Carl Schmitt—The Thinker

Carl Schmitt was an artist with a mind that never rested. A natural inquisitiveness enhanced by a creative temperament gave enormous scope to his intellectual energy, opening up all creation to his study. This was an intense and hard study reinforced and enlightened by his intuitive reason, patient analysis, and his Catholic Faith.

His struggles eventually produced a library of diverse writings filling some thirty-three notebooks and ranging in such topics from the fine arts (Painting, Sculpture, Dance, Drama, Poetry, Literature and Music), history, science, economics, and metaphysics, to the roles of family, society, and the human person. The titles of a few of the essays found in his notebooks illustrate the variety of this study: “Techniques of Painting,” “Schumann,” “The Bourgeoisie and Original Sin,” “Archaeology” and “Patriotism and Government.”

These writings also reveal a profound aesthetic approach, rejoicing in nature’s spectacle. Once at the age of eighty, while riding in the back seat of his daughter’s car, he remarked: “It has taken me this long to really see the amazing beauty of sunlight on the trees.” Although his inquisitive mind was not always confined to aesthetics, it was always from such an approach that he envisioned all creation. His explanation for this was simple, “I’m an artist. Where else would I view the world from?”

The Fine Arts as Index of History

A few excerpts from the introduction to his unpublished manuscript, Europe and the Arts, further illuminates how profound was this aesthetic approach: “The fine arts,” he wrote, “have been chosen for direct consideration, rather than the spiritual life or the politics of Europe, because they are a kind of index of all other activities. In fact, there exists not [a] better barometer of the spiritual life of a people than their arts.”

When examining the developmental relationship of the fine arts —Sculpture, Painting, Music, Literature, Poetry, Dance, and Drama—to the various countries of Europe, he wrote, “A consideration then of the arts, and especially the fine-arts, with particular regard to their peculiar habitat is the preoccupation of this essay.” Thus, he says that Sculpture belongs to Italy, the land of Michelangelo and Bernini, and Painting is key to the Netherlands, the world of Rembrandt and Van Dyke. Germany and Austria are gifted in Music where Mozart, Bach and Beethoven held court.

The causes of these talents, Schmitt added, arise from each country’s artistic milieu, which includes geography, climate, temperament of the people, and their religious heritage. This is quintessential Schmitt.

Although always looking at problems from as many angles as he could, nevertheless, he would say the world must be understood as a unified whole. This unswerving emphasis on unity of creation arose from his awe of the pervasiveness of beauty. Its source, he believed, was Divine. All things—objects, colors, actions, persons and ideas—thereby show their immanent relationships and become instances of God’s constant self-revelation through the beauty of nature.

Transcendent Realities and the Mystery of Volume

This pursuit of beauty in all creation took hold of Schmitt’s mind. He recognized that it was an inclusive key to reach the fundamental truths of reality and life. This search in an ever-changing world meant, for Schmitt, a constant admission to examine the material manifestations of the true, the beautiful and the good. This admission, he believed, opened doors to the rest of the world, doors that remain closed without it. Through his or her “yes,” the artist could help carry the world towards a more mature culture that would allow one to know the world and its Creator better.

The joy and love by which Carl Schmitt pursued the inner mysteries of creation and life are summarized in his understanding of the “mystery of volume.” This “mystery” is the wonder of the material creation. If one looks at it with faith and reason, it reveals the splendor of God. One arrives at this vision not merely by looking at the exterior qualities of color, light and shape, but by gazing into the very core of things, discovering their unique identity. The true painter will put these findings on canvas for all to see. This journey into the natures of things is difficult and requires great strength, perseverance and sacrifice. By admitting to the immaterial qualities of objects and their reflection of a transcendent spiritual source, the artist opens the door to finding the beauty, the purpose, the meaning, and the treasures of reality.

This humanistic endeavor further exacts from the artist a sincere and thorough familiarity with the physical, avoiding a mere superficial tour of material reality. Schmitt believed that only a complete immersion in objects—without surrendering to one’s base emotions that can so easily arise—would show the artist the heights and depths of true art. For instance, from his triadic theory of planes (see The Artist) arose the following idea concerning shapes: “These three planes, the lyric, epic and dynamic, have geometric correlatives: the circle, square, and triangle, and these three “forms” are the “poetic expression of man.”

The exchange between the spiritual and the material realms, which comes from this profound immersion in objects of nature, is the key for the artist’s true and all-consuming journey into beauty. Since beautiful things are manifestations of God’s glory, it should not surprise anyone that Schmitt’s theory always refers to the immanent operations of the three Persons of the Trinity in creation.

