As we saw in our last post, Carl Schmitt understood that art is secondary to life, that the artist “must be able deliberately to leave it in favor of a greater business”; that to act otherwise was no less than “idolatry.”
Nonetheless, art and life are intimately related as parallel realities. Schmitt expressed this by speaking of art as a “reaction from life.” This reaction takes place on the level of symbols. “If in life one apprehends, loves, and enjoys Reality, in art one will play with the symbols naturally,” he wrote in his 1925 essay “Ritual—The Gate.” “The artist will not in that case mistake natural phenomena for Reality Itself but will instinctively recognize all phenomena as symbol of Reality.” To see Reality in both its symbolic and objective truth demands from the artist a constant effort “to outwit all the sterilities which surround and waylay him in order to make him fall.” In this sense Schmitt saw very clearly that the artist must struggle as any man who wishes to live an authentic life.
For the artist today, this struggle takes on a particular hue. Schmitt referred to the main opponent by many names: worldliness, expediency, class, society, or simply wealth. While money was not evil in itself, Schmitt saw its pursuit as an end in itself as the great scourge of our civilization and directly antithetical to the artist’s pursuit of beauty. For him, this was the battleground where greatness as an artist was to be won or lost.
As Schmitt wrote in 1944: “History would seem to make clear that all the outstanding personalities tended to reverse the values of organized society (collective wealth). The great personalities tended to dislocate, if not reverse, the popular standards of making (means) and necessity (ends). Society regards, always has regarded, wealth in money, goods, or labor service, as necessities, and religion or beauty (standards of eternity or permanence) as luxuries or means. The great personalities, whether saints in religion or artists, naturally and correctly regard religion and beauty as ends; showing small (inadequate) respect for brute wealth. This heresy—this lack of proper respect for the primacy of wealth—has spelled the downfall of personality in the world and by the same token insured immortality.”
What, then, is left for the artist? “It is not the artist who asks anything of this world: money, popularity,” Schmitt wrote in the depths of the Great Depression. “He wishes with all his heart however for the love of the simple, and the honor of the intelligent, for the simple and the intelligent are not of this world.”