Any Warhol, Pop Art, and the Inverse of Christian Icons

One of Andy Warhol's famous paintings of Marilyn Monroe.

An Icon of Christ

#AndyWarhol #aesthetics #art #Icons #postmodernism #atmosphere


Andy Warhol's life was often shocking, uncanny, and bizarre. However, a fact that seems to shock people most of all is that Warhol was Catholic. And not simply nominally Catholic. He attended Mass multiple times a week, prayed frequently, and, according to the priest giving his Eulogy, is responsible for at least one conversion to Catholicism.

More specifically, Andy Warhol was a form of Byzantine or Eastern Catholic, being common in many Eastern European countries, from which the Warhola family immigrated. Eastern Catholicism is known for its blend of Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox theology and worship. Eastern Catholics remain in communion with the Vatican; however, their theology and liturgical practices — especially their art — is heavily influenced by Eastern Orthodoxy. Warhol's upbringing was conditioned by regular church attendance within this setting. Thus, he spent hours immersed within the sacred atmospheres of Byzantine chapels coated with icons of Christ, angels, and saints.

A Brief Theology of Icons

Within the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox tradition, icons are not merely images, but rather windows into heaven. The presence of icons is not the exact presence of Christ or the saint per se, but rather an appropriate representation or communication of that saint's life in heaven, where they are worshiping God. By having a space filled with icons, the congregation is reminded of how Sunday Services are moments in which worshipers cross the threshold into Heaven and participate within the perpetual worship carried on by the angels and saints who have gone before us.

If one looks at Eastern icons, and then examines some of the work in Warhol's Pop art, it seems as if Warhol's art becomes a type of iconography of Mass (pardon the pun) commercial media culture, such as the fetishization of commodities (parody of sacred relics and venerated objects) and especially celebrity culture (the 'saints' of our culture). But instead of providing a glimpse into the spiritual and heavenly realm, Warhol's Pop art icons act as a window into the broader virtual sphere and hyperobject of commercial culture.

Cyberpunk Asgard

Warhol understood this virtual media landscape quite well. He (or his ghostwriter) directly addressed the virtual space of commercialism in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol.

“Before media there used to be a physical limit on how much space one person could take up by themselves. People, I think, are the only things that know how to take up more space than the space they’re actually in, because with media you can sit back and still let yourself fill up space on records, in the movies, […] on the telephone and […] on television. […] If you were the star on the biggest show on television and took a walk down an average American street one night while you were on the air, and if you looked through windows and saw yourself on television in everybody’s living room, taking up some of their space, can you imagine how you would feel?” (Warhol, pages 146-147).

In today's world, the virtual cyberspace of commercial media saturates our environments even more than in Warhol's time, remaining present all around us through our smartphones, computers, televisions, etc. It's difficult to carve out spaces that haven't experienced a type of digital transubstantiation. Though it might remain invisible, it surrounds and haunts at every moment. Warhol's Pop art is a window into that landscape that seeks to be invisible.

Whereas the 'other side' of sacred icons is the spiritual and heavenly realm, full of the splendor, beauty, and majesty of God, the 'other side' of Warhol's art is a strange, cyberpunk virtual terrain, created simultaneously by both humans and machines. There is work created by real humans (actors, musicians, 'content creators,' etc.) but is also given animated power and transformed through digital technology, algorithms, cybernetics, the internet, etc. It is never merely human, and it could not be what it is without the magic of technological forces and machines. In a sense, it is a type of Asgard or Olympus populated by Freud's prosthetic gods.

In “Prosthetic Gods, Projected Monsters: Imagination and Unconscious Projection in Narratives of Technological Horror,” Filip Andjelkovic summarizes the prothetic god as follows:

“Technology is a means through which uncertainty is harnessed, a means through which 'man is perfecting his own organs, whether motor or sensory, or is removing the limits to their functioning.' The telephone serves as an extension of the ear, the television as an extension of the eye. Technology is the material product of an ideal omnipotence and omniscience, an imaginary extension of identity impressed onto the world and operationalized as an actual extension of the body – the realization of the human subject as a 'prosthetic God.'” (Andjelkovic, page 21). Full article here:

Within the Asgard of cyberpunk virtuality, we experience what Andjelkovic calls a “technologized transcendence” (Andjelkovic, 19). As he describes it, “The unseen, supernatural forces of the divine and demonic have migrated from a spiritual and immortal pneuma to a personal and mortal psyche. [...] the popular, literary imagination became the new nexus through which old narratives of transcendence were transmitted and maintained – but with a reworked relationship regarding the human subject” (Andjelkovic, 19). The virtual space of commercialism creates a seemingly infinite immanent plane, which preoccupies hours of our time and energy in an ecstatic waste of consumerism.

Concluding Thoughts

My general approach to Andy Warhol is to see him as, whether intentionally or not, the greatest performance artist of all time, who holds up a mirror to society as it transforms into a postmodern consumerist cyberpunk terrain. He is Duchamp taken to his logical extreme. Or, in this case, he is an iconographer, showing us what we worship. Some people hate Warhol's art, but what I think what they truly hate is the reflection of society depicted by Warhol. Though we cannot separate ourselves from the cyberpunk postmodern world of techno-fueled consumerism, we can find ways of mitigating its effects and rediscover a sense of true humanity in the process. If anything, Warhol's art, and the inverted religion of Pop art, challenges us to rediscover a more authentic notion of the sacred, propel toward seeking out truly sacred spaces, and create new imaginations fueled more by prayer than by Netflix.