Should Artists be Exterminated?

by Carl Schmitt
From a talk written by Carl Schmitt and delivered by Robert Schmitt to the Catholic Club of Norwalk, Connecticut (c. 1930)

Should artists be exterminated? That question sounds funny at first blush. But is it so funny? I myself am interested. I am an artist. My brother says he is one. No doubt there are some here who are artists in one way or another, perhaps one of you plays the saxophone evenings after the children are put to bed, or another dances jigs—informally of course. You may dance and play for the children but you are proud of those notes and those steps. Now is there any reason to suppose that we artists may not be legislated against and suppressed? What good do we do humanity? Are we of any use at all when everyone about us is so efficient (thatís the word—efficient—everything is done for efficiency now, even our eating). I say are we any use at all? None! We neither make automobiles nor job them. Large financial transactions bewilder us. They appall us. We avoid them whenever possible. We just go on living inefficiently. Laws have been made to remove the loafer from the corner saloon, why not remove the loafer from the palette and easel and the pen or the violin. But seriously, this sentiment of the uselessness of art and artists is almost approved today by a civilization that is practically industrial.

Most men today are busy about their waking hours with an idea in the back of their heads—and that is “How am I going to get enough money to get along?” “Getting along,” by the way, means anything from living respectably on the bare necessities to 25Ę cigars and the latest in Packards. This utilitarian civilization is a fine thing in its way, a very fine thing, with its experimental science and inventions, but like every good thing we can get too much of it, especially when we lose other fine things in the process. And I think we are getting a little too much of it today. We are not “right-side-up.” Necessity has us by the neck. The cry is, “More, give us more! —more money, more comfort, more any old thing that my neighbor has and I havenít but, make it more!” Now this is alarming. It is unbalanced. Men go to extremes, my history says. My history shows that our forefathers were extremely religious once. History shows that our forebears were once extremely artistic. But the present and the present alone has been extremely practical And I think it has almost reached a surfeit.

Now was mankind ever balanced? Did he ever in his own mad swing from extreme to extreme hold all extremes in his grasp and fulfill his destiny? I think he did. I think that for one short space of about one hundred years mankind was fairly balanced, stood right-side-up, and grasped these three extremes of the good, the beautiful, and the practical in their order of importance. That is, he was as he should be: Religious—first of all, esthetic as a matter of course, and greedy only for those things which would help and not hinder the life of his immortal soul. This hundred years of the generally balanced man was, without doubt, the most wonderful period in the history Europe (that is in the history of us) and that 100 years was the thirteenth century.

I would call attention to the fact that this was not fully appreciated until comparatively recently—and also to another fact, that for the first and the last time this was a Catholic civilization. I mean that for those hundred years the Catholic Religion was the universal religion, not only individually in the personal and mystical relationship of man to his creator, but also corporately and institutionally. The Catholic Church held men generally and particularly and for the first time shaped a civilization completely her own. Nor was this all. That civilization was the most wonderful—all things considered—that we have ever seen and it is looked at with wonder even today when we have dropped so far from its great height of Religion and Culture.

Time will allow only to sketch the barest outlines of that culture and help us perhaps to see our own shortcomings.

What was the outstanding feature of that period? That outstanding feature to my mind was the balance of the average man of the thirteenth century. He was, let me repeat, above all religious. The spiritual ideal by and large was an ideal of humility, justice, and purity of love. He had also a keen sense of beauty. Nor was this found here and there in a man set apart and called “artist” as he is so set apart and called today, but universally men were artists. And he was practical, not primarily but in relation to his soulís welfare. For they believed those things then that we Catholics believe today here in Norwalk. We know them as no one else can.

In other words, the Religious generally from Pope to lay-brother were men who not only knew their canon law, but they knew their common law and they knew their art as well. Witness that Abbott who designed and no doubt helped in the building of that marvel of marvels, the Cathedral at Chartres, or that monk whose scientific discoveries have anticipated many of our realizations today. Or that other doctor, since a saint, without question the keenest brain that has ever functioned in Europe; who built not only a dazzling structure of Gothic theology, was a great lover of beauty, a master of poetic verse, but was not too great to be a practical human and lovable man. These are three chance examples of out many of the clergy. Time and your kind patience forbid more than a hasty glance at this phase of the universal genius of the clergy.

What of the baker and banker, weaver, plumber? Did they care for and practice their religion? Did they have time for art? What, dear friends, they were appallingly religious, and as for art—they were artists. Look at the most beautiful stained-glass windows in the most beautiful churches that our Europe has known. Here is a symphony of colored glass telling some bible history given by the bakerís guild. There is another for the furriers—and the millers and so forth, and one notices that the scavengers the garbage-men have their own work of art to present to the House of God. The work of the humblest carpenter of the times is preserved in our museums, so beautiful is the craft.

And that reminds me that I was told by an officer of the American Expeditionary Force, that when he was climbing over the roof of a bombarded cathedral of the thirteenth century, he found that certain ends of beams were charmingly carved with rosettes many, many feet above the floor, up under the roof, out of sight of a single mortal below. Old and mute witness of a labor of love, doubtless offered up to “the Beautiful God” as he was called at Amiens. It is said that every stone-mason was a master sculptor and the thousands of statue heads and ornaments which embellish the churches and castles of the period certainly show a stupendous number of anonymous masters of the craft.

© Copyright 2012 Carl Schmitt Foundation