Thinking in threes: Criticism

In the context of artistic creation, the means spoken of last week—catastrophe, humiliation, poverty—take on a particular hue. In the life of an artist these realities need not reveal themselves in a sudden or dramatic way.  Indeed in Schmitt’s view an artist aiming above the mediocre will consciously choose these as the necessary conditions for the creation of significant and mature works of art.

Schmitt develops this idea in his essay “The Critic,” written in 1943.  Although Schmitt, like most artists, was impatient with professional art critics, he nevertheless saw a valuable role for criticism in the arts, provided the concept was properly understood.

Criticism or “destruction” has an indispensable role in the process of artistic creation, or as Schmitt would put it, the revealing or discovery of form.   “It must be recalled to mind, especially today when Form is almost unknown (Form in its metaphysical—Form in its aesthetic sense) that true Form cannot be rediscovered except by means of destruction.  There is absolutely no Form (in the purest sense of the word) possible unless it is discovered by sacrifice and death.”

Schmitt points to the art of sculpture as the most perfect analogue of this process of criticism.  “In sculpture this is so obvious that one would think that the symbolism of Redemption would escape no one—a lump of stone, a chisel, and a hammer (in the hands of a critic).  Those are the materials necessary for creation.”  In sculpture the form is produced precisely through destruction, that is, through the chiseling away of all excess material to reveal the work of art.


Carl Schmitt, Head, marble, c. 1924

Before the sculptor can work at the marble, however, he must first turn the chisel on himself: the sculptor will only tear away and reveal as much in the marble as he has done so in himself, in his own personality.  What makes the sculpture of a great artist like Michelangelo so great?  “Something intangible which lives in every atom of the marble: the personality of the master.  For personality is the result of honest self-criticism.  We feel that Michelangelo had already laid the chisel to his own soul before attacking the marble.”

Thus the artist will embrace his personal “catastrophe,” the self-criticism necessary to reveal the form of what he is depicting in his art.  “As far as the world is concerned a Christian artist should know that his work must be only one-half successful,” Schmitt wrote in 1930. “As for his life—that should, of course, be a total failure to be perfect.”

Schmitt’s essay “The Critic” can be found on the Carl Schmitt Foundation website.


Thinking in threes: Catastrophe

How do we come to know reality fully, “in three planes,” as Carl Schmitt would say?

Schmitt offers an answer in the conclusion of his essay “And/Or” which we referred to in our last post.  He does not speak of enlightenment and wonder, or the contemplation of artistic beauty, as one might expect from an artist.  Rather, the path seems to be in the opposite direction, what Schmitt calls “catastrophe.”  “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 to the complete exclusion of beauty and goodness, when wealth alone is valid to the exclusion of all else, it would seem that only catastrophe would bring man to his senses.”


Pencil sketch, Naples, 1915

It is this “catastrophe” which leads to that docility before reality which is necessary to wisdom, indeed to an authentically human life: “For, only the humiliated and impoverished man is capable of those inclusions which make him once more human.”  In the final analysis a full grasp of reality does come through those experiences we mentioned but through humility.  It is humility that  makes possible true enlightenment, real wonder, and an authentic appreciation of beauty.

This insight reveals the deepest reason for Schmitt’s insistence that the artist, and anyone else searching for a truly human life, must resist mightily the trap of money, comfort, “security”—being “immersed in means.”  All these “means” insulate the person from real life, from reality, from wisdom.  Humiliation and poverty are not ends in themselves, but precisely those genuine means which are needed to “go forward to [innocence] through wisdom.”

Schmitt knew of what he spoke.  His long struggle as an artist, his poverty and all the humiliations that go with it, and his years of chronic illness, far from embittering him, shaped his conviction that only humility before reality could lead to wisdom.  As he sums up in another passage: “Wisdom is the full exercise of the free-will . . . . the battle of the will against pride.”


St. Francis of Assisi, October 27, 1925

For the artist, this battle takes on a special character, what Schmitt called “criticism.”  We’ll take this up in our next post.

The complete text of the essay “And/Or” can be found at the Carl Schmitt Foundation website.

Thinking in threes: “Third-plane thinking”

In our last post we discussed Carl Schmitt’s fondness for “threes” and how this was rooted in his deep conviction that the Holy Trinity permeates all things.  More practically, this way of thinking also springs from a realization that dualistic thinking—considering a question in terms of only two sides—is finally self-defeating. The full truth, Schmitt insisted, lies not in pitting one side against another, but in that he calls “trinal” or “third-plane” thinking.

