Fine Arts on Fridays—the arts as “the sacraments of a natural religion”

Today we begin a new series, Fine Arts on Fridays.  

The fine arts were central to Carl Schmitt’s life and thought, and provided a touchstone not only for his aesthetics, but his ideas on religion, culture, and history, among other topics.  We will explore Schmitt’s understanding of the fine arts in general and those realities closely related to them: the imagination, intuition, and the creative process and aesthetic life of the artist himself.  The series will also include reflections on the artist’s thinking on each of the fine arts, their relationship to each other and to the family, society, and the person.   

For Schmitt, the fine arts were defined by their metaphysical import, as the “symbolic expressions of spiritual realities.”  He went so far as to portray them “in a way the sacraments of a natural religion,” “the means of grace for the natural man.”  

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Study for Reclining Woman, pastel on paper, 13 x 16 in.

The significance of the fine arts was not limited to the individual, however, but served to express the culture of peoples.  Indeed, in Schmitt’s mind, the vigor of the fine arts were a principal—if not the principal—means by which the health of a civilization could be measured.  In Schmitt’s words, “there exists not a better barometer of the spiritual life of a people than their arts.” 

This was the seminal idea of Schmitt’s most sustained effort in explaining his thought, Europe and the Arts.  Here the arts are treated as the “symbols of a vital spiritual life” not only of individuals but of entire peoples and countries.  Each European country or region serves as a “custodian” of one of the seven fine arts, which art expressed in a particular way that country’s genius and culture.         

Schmitt’s latest manuscript of the work dates from the 1940s.  The book, however, incorporates ideas going back twenty years or more and can be seen as a kind of summation of his thought on the arts.  Although friends encouraged Schmitt to finish and publish the book, it remained incomplete at his death.

After a brief introduction, the first chapter of the essay defines the fine arts in contrast to the practical arts, and defends seven as their traditional number. The opening of the essay appears below.

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Reclining Woman, oil on canvas, 20 x 24 in.

Those forms made by man, which have survived the ages, have been the expression, or symbols of a vital spiritual life. Wherever religion has been vigorous, permanent forms have resulted. These symbolic forms range from the most absolute, i.e. the fine-arts, down to the most utilitarian or practical i.e. the so-called crafts. . . .

They have generally been accepted as seven in number, and are listed as follows: Music, Literature, the Dance, the Drama, Sculpture, Architecture and Painting.

There have been various attempts to enlarge or reduce this number. For example, some critics at various times have attempted to limit the number to exclude the Dance or the Drama.  These attempts may be due to the fact that these two arts are possibly not fully developed.  We shall consider the question of their immaturity later.  On the other hand, the number has been stretched by others in order to include say, moving and talking pictures; but anyone with an understanding of the fine-arts will immediately grasp the fact that the “movie” (or “talkie”) is a hybridization of several of the arts, at least in its technical aspect and is more to be considered as a science than as an art.  The moving picture is, in fact, a means for recording the dramatic art in much the same way that the radio-phonograph is of recording the musical art.

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Study for Woman in Irish Coat, pastel on paper, April 1933, 12 x 9 in.

Finally there are always those who will deny that there is such a thing as a fine-art as distinguished from a useful art.  It is not within the scope of this essay to go into this question, beyond saying that it is addressed to those who recognize the validity of metaphysical reality.  It is assumed that the arts are not always primarily utilitarian, or as it is called “functional,” in their aim, but that they at times, on the contrary, indicate by the symbolism of their imaginative vision a more profound spiritual life.  Beethoven and Rembrandt for example, besides being excellent craftsmen were fine-artists of the greatest vision; and the aim of Michelangelo, needless to say, was not primarily utilitarian.

Assuming then that there are seven fine-arts, which record or reflect as many facets of imaginative life, let us attempt to characterize them briefly observing the qualities peculiar to each, as well as their unity in an organic whole.

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Woman in Irish Coat, oil on canvas, c. 1933, 25 x 30 in.

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2 thoughts on “Fine Arts on Fridays—the arts as “the sacraments of a natural religion”

  1. Pingback: Fine Arts on Fridays—The arts of vision | Carl Schmitt: The Vision of Beauty

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