A World Full of Splendor

Such twofold exchange of matter and spirit also prevents two tendencies that are always deadly to absolute art: sentimentality and materialism. To surrender to either of these not only makes the artist, wittingly or no, untrue to his vocation but it also limits or perverts the artist’s work. Precisely because so many artists succumb to a materialistic, bourgeois lifestyle, Schmitt felt the arts were losing their essential life. The spiritual was neglected and materialism was running wild. Such an atmosphere produces at best lyrical art—immature, childish and only the first step towards truly great art (see The Artist)—if it produces art at all.

Since the seven fine arts—Sculpture, Architecture, Painting (Permanent Arts), Drama, Dance, Music, Literature (Time Arts)—are necessary for a full human culture, the arts need to be developed to their fullest. To deny or misrepresent their natural qualities, according to Carl Schmitt, means to defraud human life and creation of their full possibilities.

Schmitt’s own life exemplified the fullness of this artistic spirit. An intense love for the physical world, and a desire for a full, natural life according to his Catholic faith were the backbone of all his pursuits—artistic, intellectual and otherwise. Strong in his faith, he was a friend of Catholics and non-Catholics alike. He especially enjoyed the company of anyone who was honestly pursuing the truth of life and reality.

Though naturally at ease with artists, he also had many friends outside the arts, including a New York City banker who became his closest friend. Every Thursday they would go on excursions into the country with the required wine, bread, and cheese in a basket. There they would discuss for several hours any topic that happened to arise.

Carl Schmitt’s writings are not the musings of a poet symbolizing fancy ideas and strange theories, and representing them in his art. Schmitt totally believed that all of creation is intimately joined and beautifully reveals the truths of life. All a person needs to do is be open to this truth and beauty.

When pondering the nature of his triune theory, Schmitt refused to believe he was forcing upon things subjective meanings, such as a symbolist might do. From an intense study, for instance, he saw that color and the development of form possessed an inherent and aesthetic effect on the human psyche. The primary colors of yellow, blue and red, along with the basic elements of form, the circle, the square, and the cone (see The Artist), also have immanent characteristics relating to his triune theory: the lyric, epic and dynamic. These conditions were true, not because Carl Schmitt wished them so, but by their very natures. He saw a world full of splendor—its colors, lines, forms, values, hues, nature, history, etc.—revealing something about the relationship of aesthetic development, human development, and that Divine Mind, which oversees and lovingly guides all.

Ordinary Things

Ideas such as these were “hammered out” over his long life. Their originating point may be light hitting a beer bottle, or the pattern along which history has moved, or watching his ten children grow and choose a life path. Even though he was a prolific reader, the ordinary things of life were his library and where he often found the most extraordinary things. For instance in his children he saw the qualities of the lyrical plane most perfectly developing, thus solidifying the link between the family and the lyric. The same may be said for the relationship between the epic and society, the dynamic and the person.

Schmitt’s paintings reveal a man enthusiastically in pursuit of truth, never hiding behind his Catholic faith, but always using it to inform and direct him. A theory that excludes some part of reality—spiritual or material—is not really a theory, but merely a wish. Similarly, even though often more comfortable with those of a different character or belief, he welcomed and respected anyone that honestly and humbly pursued the truth.

The Poet

Schmitt also loved poetry, especially Hilaire Belloc’s children’s verses and the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. In one of Schmitt’s notebooks is found the following lines by Hopkins. In them, Schmitt evidently found a kindred spirit: “The perfect attitude for the artist is the continual companionship of God and unceasingly working hand in hand and unseparated. To dream of Eden before the fall; to work in the world by the sweat of his brow.”

Concerning the relationship between art and religion, Schmitt warned that an artist does not have the ability to redeem himself or others through his art. Of itself, art is not salvific. That falls to religion. The artist can only present what is already wondrously there. Nonetheless, this presentation can reveal—if he or she is willing to struggle through the hardships and reach the dynamic level—a redeemed reality awaiting beatitude.

Thus, the artist’s travels into beauty are difficult and wrought with “the sweat of his brow.” But he must never waver, for then he begins to fall. His or her aesthetic vision partakes of a divine origin, and perseverance (see Writings of Schmitt) strengthens him into sacrificing his whole being for the sake of achieving a work commensurate with that vision. Thus, the artist must remain strong and sure. As Schmitt wrote in one of his poems:

He who lives as much in space as time
Loves the eternal horizons
And the permanence of being
Standing stones and steady lawns are good
And well-settled colors
Let the musicians play and the
Dancers dance
He will sit and gaze on banks
Or stand planted, legs astride, gazing.
© Copyright 2004 Carl Schmitt Foundation