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Create Dangerously: Albert Camus and the Power and Responsibility of the Artist

On December 14, 1957, only four days after he had delivered his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature, Albert Camus gave another speech in Sweden, this time at Uppsala University, called “Create Dangerously: The Power and Responsibility of the Artist,” in which he argued, “To create today means to create dangerously. Every publication is a deliberate act, and that act makes us vulnerable to the passions of a century that forgives nothing.”

Exchange century for internet and you’ll know why Vintage has just rereleased this speech as its own pocket book in a new translation by Sandra Smith. These are dangerous times to create art. Which is also to say, these are the best times to create art.

But what makes these times dangerous anyway? After all, Camus gave his speech only a decade after WWII when fascism had almost conquered Europe, and the Soviet Empire was just beginning its rule over half the continent that would last the next half a century. In today’s West, this idea of “danger” seems—to use one of Camus’s favorite words—absurd by comparison. The danger one experiences as an artist in the West pales in comparison to what an artist might experience in a country like Iran or China. After all, opprobrium on social media is hardly comparable to the punishment faced by dissidents living in a theocracy or dictatorship. And yet—whether or not the times are really that dangerous, they certainly feel that way for anyone who wishes to express themselves freely. In the contemporary West, you are highly unlikely to be jailed or to lose your life for making art, but you might lose your career or your reputation or both.

We have all read the articles by now. The attempts to erase artists whether they be artists of the present or the artists of the past. Two recent examples of attempts to discredit revered artists in death come to mind—a report about an art teacher instructed by his principal to stop teaching Picasso, and a New York Times op-ed that asked, “Is It Time Gauguin Got Canceled?” (Cathy Young offered the correct answer to that second question on Twitter.)

It has only been a few weeks since the media was seized by moral panic over Joker (which ended up backfiring when it became the highest grossing R-rated film ever). Comedians are denounced for their routines. Actors are denounced for the parts they accept.

Such attacks, of course, are nothing new. Nevertheless, as Camus suggests, in the “very midst of the sound and fury of our times: rejoice.” In times of adversity, artists are “awakened from their sleep.” And although art has always been dangerous, has always been under fire, has always been considered a threat to the stability of the social order, making art feels dangerous again and that is a good thing:

…if art is not a dangerous adventure, then what is it, and what is its justification? No, free artists cannot enjoy comfort any more than free people can. Free artists are those who, with great difficulty, create order themselves…Perhaps there is no peace for an artist other than the peace found in the heat of combat.

“Comfort,” according to Camus, is not the answer to creating great art (nor, I would add, to living a great life). Which is not to say its opposite always creates meaningful art either. But it is in risk that “true artistic freedom lies”:

Freedom in art is worth very little when it has no meaning other than assuring that the artist has an easy life. For a value, or a virtue, to take root in any society, we must not lie about it, which means we must pay for it, at every possible moment.

These are tense times and in the long run that will only benefit art. It is hard to imagine the countercultural revolutions of the sixties without the rigidity of the fifties. Just like it is hard to imagine the Renaissance without the Inquisition. Or punk without disco.

For Camus, great art develops between the two chasms of frivolity and propaganda, where every step forward is a dangerous one. He warns both against what he sees as the superficiality, or frivolity, of “art for art’s sake” and propaganda, or “lies of the realists.” These two ideological positions for artists, only restrict their freedom:

The value that is most vilified today, is most certainly the value of freedom. Thinking people—I’ve always thought that there are two kinds of intelligence, intelligent intelligence and stupid intelligence—hold as a doctrine that freedom is nothing more than an obstacle on the path to true progress. But such solemn stupidities could only be put forward because for one hundred years, consumer society made an exclusive and unilateral use of freedom, considering it a right rather than an obligation and not fearing to use the principle of freedom to justify actual oppression—and as often as possible. From that point onward, is it truly surprising that such a society wished art to be not an instrument of liberation, but rather an exercise of little importance, simple entertainment?

The term “art for art’s sake” is vague (just as the term art is) and can be interpreted in many subjective ways, but for Camus I take it to mean a superficial art, or safe art, in the service of “simple entertainment” or “pleasant distraction.” He further defines it as a formal art, one that when “created outside of society cuts itself off from its living roots.”

On the other side of this ideological coin, is social realist art, which Camus says should “admit its roots and that it is the twin brother of political realism.” He sees it as an art with an agenda that destroys the freedom of the artist, and contributes little to art in the false way it depicts reality. Because its focus is idealistic, not realistic, it inevitably ends up as propaganda with “good and evil people,” sacrificing art for what the artist believes is the superior goal of social justice:

In sum, it temporarily suppresses art so it may first support justice. When justice exists, in a future that is still unknown, art will be reborn…

Today, pressure may be put on artists to toe the line ideologically in their art at the risk of social and career suicide. This type of pressure can intimidate artists to no longer work in the pursuit of truth, but rather for the “good” of society (which in fact, does not accomplish what it intends). It can discourage artists from exploring taboo subjects and become one of the biggest threats to their freedom. For Camus, art seeks to understand, not to judge, and the best works end up, “baffling all judges.” The role of the artist is not as a “preacher of virtue”:

What writer would from now on in good conscience dare set himself up as a preacher of virtue? For myself, I must state once more that I am not of this kind. I have never been able to renounce the light, the pleasure of being, and the freedom in which I grew up. But although this nostalgia explains many of my errors and my faults, it has doubtless helped me toward a better understanding of my craft.

