I always like to work on leftovers, doing the leftover things. Things that were discarded, that everybody knew were no good, I always thought had a great potential to be funny. It was like recycling work. I always thought there was a lot of humor in leftovers. When I see an old Esther Williams movie and a hundred girls are jumping off their swings, I think of what the auditions must have been like and about all the takes where maybe one girl didn’t have the nerve to jump when she was supposed to, and I think about her left over on the swing. So that take of the scene was a leftover on the editing-room floor – an out-take – and the girl was probably a leftover at that point – she was probably fired – so the whole scene is much funnier than the real scene where everything went right, and the girl who didn’t jump is the star of the out-take.
The above quote is from Andy Warhol’s essay “Work,” in the book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, published in 1975. It makes me laugh every time. Something was happening in art when Andy Warhol came along, and people much smarter than I noticed it. Leo Steinberg pointed out that art was no longer representing nature, or reflecting on nature, or incorporating natural gestures as the artists made it. Art was filtering culture, rather than nature, and in America this meant mass culture, commercial culture, culture as it came to us through our TV screens. Andy Warhol was attuned to that culture, and he did clever things with it, accepting it but then twisting it and commenting on it through his art works. He was very humane. Someone who simply loved mass culture would have been happy with the Esther Williams movie and wouldn’t spend a lot of time thinking about the girl who fell of the swing. Someone who both loved mass culture but was also engaged with the questions of who was allowed to prosper within in it, and who wasn’t, would care about that girl, and the other leftovers.
Warhol was a Ruthenian Catholic who went to church almost every day, although he sat at the back and didn’t take communion or go to confession. Faith was private to him, and his religious art was mostly kept secret until after his death. But I think his faith is evident in his concern over the leftovers, and his interest in all aspects of culture, including its bi-products and failures. His religiosity is seen in this ability to look everywhere, to be engaged by everything, and not to sift culture or art into easy categories of good or bad, serious or not serious.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement…get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal. …To be spiritual is to be amazed.” By that definition, Warhol was clearly spiritual. But the world that Warhol was looking at in the morning was not a world defined by nature. It was a world defined by culture. He didn’t see the world in a grain of sand, as William Blake would have it. He saw the world in a Coca-Cola bottle.
I think that he has something to teach the church. The church is frequently afraid of mass culture. Conservatives find it openly threatening and would like to promulgate a particular kind of Christian culture that would replace it. Liberals find it trite and silly, and would like to follow Mary Oliver out into nature where, they believe, a purer kind of faith can be found. But I find that I’m an Andy Warhol type of Christian. I love mass culture. I love television. I want to spend time watching it and thinking about it. I love non-Christian music, and pot-boiler novels, and video games. But I don’t want to encounter these things in some separate sphere into which my faith cannot intrude. And I don’t want my faith to inhabit a separate sphere in which I pretend that I don’t watch “Girls” on HBO. I want faith and culture to come together in a way that’s creative, and interesting, and enriches both. And if this conjoining of the two can be clever and sweet in an Andy Warhol kind of way, so much the better.
I would like to offer a prayer for the girl on the cutting room floor, the out-take girl who didn’t jump off the swing. May Jesus heal her and make her whole. But more than that, may he laugh with her, celebrate with her, and present her as an example to all of us who just end up in the out-takes. May he name her as the star of the out-take.
There’s a way to rejoice in our bumbling encounters with culture, and Andy Warhol shows us how.