Albert 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!”