Thus, Schmitt did not see life as a conflict between youth and old age, between innocence and experience.  Rather, the full development of a person was an integration of the innocence of youth with the wisdom of maturity: “Middle-age must both return to innocence and must go forward to it through wisdom.”


Gertrude, pastel on paper, c. 1918

How do these lofty ideas work out in practice?

Schmitt spelled this out in his own ironic way in an essay entitled “And/Or.”  As an example of “two-way” thinking Schmitt quotes from a phrase he had read recently “which started me thinking. . . . The phrase was ‘We need a religion of life instead of definitions.’”  Schmitt goes on to make an obvious point: “Now anyone would have thought that a normal man in possession of his faculties could accommodate both ‘life’ and ‘definitions’ in his religion. But no, it is our symptom today that we must have one extreme theory “instead” of another extreme theory. . . . in art we must  amorphous expressionists or admire Raphael . . . we must either ‘take vitamins’ or perish without them . . . sweetness and light or else bitterness and darkness.” He concludes wryly, “Nothing will satisfy us today but doing exclusively one or the other—or rather fighting over the theory.”

The dualisms we cling to in political and social life, and even in our personal decisions, are so natural to us that we may not even notice them.  But why does it have to be only one way or the other?  Why not “both / and”?  This simple but fundamental insight is Schmitt’s way of getting us to start “thinking in threes” beyond the dichotomies of the left / right, black / white, good / bad we find ourselves trapped in so often.

Schmitt called this trap “second-plane thinking.”  But for him the answer does not lie in a “third way” between extremes, a supposed synthesis of the best of each side.  Still less is the truth to be found in a compromise taken for sake of avoiding conflict.  Schmitt believed that since reality itself is a reflection of the Trinity, its very structure reveals that the full truth lies in “three planes”: origins, means, and ends; goodness, truth, and beauty.


Gertrude Knitting, oil on canvas, c. 1970

How are we to be led to this full perception of reality?  Schmitt offers a surprising answer which we will explore in our next post.

The complete text of the essay “And/Or” can be found at the Carl Schmitt Foundation website.

Thinking in threes: family, society, person

Carl Schmitt was fond of speaking in threes.  As we saw in our last post, his artistic vision was expressed in terms of three “planes:” the lyric, epic, and dramatic.  He often spoke in terms of “threes”—family, society, person; origins, means, ends; art, science, wisdom—the most fundamental “three” being, of course, the Blessed Trinity.

For Schmitt, wisdom was a matter of keeping all three in balance.  As he wrote in 1963: “Wisdom is proportion. Man’s origin (his myths), man’s end (his goal), man’s means (his science) must be in proportion.”

Schmitt saw the modern world as plagued by a lack of balance and proportion: man’s pursuit of means (money)—what Schmitt calls the “expedient”—has crowded out any consideration of his origins (the esthetic realm of myth and art) and his end or goal (as embodied in religion).  Wisdom comes with the integration of all three realms. “Of the three activities of man—religious, esthetic, expedient—wisdom maintains the balance.”

Schmitt’s way of speaking in “threes” was not a simply fancy, but reflected his conviction that “every creature is a symbol of the Absolute and is Triune.”  One of his fundamental “threes” was “family – society – person”—the first concerned with the origins, the second with means, the third with ends or destiny.


Woman of Kotor, oil on aluminum, c. 1930

One can see this triad at work both in the life of the individual and in the broad sweep in history.

On the individual level, one is born into a family (his origin), makes his way in society as he grows up (makes use of the means offered by the world to support himself), but eventually must come to terms with his own personhood (his final end).  For Carl Schmitt, the truly mature individual is one who, in the final analysis, is not determined by his family, his race, his nationality, or any other social group, but takes personal responsibility for himself and his destiny.  As Schmitt himself puts it: “Most men must belong to, identify themselves with, either the collectivity of the family (or an ethnic group) or with the mass of individualist, economic-limited people. . . Very few identify with themselves.”

Why is this?  Schmitt gives a characteristically ironic and unsettling answer: “For that way leads to complete subjection to God or the devil—a condition of slavery which is odious to upstanding, forward-looking, literary-loving, wise and compassionate men.”  He himself prayed that he would not be one to hedge his bets.

In the larger historical development of Western civilization, the first two terms of the triad have epitomized each of the two millennia since the time of Christ.  In the first thousand years the dominant society in the West, that of Rome, was fundamentally familial, centered on the authority of the father (paterfamilias) and the emperor as “father of the fatherland” (pater patriae).  A transition from a familial to a more socially ordered world can be seen in the development of feudalism in the 11th century and rise of towns and commerce later in the Middle Ages.

