After Writing

Catherine Pickstock is one of the standard-bearers for the radical orthodoxy movement that I’ve been mulling over, so when I saw After Writing I had to try. Unfortunately, it may be one of the denser books that I’ve read in the last year or so. Essentially, Pickstock argues (as far as I can tell) that language is essentially liturgical and that this allows us to find a way past some of the deadly implications of modern linguistics: its privileging of the written over the oral, its spatialization of time, and its essential necrophilia or desire for absence and the void. She attempts to show the vitally important nature of liturgy in a premodern context through a careful reading of the Roman Rite. (Incidentally, I would be interested to read her analysis of other ancient liturgies, such as liturgy of St Basil but that might make the book even denser.) I’m unable to comment much on this because I’m not sure I understood it at all. Still, I mark it for rereading in a year or so, and hopefully by then it will be more understandable.


What I would really like to talk about is The Warhol, a museum in Pittsburgh devoted to Andy Warhol. While I lack the vocabulary to talk about art intelligently, it still struck me. I visited it for a second time last Friday and was amazed again by Warhol’s artistry and the level to which his vision seems to encompass America.

On the superficial level, Warhol was obsessed with commercializing his work and playing off ideas of commercial art. He came from the world of advertising art and this continued to feed into his silkscreen art, his photography and his videography. He seemed to be obsessed with including themes of price tags, dollar signs, or commercial paraphernalia in his work. He even habitually worked with large corporations, doing “arty” versions of the same advertising that he started out with (cf. the ‘art car’).

Not only was Warhol obsessed with money, he was also obsessed with celebrity. This perhaps goes without saying but we only need to look at his portraits of Jackie Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis to see it clearly. Even in his personal life, we see a drive to be famous – to be in the scene and to be seen in the scene.

Warhol was also pretty obviously entranced with the ideas of death, decay, industry, mechanical reproduction and the future. In other words, he was a typical 20th century American intellectual. In the midst of this, however, he preserves an odd sort of joy and piety.

When you’re wandering in the museum, in the middle of a floor devoted to dollar signs, skulls, and weapons, you can happen across his Silver Clouds installation.It comes as such a relief that I couldn’t help but laugh. Here is a joyful and fanciful celebration. You are even allowed to participate in it – shoving the clouds this way and that, or playing with them as you would any other balloon. Its hard to imagine that this and Warhol’s Elvises could come from the same place.

Likewise unexpected is the religious theme in some of Warhol’s works. He did a famous series on the Last Supper in which he shows some really sharp theological chops. The Last Supper (Be a Somebody with a Body) for example, connects the incarnation with the eucharist and with the civil rights struggle in a fantastic way. To say that Christ had a body is to give the flesh value and that necessarily includes the flesh of all people made imago dei. Also, since even the very taking on of flesh by the divine is a mystery, how can we empty out the meaning of the eucharist into a merely symbolic representation. In this and other paintings, Warhol’s catholic roots seem to be clear. I would really love a good book on religion in Warhol’s work:  the only one I was able to find in the Warhol’s book store was going for $132, which is a bit steep for me at the moment.

So, Warhol seems to embody 20th century America. Obsessed with death, money, celebrity, industry and the future and yet displaying a continued exuberence and piety, if only by reflex. If I was sharper and understood Pickstock’s book more, I might call Warhol a pitch-perfect example of the problems of the modern experiment. His work seems to display a driving need and thirst for something deeper with only glimpses of what that deeper thing is. Warhol points to the need for is a properly doxological and liturgical language and anthropology just as much as Pickstock does.