Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The Aesthetics of Rebellion

Albert Camus (1957)
Albert Camus, in his essay, “Rebellion and Art,” (Chapter 4, The Rebel), offers an analysis of the political and cultural significance of art. He notes that creativity manifests itself through an act of refusal, and art is essentially a depiction of the spirit of rebellion in an individual or a social movement.

He begins his essay by pointing out that “Art is an activity which exalts and denies simultaneously.” This combination of exaltation and denial is a depiction of the artist’s intolerance of reality. The artist does not hide from reality; he takes cognizance of it. In his art he showcases his rejection of certain aspects of what exists, while remodeling the world as per his own plan.

He writes: “In every rebellion is to be found the metaphysical demand for unity, the impossibility of capturing it and the construction of a substitute universe. Rebellion, from this point of view, is a fabricator of universes. This also defines art.” He goes on to note that in all arts there is the tendency that “the artist reconstructs the world to his plan.”

The recreation of art by the artist is not indiscriminate; it is selective or set within the boundaries dictated by the artist’s sense of style.  Camus says: “This correction which the artist imposes by his language and by a redistribution of elements derived from reality, is called style and gives the recreated universe its unity and its boundaries. It attempts, in the work of every rebel, and succeeds in the case of a few geniuses, to impose its laws on the world.”

Camus holds that a good art must have some kind of equilibrium between “form and matter, between evolution and the mind, and between history and values.” If the equilibrium is destroyed, then the art will evoke the feeling of a degraded form of nihilist art, which is a supporter of dictatorship or anarchy, propaganda or formal insanity.

Talking about modern art, he says: “Whether it succumbs to the intoxication of abstraction and formal obscurantism, or whether it appeals to the whip of the crudest and most ingenious realism, modem art, in its semi-totality, is an art of tyrants and slaves, not of creators.”

In a totalitarian society, the artists are pitted against the rulers—their conflict can be seen as a creative revolution versus a nihilist revolution. Art is bound only by the restraints that the artist’s style imposes on it—when it faces external restraint, it becomes distorted and eventually withers and dies.

The creative efforts of the artists are a source of hope for those who are trapped in totalitarian societies. “And for us who have been thrown into hell, mysterious melodies and the torturing images of a vanquished beauty will always bring us, in the midst of crime and folly, the echo of that harmonious insurrection which bears witness, throughout the centuries, to the greatness of humanity.”

It is noteworthy that the aesthetic philosophy of Camus has several parallels and affinities with Ayn Rand’s aesthetics.  In this regard, Roger Bissell’s essay, “Langer and Camus: Unexpected Post-Kantian Affinities with Rand’s Aesthetics,” (The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies; Vol. 7; No. 1), is worth reading. He brings to light the common areas between Rand’s aesthetic philosophy and that of Susanne Katherina Langer and Camus.

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