Wisdom on Wednesdays—Science, art, and religion

Coronation of the Virgin, oil on canvas, c. 1924, 42 x 35 in.

“Science is only concerned with the truth of present expediently.
“Art extends that truth back in time into permanent beauty materially.
“Religion projects that truth forward in time into eternal goodness spiritually.”  (1961)

“Just look at it!”: Anno Domini 1941 (1941)

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Anno Domini 1941, 1941, oil on hardboard, 18 x 23½ in.

A guest post by Carl B. Schmitt, Jr.

Carl Schmitt painted this still life for an exhibition in New York in 1941.  The invited artists were asked to comment on the imminent possibility of the nation’s entrance into World War II, already raging in Europe and the Far East.  The exhibition itself featured paintings showing  a variety of attitudes toward war in general and the issues the artists felt were at stake in this war.

I suspect that my father found the decision of what to paint for this exhibit an unusual challenge.  His whole artistic drive had been directed toward representing a view of man and his destiny in fundamental terms.  He strove to capture the beauty of things in his art, and this meant seeing reality in all its mystery.  The result is another of his wonderful still lifes which, like all his paintings, he left for others simply to enjoy and find in it what they may.

Anno Domini 1941 detail and Botticelli

Carl Schmitt, Anno Domini 1941 (detail) and Botticelli Madonna and Child with St. John the Baptist (detail), tempera on panel, 1468 (Musée du Louvre, Paris).

The “comment” in the painting  can be found in the way the two model airplanes partially obscure the Madonna and Child in the triptych.  But the two planes themselves also suggest that Schmitt had in mind a larger cultural context than the Second World War: one is indeed a war plane, but the other is not.  Together they may be taken as representing our culture’s devotion to the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of making things, which in turn is done for the sake of making money.  This is the true devotion that characterizes our culture, to the point that the highest realities are obscured.

Schmitt didn’t object to producing “useful” things; they serve great social needs.  But alongside social values stand two more important ones: family and ultimately the person.  In Schmitt’s triune vision of reality, these three are seen in terms of origins, means, and ends—the family dealing with man’s origins, society with the means, and person with ends.  The person is paramount, for ultimately only the individual person thinks and loves, thereby making the choices that lead through family and social life to his true end.

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Still Life, c. 1947, oil on hardboard, 10 x 12 in.
Carl Schmitt was reluctant to explain his work, writing in 1922, “the artist is filled with the desire to express through vision alone. When he speaks, it is with the good (though perhaps unfortunate) intention of bridging, however inadequately, the gap which exists between the aesthetic and rationalistic extremes. When he speaks he is painfully aware of the strangeness of his medium and that his muse is displeased at the digression.”

This painting, then, encompasses Schmitt’s triune vision in a single beautiful work that “comments” on our current cultural situation.  Schmitt saw our culture as so devoted to the means that origins and ends are lost sight of: we thus find it difficult to maintain what family can be and what role the individual person might play in our culture in a fully human way.  Schmitt summed up his attitude in his essay “And / Or” from 1943: “When our fellow men are so immersed in means that they can admit of nothing but the exclusion of ends and origins—when ‘truth’ is pursued at the complete exclusion of beauty and goodness, and when wealth alone is valid to the exclusion of all else, it would seem that only catastrophe would bring man to his senses.  For only the humiliated and impoverished man is capable of those inclusions which make him once more human.”

Although Carl Schmitt painted this work in response to a specific request as to its content, he did something more. In characteristic fashion he produced a painting of quiet and intriguing beauty.  If the viewer looks at it and then ponders it more deeply, he may just catch the gentle irony in it—and some of the wisdom behind it.

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Reprinted from the CSF News, Summer 2012.

New issue of Vision going out today

Vision Enewsletter cover 8 - July 2016

I’m sending out the latest issue of Vision—the CSF e-newsletter—later today, exploring Carl Schmitt’s relationship with the famed British writer and polemicist Hilaire Belloc, with whom Schmitt exchanged letters over two decades. A second article by Carl Schmitt’s son Jacob probes the sources of Schmitt’s artistic vision.

As always, Vision will feature photos and stories from the CSF archives not seen anywhere else.

To get your copy delivered to your inbox, subscribe by clicking here.

You can read past issues of Vision by clicking here.

Wisdom on Wednesdays—The scientific mind

Muses Marooned [1] [13104] A

Muses Marooned, 1934, oil on canvas 35 x 41¾ in

“Science alone is untrue because it aims exclusively at truth (divorced from the good and the beautiful).
“The scientific mind is far too simple.  There are too many facts in too mysterious a relationship for his simple mind (logical analytical as it is) to grasp.  In theory he is right; in practice he can never get all the facts as long as he specializes exclusively in the nature of discursive reason.  For knowledge (as distinct from wisdom and plastic form) of its very nature excludes all facts.” (1944)

Wisdom on Wednesdays—The balanced human

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Michael, c. 1942, oil on canvas, 23 x 19 in.

“The human, the balanced human, believes that the mystery of birth, death, and life is master of science: that science is a means.  The Liberal believes that science is the master of all; the human knows that it is simply a matter of time till the substance of life absorbs the means.  Temporarily the means has gotten out of hand.”  (1958)