Can we take Camus' advice seriously?
Aniela Rybak | 7th August 2020
Cover of Create Dangerously by Albert Camus (Cover Penguin Modern)
On my last visit to POLIN Museum in Warsaw I came across a bookshelf with the famous mint-coloured collection of Penguin Modern books of essays. One of them caught my attention particularly. First of all, the title: Create Dangerously. Some immediate questions appeared in my head: can artistic activity be considered unsafe, and if so, why should I listen to the title’s order? Then, I saw the author’s name: Albert Camus. The prominent, undeniably best looking, French thinker. Naturally, I had to read it.
From the very beginning, I couldn’t help but think about the title in my own context. A right-wing party candidate has recently won the presidential election in Poland. To be more precise, he was re-elected. During his first tenure, we experienced some alterations, especially in cultural institutions--changes dangerously close to censorship. Some of these changes included shifts in members of management boards and employees in museums, as well as failed attempts at disposing a few highly important examples of contemporary art. Taking up any creative activity in such an environment definitely makes one feel unsafe. You never know how your work might be received and understood.
In his essay, Albert Camus emphasizes how the most significant aim of those who cannot live without art (artists) is to find out a way of reaching freedom of creation. I think it is safe to say art has been controlled in various methods for centuries - by higher authorities (state, Church), cultural standards, or limitations imposed by society. Camus proposed a query pertinent in any historical period. One may even wonder, is an artist ever capable of creating with full liberty if their activity is normally connected to the society they come from? The author also discussed this point and partly agreed with it.
Before going any further, it is important to mention the historical context of this text. In fact, it was not an essay originally, but a speech. It was delivered in 1957, a few days before the writer was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature and only 12 years after the end of World War II when Europe was still trying to recover from the atrocious event. Was Albert Camus invited to give this speech in order to convince European society that art is still important and relevant in this post-war world? That emerging oneself in creative activity might actually be the cure for what had happened?
I would argue that it was the point to a certain extent. It is especially apparent in his conclusion, where Camus says how ‘every man, on the foundation of his own sufferings and joys builds for all.’ It could be even said it is a turn towards utilitarianism. What is more, Camus states that the only way to feel satisfaction as an artist is to create unpeacefully. However, he does not agree entirely with the myth of the suffering artist but recognizes the significant role of the renounced (for example, Baudelaire).
Camus recognizes how thin the line is when it comes to the opinion of others. He urges every creator to omit blindly, rejecting the society as only then, art becomes nothing more than negation. On the other hand, adapting themselves to what the majority of the population prefers will not be well received either, as then it will turn out to only be a meaningless recreation. An artist needs to find a golden mean.
This is where the individual comes in. According to Camus, personal experiences and opinions are so valuable, they can actually serve others. Camus gives an individual the power to affect thousands. Following Balzac, who said ‘the genius resembles everyone, and no one resembles him’, Camus considers that a similar statement can be made about art-–it cannot exist without reality and reality is utterly insignificant without it. What would we do without art?
Therefore, Camus addresses the artists with one postulate: do not forget the past and its atrocities, but at the same time remember about the present beauty of the world. He is asking all of us to simply stay in the moment and get inspired by what is around us. What would he say about the current situation in Poland? He probably would not be surprised as during his life, state oppression was not as shocking as we find it today. However, it does not mean he would not encourage us to fight with it and create dangerously.