“Prosperity as an ideal (the philosophy of cunning) is sterile. An institution, a society, or an individual based upon it, is doomed, because it contains not in itself either the seed of birth or rebirth. Its appeal lies in the fact that while it lasts it succeeds perfectly.” (October 1929)
“Can our national virtues of Comfort, Wealth, and Success be reconciled with the Cardinal Virtues of Chastity, Poverty, and Humility? I am afraid that the answer must be honestly faced. And the answer is, No. The breakdown of civilization has probably been caused by the attempt to reconcile the two sets of ultimately contradictory, exclusive values. After listening to all the arguments against a ‘vicious and criminal poverty,’ ‘suffering brought about by ignorance and sin,’ and ‘failure due to lack of prudence,’ I must still repeat that Christ was uncomfortable and suffered. Christ was poor, and He was a Failure. There is still holy suffering, holy poverty, and holy failure, as we shall discover when we have failed.” (1943)
In the context of artistic creation, the means spoken of last week—catastrophe, humiliation, poverty—take on a particular hue. In the life of an artist these realities need not reveal themselves in a sudden or dramatic way. Indeed in Schmitt’s view an artist aiming above the mediocre will consciously choose these as the necessary conditions for the creation of significant and mature works of art.
Schmitt develops this idea in his essay “The Critic,” written in 1943. Although Schmitt, like most artists, was impatient with professional art critics, he nevertheless saw a valuable role for criticism in the arts, provided the concept was properly understood.
Criticism or “destruction” has an indispensable role in the process of artistic creation, or as Schmitt would put it, the revealing or discovery of form. “It must be recalled to mind, especially today when Form is almost unknown (Form in its metaphysical—Form in its aesthetic sense) that true Form cannot be rediscovered except by means of destruction. There is absolutely no Form (in the purest sense of the word) possible unless it is discovered by sacrifice and death.”
Schmitt points to the art of sculpture as the most perfect analogue of this process of criticism. “In sculpture this is so obvious that one would think that the symbolism of Redemption would escape no one—a lump of stone, a chisel, and a hammer (in the hands of a critic). Those are the materials necessary for creation.” In sculpture the form is produced precisely through destruction, that is, through the chiseling away of all excess material to reveal the work of art.
Before the sculptor can work at the marble, however, he must first turn the chisel on himself: the sculptor will only tear away and reveal as much in the marble as he has done so in himself, in his own personality. What makes the sculpture of a great artist like Michelangelo so great? “Something intangible which lives in every atom of the marble: the personality of the master. For personality is the result of honest self-criticism. We feel that Michelangelo had already laid the chisel to his own soul before attacking the marble.”
Thus the artist will embrace his personal “catastrophe,” the self-criticism necessary to reveal the form of what he is depicting in his art. “As far as the world is concerned a Christian artist should know that his work must be only one-half successful,” Schmitt wrote in 1930. “As for his life—that should, of course, be a total failure to be perfect.”
Schmitt’s essay “The Critic” can be found on the Carl Schmitt Foundation website.