In “Create Dangerously”, Camus describes the challenge that art faces in our time, new in the sense that centuries ago this challenge seemed absent: “history’s amphitheater has always contained the martyr and the lion. The former relied on eternal consolations and the latter on raw historical meat. But until now the artist was on the side lines. He used to sing purposely, for his own sake, or at best to encourage the martyr and make the lion forget his appetite. But now the artist is in the amphitheater.” [“Resistance, Rebellion, and Death”, p250]
Today, we have reached a level of perfection in the way we wage war, in the way we let our rulers, both the chosen and the self-appointed ones, spy on us and control our lives. They derisively laugh when we mention freedom, but more often than not, we do not even mention it, but meekly indulge in superficial pleasures, pulling our head between our shoulders so as not to attract attention when another morsel of freedoms is taken away.
What compels Camus to state that those artists of yore were able to stand aside? They too lived in times of unrest, of dictatorship, tyranny and endless war. They saw hunger, they saw the deepest of man’s carnal wishes compel man to his most horrible and shameful deeds. Perhaps not on today’s scale, but those are mere difference in tools. Man’s aggression was and is still its driving force.
For Camus, today’s artist cannot stand aside. “…even silence has dangerous implications. … The moment that abstaining from choice is itself looked upon as a choice and punished or praised as such, the artist is willy-nilly impressed into service.” [RRaD, p249]
Yet later he admits that there is hardly any choice for an artist. “The question, for all those who cannot live without art and what it signifies, is merely to find out how, among the police forces of so many ideologies (how many churches, what solitude!), the strange liberty of creation is possible.” [RRaD, p251, emphasis mine]
Why would the artist centuries ago have had any more choice than we do? Was he not, just like today’s artist, pressing himself into service? Did he not accept its consequence; to create art is to step into the arena, for better or worse. Then, as now, standing aside was for the masses who were contently opening mute mouths to dutifully slobber up their daily portion of entertainment, of celebrity updates, of the latest, sauciest rumors about that new cult called Christianity, while an unhappy few got ripped apart.
There was no such difference between those artists and the ones from our times. There never was.
Camus continued: “The doubt felt by the artists who preceded us concerned their own talent. The doubt felt by artists of today concerns the necessity of their art, hence their very existence.” [RRaD, p251] Is not this very doubting of oneself, while continuing to push that heavy rock of one’s artistic necessity up its slippery Sisyphian slope, the very essence? Just as the artist thought he might have discovered a reason for the existence of his art, he must watch – the only time he does stand by! – as once more his creation tumbles downwards, crashes into the lowlands of mediocrity and of lies unchallenged by the munging livestock of the masses. The necessity of today’s artist required that doubting of talent the artist of yore already displayed. At the moment when he, peering deep into the abyss where his certainty and reassurance just disappeared, sighs deeply, then once more starts down the slope, the treacherous scree that just a moment before almost made him loose his footing now biting deeply into the gaping wounds of his soles, at that moment, monsieur Camus, we must consider the artist happy. Both now and centuries ago.