Wisdom on Wednesdays—The only conservative worth his salt

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pastel on paper, 14 x 10 in.

“The only conservative worth his salt is one whose stand is outside all Capitalism: on Wisdom and Charity, on sculpture and painting as Fine Arts; in a word, on personal Religion and its symbols.”  (1961)

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Wisdom on Wednesdays—When one thinks as a Christian

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Loaf of Bread, 1947, oil on hardboard, 12 x 14 in.

“We are so much in the habit of dichotomous thought that it would shock us to hear ‘Christ is a myth’ or ‘The Eucharist is a symbol.’  And yet these are two phrases are true.  What should be added is that final phrase ‘as well as a reality.’  For a thing can be both a symbol and a reality at the same time.  When one thinks as a Christian.”  (1958)

Fine Arts on Fridays—The arts of vision

“To recapitulate: There are three arts of Being (Fine Arts of Vision, permanent symbols of eternity)
Sculpture
Architecture
Painting
There are four Fine Arts of Expression (symbols of time-eternity)
Dance, Drama
Music, Literature”
(1964)

Among the seven fine arts enumerated by Carl Schmitt, Painting, Architecture and Sculpture form a natural triad.  Unlike the other fine arts (Music, Literature, Dance, and Drama (acting)), these three exist as permanent, visible realities.  Often called the “plastic arts,” they are “performed usually but once in some permanent material with the object of ensuring the life of the performance beyond that of the life-span of one man.”

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Self-Portrait, c. 1965, oil on canvas, 30 x 25 in.

The other four arts, by contrast, are not embodied in permanent material form and cannot be experienced all at once; rather, “time is the basic medium.”  Schmitt named the respective groups “statuary” and “kinetic,” “visual-tactile” and “audio-visual,” or “permanent arts” and “time arts.”

Delving more deeply, Schmitt saw the three permanent arts as arts of “being” as opposed to “expression.”  By this he did not mean that Painting, Architecture, and Sculpture were not “expressive” in the sense of conveying some meaning to the viewer, but that this meaning was precisely bound up with being.

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Gertrude with Violin, oil on canvas, c. 1946, 25 x 30 in.

As Schmitt himself wrote: “The common person in looking for vision or appearance or likeness in a picture rather than expression, is in the main right.  For the ‘visio-tactile’ (painting, sculpture, architecture) are primarily arts of vision and incidentally of expression, whereas the ‘audio-visual arts’ (music. literature, dance, acting) are primarily arts of expression.”  He goes on to explain that in the four expressive arts “vision is a goal,” whereas with the arts of being, vision is “the atmosphere of their being.”

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Palace of Septimius Severus, oil on canvas, c. 1948, 30 x 25 in.
A view of the ruins of the emperor’s palace from the Roman Forum, based on sketches done by the artist in the 1930s.

By the “being” of these arts, Schmitt is referring to their existence as permanent forms.  It is precisely their permanence that expresses—Schmitt would say “symbolizes”—in a fundamental way, “eternity.”  The four “time arts” for their part, symbolize what he calls “time-eternity,” or eternal values as they are experienced in time.

Schmitt referred to this contrast between the two kinds of arts the “paradox of the symbol”—“the permanent aesthetic reality within the symbol.”  As Schmitt explains: “All great philosophy, all poetry, all great music is paradoxical because Reality is dynamic.  When expressed in space-time (that is, in tone and word)”—in the time arts—“the paradox is only in process of being resolved. In the plastic arts, on the other hand, there is no paradox in a major work of those fine arts because these arts (Painting, Sculpture, Architecture) reside completely in material Being—that is, in that faculty of the artist in which the paradox has been resolved.”

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Head in marble, c. 1924.
Carl Schmitt’s only finished work of sculpture.

It is this “faculty of the artist” which grasps the “vision”—the end or object of the fine arts.  We will explore this vision as expressed in each of the fine arts in future posts.

Originally posted October 1, 2013 as Thinking in Threes: Painting, Architecture, Sculpture.

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.

Featured Painting: St. Francis and the Unicorn

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St Francis and the Unicorn, oil on canvas, 1931, 25¼ x 29¾ in.

