“The unique miracle of Christian culture”

“And this is the mark of your major artist: without losing memory, the mirage, the illusion, he grasps the tangible in three planes.” —Carl Schmitt, “On Wind in Art,” 1925

For Carl Schmitt, the fault of the modern artist lies not in making too much of his art, but too little.  In his fixation with originality, personal expression, and an “abstract” style, he denies art its true significance as a bearer of “transcendent reality.”  Like oriental or primitive art, modern art is “but a sign or at best a prophecy” that can find its full stature only in the fullness brought by a Christian understanding of reality.

“When will we realize that the Fine Arts are a Christian creation?” Carl Schmitt asked.  To him, the “fine-arts are uniquely Christian.”  To be sure, non-Christian civilizations have cultivated the arts, but in Schmitt’s view, “That there is a system or hierarchy of seven fine arts [which are] symbolic expressions of spiritual realities” is “beyond [the] capacity” of these cultures.  What did these other cultures lack?  What has Christ brought that makes the fine arts possible?

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Carl Schmitt, Nativity.  Oil on canvas, c. 1926, 30 x 25 in.

Christ brought the fulfillment of what these cultures strove for but did not, indeed, could not achieve.  It was in this sense that Schmitt called Christ “the perfect myth”—He summed up and made real all the longings and dreams of the ancient peoples.  “We forget that Christ came not only because man needed hope for eternal beatitude but that He was also the historic concrete answer to the desire of the wildest imagination: the appearance on earth of a God-man.  History united to myth.”

The arts of these peoples, embodying as they did their yearnings and strivings for the transcendent—for God—were not complete, but awaited their perfection in the full revelation of Christ: God visible, God in the flesh.

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Carl Schmitt, Resurrection.  Oil on hardboard, 1941, 24 x 20 in.

The appearance of the invisible God was not simply a “religious” event, but the fulfillment of an aesthetic ideal: in Christ, symbol and substance, appearance and reality, sign and signified, are perfectly joined.  Only now that this has come about in the world can man acquire the vision to join these in permanent form in art, in what Schmitt paradoxically terms a “substantial symbol.”  “Hard as it may be for our time to understand, the Western and unique Fine Arts were only made possible through [the] radical power of Jesus Christ.  Only by means of his Incarnation and death was it possible for man to have a substantial symbol and ‘exterior sign which is but the figure and yet in reality contain the substance.'”

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Giotto (c. 1266 – 1337) The Kiss of Judas, 1304–06, fresco in the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua
Michelangelo (1475-1564) Libyan Sibyl, 1511, Sistine Chapel, Vatican City

The development of the fine arts has not come about immediately; even in the Christian era we can see a progression in the arts toward their full flowering: “The progress of Christian Art (European Art, the Fine Arts) has always and steadily been toward the progressive freedom of form.”  In Schmitt’s understanding, this freedom involves  seeing things in all their dimensions, in what he calls “three planes.”  Aesthetically, “seeing” means that the artist’s vision must develop from the “picture plane” to movement “around a central axis.”  “The Oriental art (from which it springs) has always been quite static, i.e. ‘glued’ to the picture plane (if painting), ‘glued’ to the wall (if sculpture).  Practically all movement in Oriental applied art is confined to the superficial movement which two dimensions admit.”

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Temple of Concordia, c. 450-440 BC, Agrigento, Sicily
Giovanni Paolo Pannini or Panini (1691-1765) Interior of the Pantheon, Rome, oil on canvas, c. 1734, 50⅜ x 39 in. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Samuel H. Kress Collection

The unfolding of three planes has been particularly marked in the fine arts of painting, architecture and sculpture.  Schmitt points to Giotto “with his two planes and Michelangelo with the three planes” as milestones in the  full development of painting.  While the ancient Greeks perfected the exterior of the temple, architecture since the Romans “must primarily be a matter of interior space.”  And in contrast to the single perspective offered by the sculpture of the ancient Egyptians, “sculpture, since Michelangelo, must move in three planes around a central axis.”  

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King Menkaura (Mycerinus) and Queen, greywacke sandstone, c. 2500 BC, 56 in. high. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Michelangelo, Florence Pietà, marble, c. 1547-53, 89 in. high. Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence
Carl Schmitt considered this one of the great works of sculpture: “Form was freed, was felt to be able to move most fully with Michelangelo, and at the greatest degree with his last Pietà, the one in Florence” (1952).

Even now, however, the fine arts have not come to their full fruition.  “Christianity will have no great art until death enters consciously into the picture.  The Christian drama has yet to be realized.”

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

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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.”

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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.”

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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.