because it claims to be so (it’s the equivalent of a double negative). This is quite nonsensical and unintelligible.

According to the law of non-contradiction, a statement and its negation can’t both be true at the same time and in the same sense. Interestingly, if this law of logic is applied to the statement a relativist makes about truth: “Truth is relative,” it becomes apparent that this is a violation of the law. This is an objective statement about the nature of truth. Therefore, the statement: “Truth is not relative” cannot be true at the same time that the statement “Truth is relative” is true. If there’s no objective truth, then this statement does not apply. If it does not apply, then we don’t need to listen to it. If it does apply to everyone, then it is an objective statement, which it claims does not exist! So, it’s the same thing as the false statement mentioned earlier, and is just as unintelligible.

Another option regarding truth is to say it is objective, or that some truths apply all of the time, and in all circumstances. This claim does not have the same problem as the previous claim: namely, it does not refute itself. It also doesn’t violate the law of non-contradiction. But does it have better arguments in its favor?

Every day, we live with a belief in objective claims. Life would be unlivable without them: a red traffic light means to stop. If everyone suddenly decided that this was just an arbitrary, relative claim, traffic accidents would occur at numerous intersections. While this isn’t a conclusive argument, it’s a decent start.

Another good argument for the objective nature of truth is the discipline of science. Mathematicians discover objective formulas frequently. Imagine a scientist in a lab having to re-work the equations he came up with yesterday, just to be certain they still applied. He could never apply a proven formula to a new situation without re-working the entire formula. In fact, no one could demonstrate the objectivity of any formula or law.

One last argument for objectivity of truth is the self-evident proof. This is the same as a self-refuting truth claim, only in reverse. This statement can’t be denied without assuming it’s true while denying it. For example, if you call into a darkened room, “Anyone home?” and an answer responded “Nope, no one here!” you would have proof someone is there, even though the response said otherwise. The denial is now the confirmation someone is there. For the same logical reason, it becomes apparent that truth isn’t relative. You cannot claim it to be relative, and a denial that it is objective is proof of its objectivity. In the end, an understanding of truth as objective is both livable and logical. Because of this, truth cannot be relative to each individual.

Jurassic World: The Loss of Wonder

This took a while to write because I wasn’t sure what I thought of this film the first time I saw it. When leaving the theater after a second viewing, I had a vague feeling that the tone of Jurassic World was somehow wrong, dissimilar from the soaring feeling I have after a Jurassic Park viewing. Here are my thoughts: Jurassic World is missing the awe and wonder of Jurassic Park, and Jurassic World assumes that we can control nature, whereas Jurassic Park reminds us we cannot.

In Jurassic Park, all of the characters, not just the children, are in complete awe of the dinosaurs when coming into contact with them. Remember? The first time we see the dinosaurs, Dr. Grant and Dr. Sattler remove their sunglasses, needing to see with their own eyes, jumping out of a Jeep to get a better look, not bothering to use the doors. Dr. Sattler’s mouth hangs ajar. Dr. Grant is overcome with such strong emotions he looks as if he’s sick, doubling over and eventually sitting down heavily. Cynical Dr. Malcolm looks on the verge of tears, a joyous laugh escaping past his unease.

In Jurassic World, there is no awe. Everyone has grown used to dinosaurs. The adults are kept busy with cell phones and sales pitches. Claire states that bigger dinosaurs are needed every year to keep guests coming back. Owen respects the animals, but with a “mutual respect.” He has no sense of wonder. Everything has become mundane to these characters. Gray is the only one we feel the same level of wonder from as the original characters. Running around, cheering, and taking pictures. He can still be overwhelmed with awe and wonder, not needing danger to see the dinosaurs for what they really are.

And isn’t the despondency we see in the main characters how we have become? Cynical, skeptical, unable to be awed. We no longer find wonder in anything. Claire’s words, then, that guests need bigger and badder dinosaurs to be entertained is a commentary on those who are watching the film. This explains why the body count is about 10 times that of Jurassic Park. In Jurassic Park, only five characters die. In Jurassic World, it has to be around forty. I couldn’t keep count. But we, as an audience, needed bigger and badder to hold our attention and interest. And it’s what we were given.

The second thing I noticed is the view of how well we can control nature. In the “flea circus” scene of Jurassic Park, John Hammond states he wants to give people something that’s free of illusion, that they can touch, to which Dr. Sattler responds, “you never had control, that’s the illusion!” In Jurassic Park, nature is too powerful to control; as Dr. Malcolm puts it “the kind of control you’re attempting simply is . . . it’s not possible.” And we’d be wise to remember this.

In Jurassic World, we finally have found a way to control the natural order. We have been in charge for many years at the opening of the movie. Even something as magnificent as a T-Rex submits to our will, eating goats when beckoned and attacking another dinosaur for us. Sure, the raptors have a mind of their own like any other animal, but Owen can still maintain “Alpha” status over the pack.

It is only when we crossbreed a new species, combining cuttlefish, snakes, tree frogs, lizards, raptors, and T-Rex together that we finally lose control. Yes, in Jurassic Park it is this filling in of “dino DNA” with tree frogs that allows for breeding within the park, but it is not this filling in which causes us to lose control. But, in Jurassic World, it is this crossbred animal which wreaks so much havoc on unsuspecting guests. It seems as though this is how we now see ourselves: fully able to control and manipulate the natural order. And, as long as we don’t push the envelope too far, we’ll maintain this control.

In the end, Jurassic World reflects, I think, how our society has come to view the world. We no longer can be awed: a T-Rex is just a big animal. No worries, as long as we keep ourselves from being too creative, we can control nature. But, some things should cause us to stumble backwards, overwhelmed, reminding us that we are but dust (Psalms 103:14); finite creatures who cannot control what we think we control.

What’s in a Name? Metaphysics Introduced

Metaphysics is a difficult branch of philosophy to nail down. It has its own vocabulary, so we will need to define a lot of terms throughout the blogs on this topic. For example, we will explore the topics of ontology (deals with the nature of being, reality, and what a thing is), cosmology (the beginning of all that is), and some subtopics like time, personal identity, and the distinction between the mental and the physical (also can be understood as the distinction between the soul and the body).

Each of the topics mentioned could (and will) be a blog in themselves. Suffice it to say, there are numerous different theories for each of these topics. For example, whether the physical world actually exists is a question which seeks to be answered by this branch of philosophy. There are those who think that the cosmos is a mere illusion, a projection of their own minds (solipsism). Others believe the cosmos is an idea within the mind of God (idealism). These theories need to be explored in further detail and compared against a Biblical worldview. If they don’t conflict, then we’re free to choose the theory we believe to be most persuasive. But, on a Christian point of view, not all theories are equal.

As we further explore these topics, it will become more obvious why it’s essential that the Christian think through them. If you don’t understand what the essence (the nature of a thing that is intrinsic and makes it what it is [ie dogness]) of a thing is, or how to draw distinctions between different essences, then the Trinity can never make sense. Without an understanding of continued personal identity, the Resurrection can’t make sense. Without an understanding of the mental and its implications, the possibility of an afterlife is nonsense. It becomes apparent, then, that metaphysics is a vastly important branch of philosophy. It is ignored to the peril of the one who ignores it.