But perhaps the biggest struggle artists face is the one within. Camus warns that we must not to be tricked by the societal pressure to see art as a “deceitful luxury.” After all, questions could be raised: should art really matter in times of great political struggle? Is an art that seeks to explore universal truths about humanity just a luxury if it is not serving the moment in the name of social justice? This type of questioning or attacking the “principle essence” of art can threaten artists’ self-confidence. On the other hand, it might also stir up the necessary tension to push them to create dangerously:

And so, perhaps, if we listen closely amid the din of empires and nations, we might hear the faint sound of beating wings, the sweet stirrings of life and hope. Some will say that hope is carried by a nation, others by a person. But I believe quite the reverse: hope is awakened, given life, sustained, by the millions of individuals whose deeds and actions every day break down borders and refute the worst moments in history, to allow the truth—which is always danger—to shine brightly, even if only fleetingly, the truth, which every individual builds for us all, created out of suffering and joy.

It is no surprise to say that frivolous art and social realism are also the two most common types of art today. These types of art are the safest, after all, and so are most often pushed and promoted by the mainstream. But as Camus suggests, if we listen closely, we just might hear the stirrings of the next William Shakespeare—or the next Sex Pistols. For Camus, truth is always dangerous, but he reminds us that, “Danger leads to becoming exemplary, and every type of greatness, in the end, has its roots in taking risks.” It is, ultimately, the responsibility of artists to fight this battle and keep art alive. The greatest hope lies in artists’ obligation to their own freedom. Not to mention, the greatest reward.

 

Clint Margrave is the author of Salute the Wreckage (2016) and The Early Death of Men (2012), both published by NYQ Books. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Threepenny ReviewNew York Quarterly, the Writer’s AlmanacRattleCimarron Review, Verse Daily, the American Journal of Poetry, and Ambit (UK), among others.  He lives in Los Angeles, and you can follow him on Twitter @clintmargrave

Comments

  1. It’s interesting that the article linked to in relation to the teacher being banned from teaching Picasso, agrees that the idea is ridiculous, but ends up telling the teacher to suck it up and say nothing. The impression I got was that this was a left-wing mag, so it could perhaps sympathise a bit over PC gone mad, but it couldn’t countenance any action being taken against the authorities whom I suppose the left sees as mostly beneficial.
    Sod that for a game of soldiers.

  2. “These are dangerous times to create art. Which is also to say, these are the best times to create art.”
    Actually, no. Censorship impedes art greatly. Consider Nazi Germany. What is the best art that came out of there? Perhaps Olympiad by Leni Riefenstahl. What about films from the far more liberal Weimar Rebublic? Well, now there is a veritable cornucopia from Metropolis, The Blue Angel,the Cabinet of Dr Caligari, M etc.
    Iran is a dangerous place to make art, so the art from there should be terrific, n’est ce pas? Now there are some good films from there, like A Separation or Taste of Cherry, but nothing really truly mind-blowing, not because Iranian artists lack intelligence but because they are heavily constrained by what they can do, and what they view and learn from.
    Orwell’s 1984 was written not in Soviet Russia but the more liberal England. The vast bulk of transgressive literature be it American Psycho, Last Exit to Brooklyn or Ulysses or Submission comes from democracies not tyrannies.
    The photography of Robert Mapplethorpe or Helmut Newton would not be possible in Eritrea.
    “The greatest hope lies in artists’ obligation to their own freedom. Not to mention, the greatest reward.” These are hollow words. If books are not published, they are not read. If paintings are not exhibited, they are not seen. In any event, the state of art today is superhero movies, books by Ta-Nahesi Coates, and this …

  3. Well, I do have a great fondness for Orff’s Carmina Burana (1935/1936), and a few Nazi era singers, especially Lale Andersen (Lili Marleen/Das Mädchen unter der Laterne(1939)). The conventional fine art of the era though tends to be well executed but programmatic, hence rather tedious.

    But generally I quite agree with your point. The great periods of art tend to coincide with periods of increasing individual intellectual freedom. Expanding cultural diversity can also be a significant factor.

    As for Picasso and the teacher - the article didn’t say what grade was being taught. Not that it really matters, but I do think being able to grasp what a pig he was does go some way towards understanding what he created.

  4. Hard to imagine the Renaissance without the Inquisition? I don’t think that’s the standard story of the origins of the Renaissance.

  5. Oh yes, Carmina Burana is fantastic, especially O Fortuna. And,like you, I agree that Picasso’s complexities are what made his art so interesting. This is why I loathe the SJW censors who call work “problematic”. Art is supposed to “problematic”, it is supposed to challenge.

