Friday, November 07, 2014

What is Art and What is It for?

By Kuss Indarto 

AS many artists in many parts of the world, artists from Indonesia base their works on socio-political matter in the community. They are also inspired by it as the ideology of their works. Many studies even indicate that the development of art works in line with the socio-political history of Indonesian society. In other words, Indonesian art history is the miniature of Indonesia’s social and politic history of society. The Indonesianists from the West, who study a lot of Indonesian’s beats of art in Indonesia, from Claire Holt, Helena Spanjaard, Werner Krauss, Brita L. Miklou-Mkalai, to Heidi Arbucle, and other names, base a lot of understanding that ideology problem in Indonesian artworks is a socio-political society problem that develop around it.

History proved it, for example, during the years of Indonesian movement in seizing independence in 1940s, the artists did not only go into battle as patriots who used weapons physically, but they also made a move as artists to fight symbolically through the work of art. They made posters, stencils, and graffiti which content built the moral and spirit of people to fight Netherland colonialists. Soekarno, the first president of Indonesia even supported “the art project” financially to fight against that colonialist. Soekarno’s close relationship to the top Indonesian artists such as S. Soedjojono, Dullah, Affandi, Trubus Soedarsono, and other artists, enabled him to mobilize artists to put up resistance against Netherland colonialist from a cultural approach. “Boeng, Ajo Boeng!” (Man, Come on, Man!”) is one of the most well-known poster of one top Indonesian artist, Affandi. 

Almost a century before, Indonesia also had Raden Saleh Sjarief Boestaman (born during 1807-1811 and died 23 April 1880), an aristocrat artist who lived in Europe for years, and was considered as the first Indonesian modern painter. His most important and monumental artwork is “Tertangkapnya Diponegoro” (The Arrest of Pangeran Diponegoro, 1857) which is the anti-thesis of Netherland’s painter’s work, Nicolaas Pieneman, “Penaklukan Diponegoro” (The Submission of Prince Diponegoro) which was created around 27 years before. Pieneman’s perspective was like the voice of Netherland Indies government that saw Diponegoro as a Javan rebel, who eventually surrendered. Whereas, Raden Saleh had a different point of view, which was that Diponegoro came due to the Netherland Indies invitation for a negotiation, but in fact was entrapped and defeated. I think, Raden Saleh’s painting was a symbol of cultural resistance which was important for Indonesia (named Netherland Indies by then) because that work was openly delivered to the King of Netherland, Willem III of Netherland, as an attempt to give him an insight that the physical resistance of Pangeran Diponegoro (a Prince from Yogyakarta) against Netherland through Javan War did not end when Diponegoro was apprehended, exiled to Sulawesi, and died there. Javan War ended, but the attempt to cut all ties from Netherland colonialism however continued.

Another historical fragment which is interesting to look closely at was that time of leadership transition from Soekarno to Soeharto, around 1965-1966. This leadership transition was full of “noise” that carried great socio-political implications of society. Revolution happened, it was estimated that around a million people (it was also estimated that there were more than 2 million people) who were considered as Soekarno loyalists and Indonesian Communist Party loyalists killed by soldiers and the loyalist of Soeharto. It was during this period that there were a lot of artworks gave a strong image, opinion, political standpoint, or became a witness of the darkest socio-political occurrence in Indonesian national history. The painting “Dunia Anjing” (1965, oil canvas, 45x75 cm) by Agus Djaja is one of the fascinating example of the conflict between people and the groups with political interest that happened during that era. Agus Djaja’s way of delivering the message was quite symbolically sarcastic because the socio-political conflict that he portrayed was merely a fight between groups of dogs. In Indonesian social context, up till now, the dog figure has become a pronoun for cussing, for stating a disappointment, or for describing a negative situation in a harsh way.

