The Artist and the Institution: The Writer Who Refused the Nobel Prize


Jean Paul Sartre was one of the leading French intellectuals of the 20th century.  He Incorporated his existentialist philosophy into  the many essays, novels and plays which he wrote. His works endeared the spirit of humanist values and engendered the reader to discover their own meaning of life and happiness.  To this day his works remain highly debated and discussed around the world.

On October of 1964 at the age of 59 years old he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his literary and philosophical contributions.   However Instead of accepting this high honor commemorating his achievements Jean-Paul Sartre refused the award.

He proclaimed:

 “A writer should not allow himself to be turned into an institution.”   

This was not the first time Sartre had declined to accept an award, in fact he had similarly declined to accept an award from the Legion of Honor for his internment in a German POW camp  as well as an invitation from the Collège de France. It appears that all official honors sent Sartres way were immediately rejected.

But Why?

How does accepting an award institutionalize an artist?  

One way to understand Sartres decision is to understand what he called bad faith.  Bad faith is a kind of self deception in which an individual tries to escape free will by pawning off their responsibility. He stated he did not wish to be made “Jean Paul Sartre, Nobel Prize Award Winner.” An example of this is that I could say that I have the choice to smoke marijuana on national television but if I were the president I could say “I can’t do that because I am the president” instead of saying, “I can’t do that because I don’t want to.” A person in bad faith places responsibility for their actions on object they try to make of themselves instead of owning the matter of their own free will.

According to Sartre by accepting our ethos as individuals we are always free to make choices and guide our lives towards our own chosen goal or “project”  An individual is solely responsible for creating purpose in their life. By accepting the award of an institution he would thus associate himself with it and it’s laureates.  If the artists aim is to be genuine he must stand on his own free will and accord.  Thus it is the responsibility of the artist as an individual to stand alone without the brand of an institution.

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