Artist as Prophet

by Carl Schmitt
1941

The artist has always been prophetic. The more naturalistic outlook of Masaccio, Cimabue, and Giotto presaged the humanism to come in the West: the painters had abandoned the rigidities of Byzantium long before the mass of mankind had accepted the comparative freedom of the Renaissance. A study of the spacial work of Giotto would have revealed the kind of thought to come to anyone so curious. In the same way, the Architecture of the Middle Ages—the Gothic—would have foretold, through the development of the flying buttress, the machine-age to come four centuries later.

Today, if we examine our painting, we are confronted with a chaos of aims, but if any one kind of painting is characteristic of our times it would be surrealism. Now surrealism is mainly a protest, a turning of the back upon “realism,” and “realism” was a nineteenth-century affair which reached its high point in Courbet: it passed through the more visual phase in Bastian Lepage and finally dropped the romanticism which had clung to it up to then and boldly joined hands with science and optics in the Impressionists.

The object of this preamble is to show that the artist after a short interlude of “scientific” effort repudiated the whole bag of tricks of experimental science. Facts too closely sensory had led him into a cul-de-sac: his pursuit of realism had finally led him up the blind alley of the “immediate memory” as distinguished from the “remote memory.” In the latter he had used his imagination to some purpose because the “remote memory” makes full use of the alchemy of the imagination which creates in its own hidden way a new unity or pattern of separate sensory impressions which we call “creation.” Only thus is vision renewed in the arts; only thus is imagination used. The image on the artist’s retina had temporarily been confused with the true imagination. The point about the whole affair is that with the advent of the “post-impressionist” Cezanne and Van Gogh, etc., the artist had definitely despaired of finding reality in the scientific accumulation of sensory facts. If he had not repudiated immediate sensory impressions, he had turned his main attention once more upon metaphysical problems, and optics as a science had become secondary to plastic co-ordination. “Reality” once more had become the main preoccupation instead of optical “truth.”

Now that “surrealism” is here we have the final conclusion of the revolt against optical verisimilitude: Dali has given us the frank visualization of ugliness. This cult of the ugly is in a way a step in advance although it is at the same time a step down. In much the same way the worship of the devil in the religious realm would be an advance in a world where men are indifferent to religion and mercenary materialism had previously held sway.

One significant factor in the modern movement in art is that of “Expressionism”—an essentially Germanic outlook in the arts—which had taken place immediately after the World War of 1914-18 and still underlies a great deal of Western art, notably that of Rouault.

A summing up of the analysis of works of modern art would indicate that men of Western Europe will turn from the naturalistic methods of thought, away from Empiricism and Positivism, and will attempt to find reality not exclusively in facts nor yet in their repudiation but in a combination of evolutionary fact and those absolutes of vision which are necessities to the core of being and without which a man lives a troubled life of homesickness and exile.

© Copyright 2011 Carl Schmitt Foundation