Published in Issue 21

It is rumored that Andy Warhol, dragging himself from bed on a hungover Sunday morning after a night of partying, would sometimes ask his coterie of Factory models to accompany him to church. Certain he was joking, they all but laughed in his face. If Andy was around today, he would be amused by gay downtown artists collaging crowns of thorns onto Playboy spreads and all the part-time models wearing the “Holy Trinity” bikini by viral brand Praying. But the great lover of irony and plagiarism wouldn’t be surprised. In 2022, God is the answer to decades of internet insincerity.

If “redpilled” means seeing how deep the rabbit hole goes, “godpilled” is finding a secret trap door. Online, it looks like meme makers, shitposters, podcasters, and random hot girls you’ve followed for years Pronouncing their Love for The Lord (there’s a lot of Capital Letters on substack posts, like the Bible). Fashion analyst Biz Sherbert summarized the Devoted crowd in Various Artists as “people with art jobs, tattoos, eating disorders, and stimulant prescriptions”—not naively earnest like a church camp named Saint Mike’s. It is not severed from the wider culture, but rather entangled with it. It is reactionary. It is, in many cases, genuine belief.

“To those who are confused by my Instagram posts that seem to allude to sexuality and Catholicism at once, I am not God-fearing,” says Charlotte Steele, a writer in London who poses with a rosary and lingerie. Her photos have been appropriated tenfold, used as a background for text like, I don’t smoke cigarettes in a lung cancer way but an Effy Stonem, femme fatale, manic pixie in Paris kinda way. “My God has a sense of humor… My faith is deeper, more private than my aesthetic choices. It is important to mention—I am a performer.”

Gothy crucifix necklaces and heroin chic were huge in the 90s, but already somewhat retro by the time Steele and others “born five months before the Twin Towers fell” were exercising aesthetics—tumblr/egirl/anime—almost exclusively on Mark Zuckerberg’s internet. The nature of the social network meant that you’d see what someone wore alongside what she thought about the world. The very-online waif’s frequent target was third-wave feminism, which discarded religion in order to advance sex positivity and queerness. You could say attending Latin Mass in knee socks is the antithesis of attending a women’s march in a shirt that reads, “we are the granddaughters of the witches you couldn’t burn.” 

“I’m Catholic, like Andy Warhol,” podcaster and film-maker Dasha Nekrasova told Interview magazine last year. “What’s so great about faith is that it doesn’t have to be grounded in rational thought. We are seeing a lot of people return to religion because everything feels so senseless and pointless, so why not be a Catholic?” 

To be Catholic like Warhol is to intentionally mix messages. In Christ, $9.98 (1985-86), the artist copied a newspaper ad for a Jesus-shaped night light. He discarded most of the schlock copy but kept the inky folds of the robe, the sketchy light rays. He kept the “$9.98.” What’s beautiful to him is Christ reproduced, made utilitarian. On Instagram, @ineedgodineverymomentofmylife translates the most revered symbols in the history of western civilization to the “low culture” format of Wojack. Whoever is behind it operates like a true Pop figure, even profiting off readymades. Of course, we know how Pop died: by self-consciously mocking the art world all the while becoming it. 

“My generation is visibly lost, looking for something to latch onto,” says Steele, who is 20. “And even if they are larping, I hope God finds His way truly into their heart.” I would be more worried about my blasphemous wonderings but I was baptized in my parents’ kitchen sink. Steele quoted her friend, Sophia Vanderbilt: “It’s almost like by building this scaffolding of aestheticized symbology in your mind, you get closer to what’s really in you and then the larp is gone and it is no longer a symbol—it was just a way to find your way back home.” 

Christian symbology is potent and culture has been greedy. Even on a pair of Topshop tights, the cross is working overtime as a signifier. Writer Honor Levy thinks it’s everywhere because it’s real. In September, Julien Ceccaldi exhibited “Centuries Old,” based on descriptions of Satanic ritual from the banned 19th-century novel Là-Bas. Paintings, lightboxes and skeletons dressed in Brandy Melville are beyond memento mori—his characters will live forever, desiring, in the Hell they’ve constructed from pretty things. These e-girls are a warning. In October, Matthew Hansel debuted cinematic oil paintings that blend kitschy Americana with Hieronymus Bosch, who died the year before Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenberg door. Rediscovering Bosch during quarantine lockdown, Hansel writes, “His bifurcated worlds of heaven and hell suddenly felt more like possibilities than illustrations.” Do the girlies believe in Heaven because this world is living Hell? 

Ceccaldi grew up in Montreal, a city with a huge cross on its hill. It coexists with drunk kids who try to scale it and op-eds suggesting it defies Quebec’s religious symbols ban. In 1976, Pierre Ayot’s replica of la croix tipped on its side, or “reclining,” was torn down overnight. I imagine the destroyers as unwitting participants in a performance piece about sacrilege. According to critic Dave Hickey, “Secular doesn’t exist. Art’s still a religion, just a pantheistic religion in which we sacrifice rather than are sacrificed for.” Hickey just died. I think artists are tired and ready to succumb.

Ceccaldi was affected by this torn environment and by “a common trope in manga where elements of Catholicism are borrowed and tweaked to add magic and mystery to a story… Hijacking Catholic themes and imagery without too much care is a way to recognize the artistry and universality behind it, without apologizing for distorting it.” Anime is one way that loners, some incels, have found themselves on Trad Cath forums. We are constantly bumping up against Catholic aesthetics, I realize, drinking red wine at a Brooklyn venue that faces a Polish church. I’m sharing the graffitied bench with an overflowing ashtray and the DJ is playing aggressive house. San Damiano Mission is the most beautiful thing by far. 

When nihilism and discontent with the ugliness are exchanged for angelic-ism, the aesthetics can come off as glitchy, still straddling sincerity and making fun. That’s a thin line artists spend their whole careers trying to stay on the right side of. Andres Serrano’s infamous photo Piss Christ (1987) is of a plastic crucifix submerged in the artist’s urine, and yet: “I’ve been a Catholic all my life, so I am a follower of Christ. But I’m an artist, and the role of the artist is to break new ground.” Edgelord behavior.

If Warhol made Chelsea Girls now, Levy, the face of alt lit 9.0, would be in it. I met her outside an apartment called “the coke loft” in SoHo, past 2 a.m. but bright as day because of the Zaras and the Joe &  The Juices glowing white. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light (Genesis 1:3). There was an incident of White Claw theft. It was funny to hear her speak about sobriety and abstinence on a podcast a few months later. It just wasn’t the image I had. But matters of faith transpire quickly. It took mere milliseconds for Valerie Solanas’ .32 Beretta bullet to hit Warhol’s body and rip through his stomach, liver, lungs, and spleen. For the rest of his life, Warhol had no doubts about the existence of God.

Greta Rainbow is an NYC culture writer.

Image Credits:

Julia Warhola (American, 1891–1972). Angel Holding Cross, between 1952 and 1970. Ink on Strathmore paper, 7 1/4 × 9 in. (18.4 × 22.9 cm). The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding Collection, Contribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc., 1998.1.1752. © 2021 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Andy Warhol (American, 1928–1987). Crosses, 1981–82. Acrylic and silkscreen ink on linen, 20 × 16 in. (50.8 × 40.6 cm). The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding Collection, Contribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.,1998.1.264. © 2021 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Andy Warhol (American, 1928–1987). Christ-$9.98, 1985–86. Acrylic and silkscreen ink on linen, 20 × 16 in. (50.8 × 40.6 cm). The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding Collection, Contribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc., 1998.1.317. © 2021 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York