St. Francis and the Unicorn is not only an unusual looking picture; it had an unusual genesis in the catalogue of Carl Schmitt’s works.  We have already written of how Schmitt moved away from commissioned work after some early success as a portrait painter.  This “commission,” however, come from a friend, and was one of the few paintings other than portraits that the artist painted on commission after his marriage in 1918.  

Harold Morton Landon was a successful stockbroker in New York with a wife and two children when he met Schmitt on a journey back from Europe in 1927.   Landon, a cultured man who translated Portuguese and Latin and boasted a fine collection of old master paintings, became an avid “fan” of the younger artist.  He saw all the exhibitions that he could and even helped arrange some shows for Schmitt at galleries in New York.  Around 1930 he had Schmitt paint a portrait of his wife Frederica, who had formed a warm friendship with Carl’s wife Gertrude.   

Landon made a singular proposal.  Having inherited $1,000 from an uncle, he wanted to pay the sum to Schmitt to paint a picture with the title The Unicorn’s Paradise.  “Fantastic looking trees, strange leaves and fruits, and other happy figures and animals etc. etc.,” Landon wrote Schmitt in September, 1930.  “Taking a peek onto this “Garden of Eden,” perhaps might be the figure of Saint Francis, the lover of animals!!  This is a suggestion: hear it in any way that you are inspired to.” 

As Landon gave Schmitt wide latitude to paint his own picture, the artist readily agreed to the proposal.  The fact that the artist was in very tight financial straits at this time may also have been a factor in his decision to accept the offer.  Most significant of all, Landon’s proposed subject matter dovetailed with the aesthetic philosophy Schmitt was working out at the time.  This is clear from the following reflection on the painting by Carl B. Schmitt, Jr., first published in the Fall 2011 issue of the CSF News.  

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St. Francis and the Unicorn, detail

Every artist is a myth-maker.  Every artistic creation is a “fiction”—an untruth that nevertheless puts the truth before us.

All this is worlds away from the ethos of modern science, based upon incontrovertible fact and mathematical accuracy.  From the industrial revolution to the digital age, our culture is shaped by science’s amazing success in raising the standard of living and creating a world market of products for us to enjoy. And few escape the incontrovertible fact that is the bottom line.  Myth is the last thing we find useful at all.

Art certainly has a place in such a culture: there is, after all, a huge market in art.  Works done by those with the artistic gift of seeing beyond the superficialities of our way of life abound.  But these artists are children of their own time.  What they see either reflects that numbing superficiality or, if labeled “radical,” throw in our faces the ugliness of our culture—and not infrequently the ugliness of their own despair.

Carl Schmitt was a true radical: he looked to the root of reality, and neither ugliness nor despair finds echo in his work. There we find only beauty—and with it an optimism about man, life, and yes, even about our culture. This painting can help us get a glimpse of that vision.

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St. Francis and the Unicorn, detail

The unicorn, in legend, purifies with its horn the waters poisoned by the serpent so all could drink.  It could only be caught by a virgin.  Though often a symbol of Christ, in Schmitt’s painting it stands for the virtue of chastity.  St. Francis represents poverty, as they behold one another in a fantastic landscape.

Schmitt painted this picture when, as an artist, he had worked through two of the three stages he saw in the life of man. In the first stage he learned to handle the rhythms of color, associated with the joys of life’s origins in the family. Its key virtue is chastity. The second stage deals with the light and shadows which reveal man more fully as he enters into society and takes on responsibilities and trials. The virtue needed at this stage is poverty as opposed to the avarice and greed that so afflicts our culture.

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Woman in Irish Coat, oil on canvas, c. 1932, 25 x 30 in.

The third stage deals with the deeper truth that all things temporal must die.  The virtue here is humility: the final blow to the pride of life that each of us must wrestle with personally.  Schmitt was able to reach it some ten years after completing this painting.  We see it in those dark voids he learned to put into his mature paintings.  He was fully aware that ours is a culture of death, but in his vision of reality, life triumphs over death.  He bore witness to this truth precisely in those voids which bring out so much of the stunning beauty of his late works.

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Gertrude in Roman Scarf, oil on canvas, c. 1960, 25¼ x 30¼ in.

When a fact passes into the past or future it becomes myth.
Myth is the stuff of Art.
Notebook 26 (1964)