The “nostalgia” of modern art

“Faced as we seem to be today with a future of strains and stresses, we naturally look back, and quite pathetically try with varying success to imitate the single heart which created without ulterior motives the flat mosaic of Byzantium, the miniature of Persia, or the Flemish tapestry.  Except for men like Cézanne who are preeminent in their ability to face a dynamic future of reality, the bulk of European painting in our time has looked backward toward the youth of this art, and the cult of the primitive has led us even to the jungle.”   —Carl Schmitt, Europe and the Arts

Cezanne Apples - Schmitt Still Life side by side

Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) Rideau, Cruchon et Compotier, oil on canvas, 1893-94, 23½ × 28¾ in.
Carl Schmitt, Still Life with Apples, oil on canvas, c. 1932, 22 x 26 in.

Carl Schmitt did not object to “modern” art because it was new or contemporary, but because it was nostalgic.

When we think of modern art, most of us picture an abstract or non-representational painting, and we don’t know what to make of it.  Schmitt certainly understood this basic issue.  “The common person in looking for vision or appearance or likeness in a picture rather than expression, is in the main, right.”  He did not understand “the objection of the modern purist against optical similitude.  This attitude of hostility toward the ‘look of things’ on the part of many moderns would seem to me to be a kind of intellectual snobbery,” he wrote in his essay “The Aim of Painting.”  “To me, the most imaginative work should come as near the look of nature as possible, as any other attitude offends common sense.”

Not that every work of art must be strictly representational: Schmitt himself incorporated abstract elements into his own art.  However, “no matter how often I have leaned heavily upon abstraction, I always feel, when I do, that I have departed from the norm which universality demands.”  Abstraction was not “bad,” but it was only one part of the artist’s repertoire.  While Schmitt confesses that “I did full abstractions in my youth,” he makes it clear that “abstraction is only one side of art.  Art must be based on vision, not expressionism.”


House in Silvermine, pastel on paper, 14 x 10 in.
Schmitt’s delight in the forms and colors of nature sometimes led him away from the strict representation of what he saw before him.

Schmitt’s fundamental issue with “modern” art, then, goes deeper than abstraction.  It also goes beyond the other objections against it most commonly heard today: its obsession with originality, its commercial aspect, or even the popular concept of art as “self-expression.”  Although he voiced all of these concerns, he saw them as symptoms rather than the essential problem.

For Carl Schmitt, art is an objective reality.  He saw art as “expressive,” but only if this means that the arts “express” transcendent realities.  In his book Europe and the Arts, he defines the arts as “those forms made by man, which have survived the ages, [and] have been the expression, or symbols, of a vital spiritual life.”  The notion of art as the expression of the artist’s personal, aesthetic, or political opinions was foreign to his thinking.

Schmitt, as we have seen, did see a role for the “personality” of the artist in the process of artistic creation.  Personality, however, must be understood in terms of the artist’s honest assessment of reality and his place in it rather than the exhibition of his personal ideas, let alone his subjective emotional state.   At worst, the modern artist “abandons himself to subjective abstractions which are generally autobiographical introspections, and this helps along the chaos.”

The problem with modern art was not “expressionism,” rightly understood, but what Schmitt called “orientalism.”  This he characterized as “the modern nostalgia, which looks back upon the early ingenuousness of painting and tries to recapture the naïveté of another more primitive age.”  “From Rouault to Picasso to African Sculpture, the reaction to Oriental applied art is evident.”  But, like primitive art, “modern art is too simple. It is applied art or functional art; it is but a sign or at best a prophecy.”  Like the pagan religions, modern art can only point to, but not embody, transcendent realities; it is a “return to the symbol alone without its transcendent reality, substance.”


The “Little Red House”, oil on canvas, c. 1920, 18 x 22 in.

As with abstraction and expression, the mistake of the moderns was not to make too much of art, but too little.  In their struggle to free art from what they saw as the strictures of nature and custom through self-expression, they restricted it to serving ends lower than itself.  Rather than progressing toward a new future, Schmitt saw modern artists regressing to a stunted form of artistic “expression” which denied the arts their full transcendent significance.

How can art be more than a symbol?  How is it able to embody “transcendent reality”?  For Schmitt, the fine arts are possible only because of what he called “the revolution of Western Christian culture.”  More on this in our next post.

2 thoughts on “The “nostalgia” of modern art

  1. Pingback: “The unique miracle of Christian culture” | Carl Schmitt: The Vision of Beauty

  2. Pingback: Woman and Guardian Angel: Sculpture “in the lowest relief” | Carl Schmitt: The Vision of Beauty

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