What of Our Time?

by Jarrod Tallman

At the very end of The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays is an interview with Albert Camus. Its title is “The Artist and His Time,” and in this interview Camus responds personally to questions about his craft, its link to art, to the politics of the time, and ultimately, the role of the artist. Perhaps the most inspiring insight found here comes from Camus’s explanation of the simultaneous distinction and overlap between existing and creating.

When asked, “As an artist, have you chosen the role of witness?” Camus hints at the nuanced relationship between being an artist and a human. “I don’t ask for any role and I have but one vocation,” he replies. For Camus, this vocation is clearly the craft of writing, but how does that vocation weave its way through the humanism Camus sees as a personal responsibility for which “each individual is sought out,” and the realm of art?

Camus rejects the notion that the artist chooses “the comfortable role of witness.” Instead, he sees this awareness, which is required to be an artist, as merely “minding one’s own business,” a humanist allusion that implies our business as individuals is the welfare of others. This also hints at a level of separation between the affairs of the world and art, putting the onus on the individual, artist or not, to always be on the look out and fighting against oppression.

To take this thought further, when asked “What can the artist do in the world of today?” Camus replies:

Considered as artists, we perhaps have no need to interfere in the affairs of the world. But considered as men, yes… I have not written, day after day, fighting articles and texts, I have not taken part in the common struggles because I desire the world to be covered with Greek statues and masterpieces. The man who has such a desire does exist in me… But…I have written so much…only because I cannot keep from being drawn toward everyday life, toward those, whoever they may be, who are humiliated and debased (TMOS, 211).

There are two critical takeaways here: 1) Camus does possess a nostalgia for the aesthetic world of beauty; and 2) Camus’s vocation is not the result of a virtuous choice, but it is precisely a matter of an “organic intolerance” for injustice and oppression, which, as he points out, some people feel and others do not. “I see many who fail to feel it, but I cannot envy their sleep” (TMOS, 211).

This intense passion for fellow humans that drives Camus should not be mistaken as a call to social preaching for the artist. Instead, Camus declares that, “if we intervene as men, that experience will have an effect on our language. And if we are not artists in our language first of all, what sort of artists are we” (TMOS, 211)? In other words, if we live as rebels it will be reflected in our art in a special tone of voice. The artist does not need to write didactically about forms of oppression for their work to stir people with a picture of common joys and sufferings.

Even if, militants in our lives, we speak of deserts and selfish love, the mere fact that our lives are militant causes a special tone of voice to people with men that desert and that love (TMOS, 211).

For Camus the values of creation and the values of humanity must never be separated, and the greatness of an artist[1] is measured by the balance they are able to maintain between the two, simultaneously serving suffering and beauty. Finding encouragement in Prometheus’s stubbornness, the artist and the human of the time require a long patience and strength to find and keep this balance and “establish the very renascence we need.”

The question then becomes: What of our time?

 


 

[1] In other writings, Camus refers to Molière, Tolstoy, and Melville as examples of great absurd artists. This creates an link between the aesthetic of Camus’s absurd creation and value of a work of art––a link worth exploring, perhaps.

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