We have seen that for Carl Schmitt, an artist will produce great and lasting work only in so far as he himself has been “worked on” by One higher than himself. “It is the instinct of the artist to make, that is, to operate on some material vastly inferior—less willful—than himself,” he wrote in 1933. “The artist knows that he cannot operate successfully upon such matter unless he has previously been operated on as a vastly inferior being.”
In a paradoxical way, this “being operated upon” finds a necessary complement in the artist’s self-criticism and self-discipline: God and man work together to form a mature artist. As he wrote in 1922, “The perfect attitude for the artist is the continual companionship of God and unceasing toil. To dream of Eden before the Fall: to work in the world by the sweat of his brow.”
In Schmitt’s life this “attitude” expressed itself in a conscious effort to realize the graces offered to him in his vocation as an artist. “All art, like spiritual progress, is dependent upon grace: ‘Artist by the grace of God,’ as my father used to say.” His ideas linking the channels of grace, the sacraments, to the various fine arts were not just theories, but attempts to penetrate the reality he lived in his own life as an artist.
In another paradox, Schmitt refers to the state of the artist as “servitude” —to reality, and ultimately, to God. He did not see this as an enforced or bitter slavery but rather a free subordination of one’s life to higher realities. And, as he reflected in the early 1930s, it was not without its own rewards: “The natural condition of Artistic Creation is servitude—but servitude voluntary, supported by charity, surrounded by leisure!”
Schmitt conveyed all this in a striking way in a poem dating from 1925, where “mastery” (of oneself) and “servitude” (to God) are inexorably joined in a complete personality.
By virtue of the Dear God Which is within me,
I will master my body in its every function.
As much as I master my body so much will my God master me.
And I am happy only in this servitude.
My labor is in mastery.
My refreshment in servitude
Without mastery, I am without servitude.
I am a coward, hopeless, without joy.
Restless, without the peace of faith,
Sorrowful, without happiness.
With mastery, by virtue of my God within me,
I am a slave to my God above.
My slavery opens my soul at the top,
Admitting my Infinite God as a sharp wedge driven through ice.