Should the Artist Be a Rebel?

should the artist be a rebel

In his essay The Rebel, Albert Camus writes that the artist “rejects the world on account of what it lacks and in the name of what it sometimes is.” It’s a striking claim about the nature of art. By his act of creation, Camus argues, the artist declares that there is something in this world worth memorializing in paint, prose, or poem. However, he simultaneously declares that something is wrong and undertakes the task of making it right. In other words, he rebels.

Maybe the artist sees beauty in the world, enjoys it, and desires to participate in the creation of that beauty. Or maybe the artist sees evil and ugliness, and desires to show its true nature as being something that ought not to be. Either way, Camus implies that the artist sees a lack of something essential. If the present created order were sufficient, why would the artist feel the urge to fill, change, and improve it?

So for Camus, the true artist is the quintessential rebel because he affirms the transcendent and rejects the world or the parts of the world that conflict with his transcendent ideal.

Painters, sculptors, musicians, and dancers—they all undertake the same task of constructive rebellion.

Camus provides helpful insight into our understanding of literature. We frequently memorialize the good in the world and reject the bad, and we are right to see those things for what they are.

Unfortunately, Camus’ own view of art only took him so far.

Beauty carries the promise of a “living transcendence…which can make this mortal and limited world preferable to and more appealing than any other.” Beauty becomes merely the means to the end of meaning, making an otherwise painful life tolerable. Camus fails to recognize the supernatural source of beauty, only the necessity of it. In the words of C.S. Lewis, Camus looked at but not along the beam. Is there a more satisfying approach?

Fyodor Dostoevsky explored thoughts similar to Camus’ and arrived at similar conclusions. In his masterwork The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky wrestles with human evil through the thoughts of Ivan Karamazov, who, like Camus, is a tortured atheist attempting to come to grips with the world as it is in light of the suffering he has observed.

Dostoevsky also finds solace in artistic beauty. In his novel The Idiot, Dostoevsky issues the striking claim that “beauty will save the world.” In his later work Demons, Dostoevsky writes, “mankind… can live without science, without bread, and it only cannot live without beauty, for then there would be nothing at all to do in the world!”

Like Camus, Dostoevsky finds meaning and value in the act of creation itself, in doing something in the world, or even, as some translations render the phrase, to the world. Without art and the affirmation of beauty, man is nothing and lacks a reason to continue living. Dostoevsky also rebels against the evil of the world and affirms beauty as transcendent, calling on the artist to act in and upon creation to make it progressively more beautiful.

However, Dostoevsky further finds in beauty a “living transcendence” that points to the greater transcendent One, from whom the artist inherited his creative capacities. The presence of beauty in the world suggests to Dostoevsky something beyond the world, a first creator and preeminent beauty after which humans can and should model their efforts. The Brothers Karamazov presents a sympathetic rebuke against the atheistic Ivan, not a defense of him; thus, Dostoevsky’s corpus almost becomes an indictment of Camus’ approach to the world.

Returning to Lewis’s analogy, Dostoevsky looked along the beam to its source, and found in that source a reason to love the world enough to want to change it. Against Camus, Dostoevsky affirms that art is not merely a means to eke enough value out of life to keep on living; rather, creativity is a divine gift, meant to comfort man and improve the world while simultaneously turning his thoughts heavenward for guidance.

Philip Bunn is an east Tennessee native and a junior at Patrick Henry College where he studies political philosophy. He has a deep appreciation for books, pipes, and the ukulele.

Image by Christopher Campbell via Unsplash. 

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