The Aim of Painting

by Carl Schmitt
1943

The aim of art, its primary aim, is Beauty; Truth and goodness are secondary. Is Beauty alone insufficient because beauty alone is not sufficient for normal man?

How are truth and goodness evident in a work of art? A painting? Beauty, I am convinced, is the revealing of design in its triune hierarchy: of form in its three planes; of light in its three intensities; of color in its three hues (luminosities), and the infinite action and reaction of one upon the other.

But goodness and truth? I confess that goodness is a problem. Beauty is inherent and implied in painting. Truth to a certain extent is always demanded, but here again the proportion of truth to beauty has always been controversial, especially since the camera has come into use. For of course, optical truth is the only truth which can be inherent in painting. Narrative truth, or truth illustrated is another matter. Can we rule out narrated truth? I do not know. By the word truth, we must of necessity mean scientific truth, because there is no truth but empirical truth strictly speaking. All outside such definition would seem to me to be goodness and beauty, no matter how much we may be in the habit of calling goodness or being by the name of truth.

Is a painting, then, which reveals a formal organism or design, such for instance as a still-life, incomplete, lacking as it does inherent goodness? How in the name of goodness can goodness inhere in a still-life? I am inclined to believe that a still-life must always remain an artist’s tour-de-force—some what analogous to a Bach fugue—in spite of the fact that I am, at least at present, most at home in that genre.

Must then a painting be more human, concerned with the human figure. If so, it must still be narrative or associational to portray goodness. Or should art be concerned with humans, as it is with still-lifes—revealing neither goodness nor evil? Is such revelation the only true field of painting? Does such an attitude on the part of the artist best represent the artist in his pure function as a painter?

I confess that I cannot answer these questions; that whenever I ask them of myself, I am always thrown back on my instincts which are to incorporate only those things which inhere in painting; which means that the narrative is very lacking in my work. In this I am a child of my age, which has tried to eliminate the illustrative from painting, while at the same time admitting far more of the scientific truth than has been heretofore attempted. The scientific truths which depend upon verisimilitude to nature are, of course, not by any means the only truths which now appear in art. Those truths which are today stressed are done so very often at the expense of the verisimilitude. Such for instance are the physical laws stated by Cezanne, such as the form value of luminosity (yellow and orange create form of themselves, the space value of blue, the void value of red). There is, however, no reason why these laws may not be used for greater likeness to optical nature. There would seem to me to be no necessary opposition to optical truth. If this is so, wherein lies the objection of the modern purist against optical similitude? This attitude of hostility toward the “look of things” on the part of many moderns would seem to me to be a kind of intellectual snobbery. To me the most imaginative work should come as near the look of nature as possible, as any other attitude offends common sense. No matter how often I have leaned heavily upon abstraction, I always feel, when I do, that I have departed from the norm which universality demands.

© Copyright 2004 Carl Schmitt Foundation