“What is truth (and its symbol beauty) but objectivity? Unless vision is objective there would be no sense in constancy. Constancy is the ability to persevere in attachment to objective reality in spite of space temporalities: fugitive moods, rationalizations, and physical inconstancy.” (1934)
Carl Schmitt’s son Jacob has written extensively on his father’s life, work, and aesthetic philosophy. This excerpt discusses Schmitt’s awakening to the unique contribution of Rome not simply to world culture in general, but the interiority which is vital to any authentic endeavor in the arts.
While on a second honeymoon in 1934, after visiting Dalmatia and the little towns of Korčula, Split, and Dubrovnik along the Adriatic where he had visited as a student, Schmitt continued to Venice, Florence, and Rome. One afternoon, while sketching the gigantic ruins of Septimius Severus palace in Rome, he once again was reminded of the significance of place. Nowhere, he recounts in his notes, had he found as here in Rome, a sense of permanency and interior quietude. This “realization” was first experienced during his student years in Italy, but here and now, in the Eternal City, he found a more profound, conscious realization of it—a sense of what he first called “interior being.”
His mind went back to the time when these ancient ruins, the Theater of Marcellus, the Baths of Caracalla, and the still-standing Pantheon, were built with massive archways and vaulted ceilings that soared to the heavens with a glorious spacious interiors—what he later called the form of interior space.
These magnificent interior structures were created by and signified, in his mind, an interior, personal maturity not seen in any previous age. Here in Rome, he thought, was what the true Renaissance was seeking—the manifestation of a full human person who recognized the superiority of an interior, familial life over the social, political life endemic of the Grecian contribution. Rome had turned inside out all that it had absorbed from the idealized, aesthetic Grecian culture. It had unified all the scattered Grecian city-states into the one centralized political system of Rome—Urbe et Orbe (the city of Rome and the whole world).
Thus, for Schmitt, the Roman sense for interior space became a more inclusive realization and expression of reality. It had the advantage of an interior vision of seeing things from the “inside out” rather than from the Platonic-Grecian idealized vision of looking “on” or “at” things from the “outside in.” This was a more personal development without which no true perfection in anything could be developed. Here was the central aspect of his aesthetic dramatic stage more fully realized.
No wonder, he thought, that this interior form of the Roman Republic was able to permeate, absorb, and inform the then-known world. No wonder Peter and Paul, guided by the Holy Spirit, found themselves in Rome transforming this personal, pagan, interior maturity—first prepared for by the realization of the hidden interior nature of reality found in Aristotelian thought—into an interior Christo-centric reality.
“To recapitulate: There are three arts of Being (Fine Arts of Vision, permanent symbols of eternity)
There are four Fine Arts of Expression (symbols of time-eternity)
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
“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?
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.
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.'”
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.”
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.”
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.”
No representation can begin to do justice to the vitality, richness, and depth of Carl Schmitt’s original still life painting. When viewing—actually contemplating—the original, the words that come to mind are splendor, mystery, fullness, silence, reverence, delight, magnificence. One finds oneself asking, “How can ordinary objects represented on a stretch of canvas so grip us? What is going on here?”
The starting premise is that “there is much more than what meets the eye” behind those ordinary things we come across each day. It is the genius of the artist to communicate that to us. This is what Schmitt meant when he wrote, “the artist is concerned not with sight but with vision.”
Vision is a penetration into the depth of reality and embodying that insight in a work of art. As Schmitt noted, “reality is the keynote to life and art. To be aware of reality—to be awake, is to be alive. To make paint or stone real is to make it live. A work of art is mature—complete—when it lives and appears real.”
“To be aware of reality—to be awake, is to be alive.”
Schmitt’s mature work is the fruit of a lifetime of perfecting this aesthetic approach and reflecting that vision on canvas. The composition of a bowl, bottle, and oranges is much more than a photographic representation. The objects reveal more being. Schmitt has taken great pains in this painting to capture the form—the active determining principle of a thing—that makes a thing what it is—its “is-ness.”
This capturing of intangible form was the “Holy Grail” of the great masters. They began with an under-painting in a single dark tone as the basis of the form. They then added a thin layer of color—a glaze of paint—letting the under-painting come through. This technique helped to give their works profoundness and beauty.
Schmitt, intrigued by color and its myriad possibilities, grappled with the problem of capturing a glowing richness of color without hiding the under-painting. His breakthrough was to build form with color. By forming his under-painting with multiple layers of color, then paring and “sculpting” back each layer, Schmitt was able to create a unique depth in his work. The background is no mere flat laying on of paint, but a sculpting of colors which allows each layer to shine through, resulting in a vibrant iridescence of color. The final step was to add what Schmitt called the “local” color—the blue of the porcelain dish, the orange of the orange peel, and the effervescent green of the bottle.
The artist’s treatment of the glass objects in this painting is particularly revealing of his grasp of their substance. The blue of the dish as seen through the glass of the large green bottle demonstrates the skill with which the artist layered his colors. In contrast, the smaller bottles in the background depict glass in a less familiar mode: they seem weighty and almost solid. “My father loved to paint glass,” Schmitt’s daughter Gertrude recalls; “it was one of the things he loved to paint.” In this painting, glass is revealed not only as luminescent, but dense and substantial.
“The painter’s business is to paint all that lies outside the empirical field:
to reveal as fully as possible what can never be shown by the camera.
In essence it is to reveal but one thing: volume, mass, and substance,
not to the exclusion of appearance but as a fulfillment of appearance–
in short, to bear witness to the mystery–the miracle–of substance.”
If the mission of the artist is to get us to raise our eyes from the mere usefulness of everyday things to wonder at their inherent beauty, then Carl Schmitt has succeeded magnificently in this still life.
—Austin L. Schmitt