Create Dangerously!

Albert Camus, 1957Albert Camus gave a speech entitled “Create Dangerously” at Uppsala University in December 1957. He did not mean the title as a directive with an exclamation point at the end, but rather as a description: “To create today is to create dangerously.”  In the speech, Camus writes of the impact of art and its relationship to its audience:

“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. In this way we shall have the production of entertainers or of formal grammarians, and in both cases this leads to an art cut off from living reality.”

I came across this speech on, of all places, my twitter feed.  Someone had quoted just the opening question and first sentence of the excerpt: “Of what could art speak, indeed? If it adapts itself to what the majority of our society wants, art will be a meaningless recreation.” Taken out of context, the implication is obvious: popular art = bad art.  But in the context of the paragraph and the speech as a whole, Camus meant something very different: art must connect with present reality and when it does so, it is dangerous — for the artist personally and, potentially, for the states and other power structures depicted therein.

As I learn and teach about art, its impacts,  the evaluation of arts programs, and about the need to engage audiences, artists and arts supporters have on occasion responded, “but art is an end in itself” or, “art is for art’s sake.” Camus refutes that point:

“Art for art’s sake, the entertainment of a solitary artist, is indeed the artificial art of a factitious and self-absorbed society. The logical result of such a theory is the art of little cliques or the purely formal art fed on affectations and abstractions and ending in the destruction of all reality. In this way a few works charm a few individuals while many coarse inventions ·corrupt many others. Finally art takes shape outside of society and cuts itself off from its living roots.”

Finally, Camus depicts the danger artists face, positioned as they are, on a narrow ridge:

“Art advances between two chasms, which are frivolity and propaganda. On the ridge where the great artist moves forward, every step is an adventure, an extreme risk. In that risk, however, and only there, lies the freedom of art.”

Thus, to create art, art that remains attached to its living roots, is to create dangerously. To the artists who read this blog, and especially my student artists, I would like to make Camus’s title a directive: “Create Dangeously!”

About lindaessig

Linda Essig is Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Cal State LA and principal/owner of Creative Infrastructure LLC. The opinions expressed on creativeinfrastructure are her own and not those of Cal State LA. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix.
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4 Responses to Create Dangerously!

  1. Pingback: Creative Infrastructure

  2. I’m not sure that is a fair portrayal of Camus’s ideas or the notion of ”l’art pour l’art”. Camus acknowledge the two worlds, one of the artist, and the other the rest of society. He also believed that artists needed to traverse those two worlds and said that “between the two lies the arduous way of true art.”
    The phrase “art for art’s sake” is often misappropriated from it’s original intention- ”l’art pour l’art”. That intention wasn’t just reflecting an elitist thought or rather that art was above everything else. It’s historical context was that art in itself, the power of the aesthetic experience, is valuable in it’s own right and doesn’t depend on being associated with another moral or didactic purposed.

  3. Yes!

    The one exception I’d propose to what Camus said is that in today’s multicultural world, with its proliferation of subcultures and idiosyncratic pursuits, sometimes a genuine lived reality has more and more the flavor of “little cliques”. There is an absence of uniformity in the broad picture. Art that perhaps once aimed at a more broadly consensual reality is now often quite fractured by aiming at what particular groups have to say and value. In so far as art can also address social issues, and these issues are often bounded by social contexts, the lived reality of our new art simply cannot speak to everyone equally. The differences within our community positively guarantees that there will be a multiplicity of contrasting and often contradictory points of view.

    So maybe the truth of what Camus had to say in this regard needs to be repositioned to take account of the fractured nature of contemporary society. Perhaps the threat of being “cut off from our living roots” is simply our new reality, and that we are to a large extent already unmoored from a necessary shared foundation. There are some real truths in a postmodern perspective, and it can be argued that what we give up in the sanctuary of shared values we gain in the access to different points of view. Its only natural that art has followed this trail, and that art reflects these greater changes within our society and within the human world.

    So, create dangerously, but also be fearless in creating new meaning. Be unafraid of creating new society, one that may seem outside the one you were born into. If you can’t find what fits, make something new. Our conversation doesn’t have to depend on an audience already preformed for us. Be bold in constructing new audiences.

  4. luttrellg says:

    Absolutely fantastic post!

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