  6. The banana was eaten. That was apparently art too. The eater could take a shit. That would be art too. Then the turd could be eaten. And postmodernism could continue to stun us with its acute insights into the “human condition”.

  7. The stance that art is a research of truth is disputable; basically, truth is the goal of science while the primary goal of art, including fiction literature, is beauty. But Freedom of thinking and speech is certainly the best way to reach this goal. Camus was indeed one of the rare French writers of his era who were interesting.
    Now we have Houellebecq who is a free-thinking writer, interesting and talented for the very short forms but whose novels are among the worst that I read in my lifetime, boring when they aren’t disgusting and disgusting when they aren’t boring and sometimes both at once, which is a sort of rare performance. But he comes as a perfect end for French litterature, squalid, nihilist, decadent and apocalyptic before the disappearance.

  8. Good article, but I would note that Camus phrase “create dangerously” has actually been, in effect, coopted, trivialized and corrupted. What young progressive artist, writer or musician doesn’t think of themselves as “creating dangerously”, as “challenging” or “subverting” some convention, as “taking risks”, as “speaking truth to power”? Check out any critical review of any “cutting edge” artist or writer for the last century. Non conformity has been and yet is the new conformity. In the Newspeak of the art world to “create dangerously” is your ticket to commercial success and social approval.

    Camus is clearly about restoring art to what was once its most elemental role in society, namely, as a form of knowledge. Other than modern Western society, all art of all cultures in all history is about knowledge of how the world works and who we are in that world. Art as purely “aesthetics” or “self expression” or “provocation” are peculiarities of the modern world. “Art for art sake” is a phrase used by people who have forgotten what art was and can be.

    So I think it’s a little misleading to emphasize that great art involves “taking risks”. Great art does indeed take risks, but taking risks is not the primary motivation of any great artist. It seems to me great art is more about fidelity to experience than being concerned about the “danger” of creating something out of the norm. Certainly, for example, Herman Melville writing Moby Dick was a kind of great risk and, in hindsight we can say he was “creating dangerously”, and indeed Moby Dick turned out to be a great critical and commercial failure in Melville’s lifetime. But do we really think that Melville, writing with “blood-shot eyes”, cared a damn about the social reception of his work?

    The making of art is a paradoxical venture: The artist creates truthfully without particular concern for consequences, yet it is precise this fidelity to truth and disregard for social consequences which may have great social consequences.

  9. Today in my newspaper a picture of the newly discovered cave painting in Sulawesi, kind of deer or dwarf -buffalo and some abstract human like creatures lying in front (animals always more realistic than humans, for 1000s yrs to come). Certainly art, but not l’art pour l’art, not realistic, probably some shamanistic meaning. Whatever it may have been, it doesn’t say much on what art can or should be these days. For me, art is something without much social or metaphysical meaning, it is intrinsically individual expression of individual emotions.

  10. Thanks for that @dirk. Here’s a bit more (I think it’s about the same discovery) on BBC:

    As for the “purpose” of art, I figure there isn’t one per se - although people do seem to like making up purposes (It’s about beauty! We’re telling our stories! It’s just a celebration of gender oppression! etc.). Personally, I think it’s just part of being human. Or to put it a little more crudely, we do it for the same reason a dog licks himself - because he can :slight_smile:

  11. The term “art for art’s sake” is vague (just as the term art is) and can be interpreted in many subjective ways, but for Camus I take it to mean a superficial art, or safe art, in the service of “simple entertainment” or “pleasant distraction.”

    What, I wonder, did Camus make of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa?

    Did he think it superficial? Safe? Created in the service of simple entertainment or pleasant distraction?

    Not dangerous enough for his taste?

  12. Great art is a rare occurrence. The convergence of good technique, with the right subject, at a point in the artist life when they have the time, materials, and willingness to produce it. Almost like winning a lottery, but then there’s Shakespeare or Mozart like some force of nature effortlessly showing everyone else how it’s done.

    Go figure!

    The Mona Lisa is intimidating but also beautiful.

  13. Question: what is the difference between great and normal art? Is it both art? Is the great art more art? One thing is sure, I think, the quality has nothing to do with appreciation of majorities. Art does not fit well into democracy. In this time of growing popularism, a fact that makes one think.

  14. I think that certain art gets the appellation great is mostly a reflection of the ethos of a the society that grants it, the same way that certain people are considered great. Rembrandt, for example, wouldn’t be considered as great as he is if the notion of individuality hadn’t risen to preeminence, especially in Protestant Europe. Or counter to this, I doubt Pollock, Basquiat, or Warhol would have become important if the West had not been moving towards a Brave New World ethos. Sort of a history being written by the victors thing.

  15. OK all you virtue signalers who might be in possession of any Picassos or Gauguins ( including righteously PC galleries), and you can no longer stand the mortification of owning such filth, please send the offending paintings to me. I will pay the shipping and bear the shame.

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