Albert Camus on the Responsibility of the Artist: To “Create Dangerously” (1957)

Lit­er­ary state­ments about the nature and pur­pose of art con­sti­tute a genre unto them­selves, the ars poet­i­ca, an antique form going back at least as far as Roman poet Horace. The 19th cen­tu­ry poles of the debate are some­times rep­re­sent­ed by the duel­ing notions of Per­cy Shel­ley — who claimed that poets are the “unac­knowl­edged leg­is­la­tors of the world” — and Oscar Wilde, who famous­ly pro­claimed, “all art is quite use­less.” These two state­ments con­ve­nient­ly describe a con­flict between art that involves itself in the strug­gles of the world, and art that is involved only with itself.

In the mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, Albert Camus put the ques­tion some­what dif­fer­ent­ly in a 1957 speech enti­tled “Cre­ate Dan­ger­ous­ly.”

Of what could art speak, indeed? If it adapts itself to what the major­i­ty of our soci­ety wants, art will be a mean­ing­less recre­ation. If it blind­ly rejects that soci­ety, if the artist makes up his mind to take refuge in his dream, art will express noth­ing but a nega­tion.

And yet, grandiose ideas about the artist’s role seemed absurd in the mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, when the ques­tion becomes whether artists should exist at all. “Such amaz­ing opti­mism seems dead today,” writes Camus. “In most cas­es the artist is ashamed of him­self and his priv­i­leges, if he has any. He must first of all answer the ques­tion he has put to him­self: is art a decep­tive lux­u­ry?”

Women artists have also had to con­sid­er the ques­tion, of course. Brain Pick­ings’ Maria Popo­va quotes Audre Lorde’s call for artists to “uphold their respon­si­bil­i­ty toward ‘the trans­for­ma­tion of silence into lan­guage and action.” Ursu­la Le Guin believed that art expand­ed the imag­i­na­tion, and thus the pos­si­bil­i­ties for human free­dom. Both of these writ­ers were polit­i­cal­ly engaged artists, and so it’s lit­tle won­der that we find sim­i­lar sen­ti­ments in Camus’ speech from decades ear­li­er.

To make art, Camus writes, is to make choic­es. Artists are already involved, as Shel­ley declared, in shap­ing the world around them, whether they acknowl­edge it or not:

Real­i­ty can­not be repro­duced with­out exer­cis­ing a selec­tion… The only thing need­ed, then, is to find a prin­ci­ple of choice that will give shape to the world. And such a prin­ci­ple is found, not in the real­i­ty we know, but in the real­i­ty that will be — in short, the future. In order to repro­duce prop­er­ly what is, one must depict also what will be.

The most elo­quent, endur­ing expres­sions of future think­ing are that which we call art. Even art that seeks to depict the fleet­ing­ness of nature freezes itself for pos­ter­i­ty.

Art, in a sense, is a revolt against every­thing fleet­ing and unfin­ished in the world. Con­se­quent­ly, its only aim is to give anoth­er form to a real­i­ty that it is nev­er­the­less forced to pre­serve as the source of its emo­tion. In this regard, we are all real­is­tic and no one is. Art is nei­ther com­plete rejec­tion nor com­plete accep­tance of what is. It is simul­ta­ne­ous­ly rejec­tion and accep­tance, and this is why it must be a per­pet­u­al­ly renewed wrench­ing apart. 

To under­stand art as pur­pose­less­ly divorced from the world is to mis­un­der­stand it, Camus argues. This is the mis­un­der­stand­ing of “a fash­ion­able soci­ety in which all trou­bles [are] mon­ey trou­bles and all wor­ries [are] sen­ti­men­tal wor­ries” — the self-sat­is­fied bour­geois soci­ety “about which Oscar Wilde, think­ing of him­self before he knew prison, said that the great­est of all vices was super­fi­cial­i­ty.”

Art for art’s sake is the doc­trine of a “soci­ety of mer­chants… the arti­fi­cial art of a fac­ti­tious and self-absorbed soci­ety,” Camus declared. “The log­i­cal result of such a the­o­ry is the art of lit­tle cliques.” Or, to a degree Camus could not have imag­ined, we have the enter­tain­ment indus­tri­al com­plex of art for com­merce’s sake, which in the 21st cen­tu­ry can make it near­ly impos­si­ble for art to thrive. (As actor Stel­lan Skars­gård recent­ly said in pub­lic com­ments, the prob­lem with the film indus­try is “that we have for decades believed that the mar­ket should rule every­thing.”)

There­fore, the ques­tion before Camus, and no less before artists today, is how to “cre­ate dan­ger­ous­ly” in a soci­ety “that for­gives noth­ing.” The ques­tion of whether or not art serves a pur­pose is a false one, he sug­gests, since “every pub­li­ca­tion is a delib­er­ate act,” and there­fore pur­pose­ful. The real ques­tion, for Camus the philoso­pher, “is sim­ply to know — giv­en the strict con­trols of count­less ide­olo­gies (so many cults, such soli­tude!) — how the enig­mat­ic free­dom of cre­ation remains pos­si­ble.” If only arriv­ing at such knowl­edge were so sim­ple. Camus’ lec­ture has recent­ly been trans­lat­ed by San­dra Smith and pub­lished in the short vol­ume, Cre­ate Dan­ger­ous­ly: The Pow­er and Respon­si­bil­i­ty of the Artist. You can read a sec­tion of the lec­ture at Lithub.

Camus’ speech was pre­sent­ed on Decem­ber 14, 1957 at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Upp­sala in Swe­den, short­ly after he won the Nobel Prize.

via Brain Pick­ings

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Hear Albert Camus Deliv­er His Nobel Prize Accep­tance Speech (1957)

See Albert Camus’ His­toric Lec­ture, “The Human Cri­sis,” Per­formed by Actor Vig­go Mortensen

Albert Camus: The Mad­ness of Sin­cer­i­ty — 1997 Doc­u­men­tary Revis­its the Philosopher’s Life & Work

Albert Camus Explains Why Hap­pi­ness Is Like Com­mit­ting a Crime—”You Should Nev­er Admit to it” (1959)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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