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Christening Party at Chartres, oil on canvas, 1928

The culmination of the social world is evident today in the pervasive power of the nation state and mass communication.  Indeed, as we embark upon a new millennium, one can argue, as Carl Schmitt did, that we are at a crisis point for the family and the person vis-à-vis society and the state.  “One can only say that too great a preoccupation with either the person or the family or the collective society is dangerous and fanatical,” he wrote in 1961, “and for what it is worth I believe we suffer most today from an almost fanatical preoccupation with the collective society.”

Schmitt, however, was fundamentally positive about the future, seeing our present era as a time of transition to a “personal age” for which he had great hopes: “The future does not lie with society, but with the family and the person.  And the personal will leads because persons alone and not societies can experience humility.  Find me humble men and I will show you our rulers of the next centuries.  Men and families rather than nations will rule the future.”


Christopher, oil on canvas, c. 1950

Carl Schmitt’s vision

In my last post I spoke about Carl Schmitt’s “secret,” seeing his life as a gift received and given. This gift took concrete form in his work as an artist.

Schmitt saw his art as an embodiment of what he called a “vision” of life and reality. This “vision” came to him in his 30s when he was struggling to support his wife and six children solely through art.  He saw it as the path he had to pursue if he was to aspire to greatness as an artist.

Schmitt’s vision saw art and life in three stages or “planes”: the lyric, the epic and the dramatic.  The lyric was the first encounter with reality–the perception of a child who sees the world bathed in light.  In art, this is expressed in “flat” designs, permeated with light and free of shadows.


Madonna and Child, oil on hardboard, c. 1922

As the child grows and into adulthood, shadows and conflict appear–he must reconcile himself to things outside of himself that challenge his first innocence.  One can see this “epic” stage in paintings where the light comes from without, casting shadows and nuance upon the objects depicted.


Red Madonna, oil on aluminum, c. 1935

Finally, the tensions of the epic give to way to an integration of the first two stages in the “dramatic” plane.  Here the light seems to come from within the persons and objects in the painting. At the same time the dark “voids” provide an image of the price paid for this integration.

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Blue Madonna, oil on canvas, c. 1950

This is a tremendous vision of the whole of life: that our completion as human beings comes only after a struggle to bring together all our experiences–including our suffering–into a complete personality.  A full human being is not meant to lose his childlike joy in life, nor can he ignore what the world has to teach him.  But these things must be purged and redeemed through what he called the “voids” into a fully mature character.

He was convinced that any artist aspiring above the mediocre had to let himself experience these “voids.”  But the artistic fruit of this suffering, this maturity as an artist and as a person, was precious. Schmitt called it “Form.”

“Form” is that elusive yet substantial quality you sense on viewing his best paintings. He strove for nothing less than the splendid presentation of the full reality or “substance” of things in his art. As he put it, “A work of art is mature–complete–when it lives and appears real.”

In fact, I don’t think I’m alone in saying that my sense of reality is heightened by an encounter with great art such as that of Carl Schmitt. This is how he put it in his paradoxical way: “Nothing should be painted that cannot be excelled in the painting. That is, be more real.”


Still Life, oil on hardboard, 1942

This was not abstract theory, but the way he lived his life and pursued his art.  “Form” was not just an “idea,” but was intimately connected with art and life. It could be put on canvas only by an artist striving to live and develop his personality to its full human potential, a struggle involving hardship and suffering.  Living and working in obscurity in the darkest days of the Second World War, with several of his sons fighting overseas, he expressed it this way: “There is absolutely no Form (in the purest sense of the word) possible unless it is discovered by sacrifice and death.”

As we explore Schmitt’s life, it will become evident that he knew of what he wrote.  The greatness of his art is the fruit of his own struggle to see reality in the purest possible light. In his own words: “Personality is the potential of form.”

This is not say that Carl Schmitt was in any way a cheerless figure or that his life was little more than a series of grim struggles.  Those who knew him say that he had a marked effect on everyone he came in contact with.  He was serious about life but never dour or depressed, exacting with himself but courteous and understanding with everyone from miserly businessmen to his own small children.  He showed a remarkable consistency and depth of character throughout his long life.  Most of all he was quietly passionate about his art and devoted his whole self to realizing his extraordinary talents to the full, to fulfill his mature personality, his complete “form.”


Still Life, detail