Artworks that criticized the socio-political situation of society found more prosperous space of creativity when it was under the authoritarian New Order regime of Soeharto. This is unique as Soeharto was actually created a relatively hegemonic regime and anti-critics thus creating many demolitions of creative works that criticized it. That was the main point of art, because the artist later: (1) worked creatively with patterns and symbolical way of presentation and full of euphemism. This enabled the artwork to be able to reach the public space, but it needed brilliance and abundant sensitivity of aesthetical-artistic for the audience to comprehend the meaning of the work, and (2) contrastively, there were not a few art works that created blunt and extreme critics, but had the possibility to be censored and demolished by nation, or, whether they want it or not, artists had to find unconventional presentation space that was different from the general standard to avoid nation’s authoritarianism on the critical artworks.

In the 32 years of Soeharto’s New Order regime, there were many art presentations that were critical which caused the artists to be put to jail, exhibition that was stopped before reaching its closing time, or even exhibition that was canceled due to not getting permission from the security officials. It was during this period emerged the New Art Movement (Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru) as one of the most important and monumental art movement in Indonesia until now. Though exhibition and that movement started from the problem of art, it affected and implicated the political problem because there were many artworks in it that were so critical in responding to political problems.

Up to the fall of Soeharto’s regime in 1998, artworks still criticized government or nation. After that period, critical artists were like losing their political orientation and aim to criticize. They were like losing a public enemy so that they had to find a new exact aim that fit the critical character of the artwork. Thus, in this post-Soeharto era artists have to build their new artistic orientation to adjust their criticism character with the appropriate and contextual social issues. Now we can witness Indonesian artists works with varied theme and ideas, richer in nature, and each is persistent with its creative ideology. Other than not having authoritarian power, artists at the present time are at advantage by the rapid improvement of information technology which enables them to do creative practice which is similar to those done by artists in other areas. Here is where a worrisome phenomenon prevails, that is the pattern of “copy-paste creativity” which seems to go global. Artists have become copyists of visual texts of other artists in other parts of the world. Regardless all of that, social issues in society still emerge in many artist works represented in art space or public space.

Social issues in art works, as we can predict, is an extension of art function which is not all personal and is not always in line with the ideology of l’art pour l’art (art for art). There are many views on art function which are expected to enter the human lives directly. As an example, art is expressed as a medium of resistance of class or group, art as a political standpoint of artists towards nation, and any other examples.

In its more philosophical framework and study, as proposed by Bambang Sugiharto (2014), the function of art work is expected to be taken further, at least in four aspects, first, disclosive function (meta-cognitive) that is opening the truth of human lives’ complexity. This function is stated by art by unveiling various “qualia” (unique perception of individuals) that is usually unique and surprising but “true” and real. In this understanding art is not only seen merely from the context of aesthetics, but gets into the deepest level which is about existential truth. Thus, the cognitive map of society will be broaden and re-corrected by art works.

Second, the heraldic function, that is opening various opportunities to perceive (see, listen, live up) reality, creating many new paradigms to comprehend reality, at least introduce new forms of sensation which are unthinkable before. This function will be seen when the art world create new styles.

Third, the Utopian function, that is giving an emphasis on experience of something beautiful, joyful, which is truly desired and missed by people. Artworks serve this utopian function by not only showing something beautiful, but it can also show something on the contrary, situation and condition that are “dystopian”, so that consciousness is pushed to see something that is more ideal. This utopian function is the most common and usual function exists in art world.

Fourth, the educative function, this is a function that needs effort, which is giving things needed by human conscience, the feeling (heart), and imagination, an area that is sometimes go unnoticed, especially in its general education. In that quite pragmatic atmosphere, education is more likely to focus on a mere practical-cognitive skill.

Those philosophical functions are definitely the observations of art phenomena when in touch with their supportive people. It is in that touch art is expected to give contribution for the people around. In the end it is not wrong if artists are given problems when they are going to make an art work: what humanity value are you going to send through the artwork? What are you going to contribute by your artwork for your environment? Let us hope that these are not burdening questions. ***