“Should artists be exterminated?” Carl Schmitt asked wryly in the early 1930s. “What good do we do humanity? Are we of any use at all when everyone about us is so efficient? I say, are we any use at all? None!”
Schmitt’s answer to this fundamental question colored his understanding of the artist, his goals, and his purpose and role in society. The worth of the artist is not based upon his usefulness to society, his success in raising awareness of the evils of the world, or his popular or critical acclaim. Still less is his purpose to be found in self-expression or in his effect upon the morals or religiosity of mankind. As he wrote in 1925, “One great poem or symphony or painting or sculpture or building of drama or dance composition is worth infinitely more than a true artist’s attempt to right the world.”
“When I paint I have only one aim: to give substance, essence to things,” Schmitt wrote in late 1943. Earlier that year he had put it even more simply: “the aim of art, its primary aim, is Beauty.”
Schmitt’s conviction, however, was far removed from the philosophy of “art for art’s sake” championed by the Romantics. Schmitt did not equate art and life, and in fact saw a real danger in making art the very purpose and substance of life. “No artist is a master until he can, at will, part with his art. He must be able deliberately to leave it in favor of a greater business. He must follow spiritual things whenever they demand it. To be unable to do so is a great weakness; it is more. It is idolatry deliberately to cling to art constantly. For art is a secondary thing and a relaxation from the rigor of spiritual life: the use of the will.”
A few years later Schmitt reflected along similar lines at the birth of his tenth child, his daughter Gertrude, in 1932: “No decent artist can fail to admit that it is a greater happiness to make a struggle with virtue against vice than it is to make beauty the primary consideration. The creation of beauty should be incidental to living.”
Although Schmitt saw art as subordinate to life, in particular the life of aesthetic struggle for virtue, he nevertheless perceived a close parallel between art and life. We will explore this connection in our next post.
Schmitt’s essay “Should Artists be Exterminated?” can be found at the Carl Schmitt Foundation website.