Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Pop Culture and Ancestor Worship

Romero, Margie. "Face to Face." Carnegie. January/February 2003. pp8-13.

pop culture, ancestor worship, idolatry, celebrity

"The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh seems an unlikely place to host a show called ‘Worshiping the Ancestors: Chinese Commemorative Portraits,’ but according to Museum Director Thomas Sokolowski, when this amazing ritual portraiture is seen next to Warhol’s portraits, the connection is absolutely clear.

...Created between 1451 and 1943, the works in the exhibit are nearly life-size portraits of wealthy, often imperial, Chinese people. Painted on tightly woven silk with ink, mineral colors, Chinese vegetable pigments, and gold, these huge hanging scrolss mounted on paper are ornate, intricately detailed, and brightly colored.

Made by anonymous artists, the paintings were part of a religious ritual in a culture that worshiped its ancestors. According to custom, the dead were venerated out of respect, but also out of fear, because it was believed that if they were not honored the deceased could turn into ghosts and come back to haunt the living. Traditionally incense was burned before the Chinese ancestor paintings , and food and wine was offered to them. The practice of kowtowing, in which one kneels and touches the forehead to the ground was done before the painting as an expression of submission, was done before the painting because it was believed that the ancestor could bring good luck and wealth.

Our contemporary culture kowtows in its own way to many of the people that Andy Warhol immortalized in his portraits. Because of their sex appeal or talent, we have endowed the likes of Grace Jones, Joan Collins, Sylvester Stallone, Cheryl Tiegs and Robert Mapplethorpe not with divine power, but certainly with earthly authority. And while we don’t burn insense before them, we saw to it that they were rewarded with money to burn. Some people among us believe that emulating these idols will help them achieve fame and fortune...

For better or worse, both Chinese ancestors and Warhol superstars fill a void for the living who search history for clues about meaning and value.

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