Wisdom on Wednesdays—Mystics and morals

“Neither the mystic artist nor the ethical person should be confused.  It is only when the artist is stupid and carries his art too far over into ethics that his confusion begins.  Nor can he carry his moral responsibility too far into art without disaster.” (June 1943)


Self-portrait, charcoal and pastel on paper, November 1916

Wisdom on Wednesdays: Art and mysticism

“Our great art (the early Egyptian, ancient Greek, and Gothic European) is symbolic because it is the play of men who were alive to Reality, who were true mystics. Great art is an exact barometer and contemporary of religion—not religion as the popular historians record it, an exterior thing, the machine, the corporate thing alone, nor as the Puritan records it, the ‘inner light’ alone, an individual disease, but mysticism: the just balance between interior individual communion with God and corporate life in God.”  (1925)

Crucifixion - from Kathy Grim

Crucifixion, oil on canvas, c. 1930, 15 x 18 in. This work was purchased by Mrs. Nicholas Brady, one of the wealthiest and most prominent lay Catholics in America in the 1920s and 30s.  She commissioned a portrait of herself from Schmitt to hang in her palatial residence on Long Island, named Inisfada, one of the largest in America.  Her husband, who died in 1930, was on the boards of Westinghouse, New York Edison, Chrysler, and many other large corporations.  When she built a novitiate house for the Jesuits in Wernersville, Pennsylvania, in memory of her husband, this painting was among the many works of art she gave to the house.  It still hangs there today along with another larger crucifixion by Schmitt.

Mysticism on Mondays: Mysticism as balance

“The things which are held up to us as ends are generally insufficient things toward which to devote a life.  Love, industry, perseverance, knowledge etc. are taken for granted in a proportioned life as means only. The end of life is vision based upon a delicate balance of these things.”  —Carl Schmitt, 1932

Carl Schmitt saw proportion or balance as key for the integrity of the artist; indeed, it is the touchstone of a life lived according to wisdom.  “Of the three activities of man: religious, aesthetic, and expedient, wisdom maintains the balance.”


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

This wisdom lay in seeing the distinction between means (the “expedient”) on the one hand and origins and ends on the other (the aesthetic and religious).  In Schmitt’s view the means—the “media”—have completely taken over to the point that we identify ourselves not with where we have come from (origins) or where we are going (ends), but with the “media”—the means.  “We have forgotten the ends. We are the middle, and media are rapidly becoming our sole concern through choice with some, through habit with many more, and, as a result, through necessity with most of us.  This I conceive is the tragedy of our present culture: that media are no longer in the middle but are the very, only, stuff of ourselves, and the ends can take care of themselves!”


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

Within a “proportioned life,” mysticism holds a crucial place in maintaining the balance among these different elements, or rather in fusing the elements in a balanced whole.  As Schmitt explains: “Man cannot live by activity alone.  But wed or balance activity with desire and activity becomes virtue (industry).  And balance activity with inactivity and activity becomes beauty (melody).”  The “activity” of art, its creation in physical matter, must be balanced by “inactivity,” by the “desire” of the artist to see things as a mystic, in their deepest reality.  Only then is he able to transform his art into the melody of beauty.


Chestnut Tree, pastel on paper, 17 x 14 in.

For Schmitt, then, mysticism was no dreamy pastime of the indolent artiste, but the very foundation of artistic creation.  More than this, mysticism makes possible the balance within the artist himself which in turn offer the conditions for “true art.”  “The most perfect beauty is a perfect balance between cleverness and naiveté – between worldliness and piety between activity and quietude—between mystical and practical. . . . For the artist, mysticism must be renewed if this delicately balanced attitude is to be recaptured and art live once more.  Without this simultaneous ‘every-day mysticism’ practicality gets the ascendancy, cleverness and egotism advance, and true art recedes.”

True mysticism is itself a balance: between the individual and the social, between the personal experience of God and the understanding of God built up through the tradition of the Church.  We will explore the intimate connection between this balance and art in upcoming posts.

Mysticism on Mondays—“Everyone is a mystic”

“Mysticism is of no value if it is an escape into unreality.  It is unfortunate that the word mystic suggests mist. Mysticism should be a vision of something more real, more subjective and objective than the natural senses have experienced.”  —Carl Schmitt, c. 1931

For Carl Schmitt, mysticism was not a daydream, an ineffable reaching for a spiritual unknown.  He saw this kind of quest as a hallmark of the philosophies of the East.  “The Eastern Nations have stressed the dream, desired too much, and have tended to eliminate the active. The desire is an opiate and is mistaken constantly for mysticism.”

Far from being an attempt to escape reality, mysticism is an active search for the real.  Indeed, “mysticism begins with the desire to experience reality.” In this sense, “everyone is a mystic,” as everyone seeks to experience reality.  This search is not limited to our sense experience, and in fact, must go beyond it if it is to get at the deepest reality of things.  “Mysticism should be a vision of something more real, more subjective and objective than the natural senses have experienced.”

CSF10004 - NEW

Eggs and Copper, oil on hardboard, 12 x 15 in.

We tend to think of mysticism as a religious phenomenon, and Schmitt certainly acknowledged this side of it.  But as an artist he also recognized an “aesthetic” mysticism—one of the imagination—which paralleled the more familiar “spiritual” mysticism. This was based on his insight that “materiality or art or imagination is the exact symbol of spirituality.”


Untitled, conte crayon on paper

Seeing this parallel between religious mysticism and aesthetic mysticism, Schmitt made an intensive study of the former as the basis for his thought on the latter.  The path taken by the religious mystics, one based on what Schmitt called the “mystical virtues” of poverty, purity, and humility, finds a close correspondence in the journey of the artist along the path to full aesthetic vision.  From seeing merely the appearances of things (what he called the “lyric” stage), the artist must move on to beholding them in time and space (the “epic”), all the way to the perception of their full reality, their form (the “dramatic” vision).


Tagliacozzo, pen and ink on paper, 1939, 20 x 15 in., signed “Carl Schmitt”, lower right.
Schmitt stayed in this town in the Abruzzo region of central Italy while recovering from tuberculosis in the late 1930s, capturing its beauty in a series of memorable drawings and paintings.

We have seen that this development must be complemented by the maturation of the artist himself, in his capacity to “see” more and more deeply into the things he depicted in his art.  Schmitt called this full development “personality,” the “potential of form.” In the coming weeks we will trace this development, which, as we have written in previous posts, is based upon Schmitt’s own account of the “three realities of the imagination,” the lyric, epic, and dramatic.  As with all of Schmitt’s thought, the material and the spiritual, the senses and the soul, sight and vision, art and religion, while not interchangeable, closely parallel each other and must be understood together if one is to grasp the full truth of things.


Eggs and Copper, detail