What is the Festival of Indonesia? And what is Indonesia?
THE YEAR OF LIVING CULTURALLY
By CLIFFORD GEERTZ
The Sculpture of Indonesia
by Jan Fontein et al.
(National Gallery of Art and Harry N. Abrams, 312 pp., $29.95)
Court Arts of Indonesia
by Helen Ibbitson Jessup
(The Asia Society Galleries and Harry N. Abrams, 288 pp., $55, $45 paper)
Beyond the Java Sea: Art of Indonesia's Outer Islands
by Paul Michael Taylor and Lorraine V. Aragon
(The National Museum of Natural History and Harry N. Abrams, 319 pp., $65, $29.95 paper)
Modern Indonesian Art: Three Generations
of Tradition and Change, 1945-1990
by Joseph Fischer et al.
(Panitia Pameran KIAS, Jakarta, and Festival of Indonesia, New York, 222 pp., $29.95)
It sounds like a Barnum poster. Three hundred dancers and musicians! Fifty performances! Four major art exhibits! A hundred smaller ones! Puppet plays! Film series! Lectures ("The House That Wears Jewelry Like A Man," "Footsteps In The Sea"), fashions, foods, textiles, photographs, flower arrangements, herbal medicines, maps, masks, videos, body music, navigation, folk life, mythology! Two-hundred and fifty events over eighteen months in fifty American cities: Washington and Houston, New York and Honolulu, De Kalb and Grand Rapids, St. Cloud and Upper Montclair!
The Festival of Indonesia, launched last September with a grand gala at the Kennedy Center and spread by now over virtually every region of the country save Alaska, is rather a phenomenon. The question is, what sort of phenomenon is it? An effort to create an image of the mind of one people in the mind of another? An exercise in what its general director, the ex-Foreign Minister Mochtar Kusumaatmadja, forthrightly calls "cultural diplomacy"? An attempt by the inheritors of a civilization who see it as undervalued, not only with respect to that of Europe but, what is worse, those of India, China, Japan, and the Middle East, perhaps even Africa, to push it into the world-historical mainstream? A search for a generally recognized national identity? A leap into the contemporary world of negotiable art? A flourish of sensibilities? A political smoke screen? An enormous tourist brochure?
From one point of view, the festival is but the latest example of a phenomenon that has become increasingly popular over the past twenty years or so: the massive, and to all intents and purposes governmental, staging of the culture of an Asian, African, or Latin American country in the galleries and the auditoriums of the West. Americans and Europeans have been looking at the artwork of distant peoples brought to them by various sorts of wonder collectors for delight or instruction at least since the public museum was established toward the middle of the last century; and a little later the rise of international exhibitions made representative natives and live performances (the Javanese orchestra that Debussy heard, the Balinese demon dance that Artaud saw) available as well.
What is new in the present situation, the result of the rearrangements of power that have followed the collapse of colonialism after the Second World War, is that the objects and the performances -- and the natives as well -- are not being brought, they are being sent. China, India, Japan, various countries of the Middle East and Africa, and most recently Brazil and Mexico have all mounted vast and official presentations abroad of what they usually call their national heritage. "New York will be more exotic this Fall," proclaimed the ads for the Mexican blockbuster, "Mexico, A Work of Art," at New York's Met last year. (There were lesser displays at moma, Lincoln Center, the ibm Gallery, Carnegie Hall, "and 40 other New York cultural institutions," the whole inaugurated by President Salinas as the opening shot of his trade agreement offensive here.) Le Temps du Maroc, a year-long fantasia involving hundreds of musicians, actors, painters, writers, and craftsmen, to be held all over France in celebration of Hassan II's thirty years on the Moroccan throne and negotiated at the highest levels ("just the sort of razzle-dazzle the French culture minister, Jack Lang, excels at," The Economist remarked), was called off at the last minute when a book attacking the king as a murderer and torturer inconveniently appeared in Paris. ("Quand viendra-t-il," the last line read, "le temps du Maroc?")
It was just a matter of time until Indonesia, whose external image is a newsprint blur of massacres, economic resurgence, military annexations, smiling autocracy, and, inevitably, Bali -- "where Presidents and Royalty spend their Holidays," as a festival-connected tour package has it -- moved to project itself in terms of its art.
The festival is, in any case, no mere happening. It was brought into being with the signing by Kusumaatmadja and Secretary of State George Shultz of a government-to-government agreement in 1987. (President Suharto, the determined army general who displaced Sukarno after a failed coup twenty-six years ago and installed the present military-dominated "New Order" regime, issued a concurrent decree in Jakarta.) It operates under the aegis of the Indonesian Foreign Ministry, and the American coordinator is the same ex-State Department official turned private publicist who managed the even larger (800 programs, 140 cities, 44 states) India festival here five years ago. It is funded by twenty or so American corporations and foundations (Mobil, Boeing, International Nickel, Texaco, unocal; Mellon, Luce, Ford, nea, the Smithsonian), with some assistance from Indonesian state enterprises -- the oil monopoly, the airline, the central bank. More than $6 million had been raised from the American side alone by spring a year ago.
There is a blue-ribbon American committee, headed by S. Dillon Ripley, the ex-secretary of the Smithsonian, which includes Shultz and Paul Wolfowitz, the undersecretary of defense who was our ambassador in Jakarta. There is an Indonesian one headed by the minister of education, which includes the director generals for information, tv, and tourism. (1991 has been officially designated "Visit Indonesia Year.") Among the major American cultural institutions involved are the Kennedy Center, the National Gallery, the Sackler, and the Natural History Museum in Washington; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and Asia House in New York; Houston's Museum of Natural History, San Diego's Museum of Man, San Francisco's de Young, Seattle's Wing Luke, Boston's Faneuil Hall, and the Cincinnati zoo. Aside from "cultural diplomacy," Kusumaatmadja has coined another term for it all: "Indonesia's Coming Out Party."
Coming in" is more like it. The confrontation of American sensibilities by such unusual objects as shadow plays and bark cloths, sow goddesses and monkey dances, the overwhelming bulk of them never before seen here, produces immediately an aesthetic worry. Are the messages being sent the messages being received? This is a reasonable enough concern. A mismatch is surely inevitable between what such objects mean to those who make and surround themselves with them and what they are taken to mean by those who, somewhere else and of an afternoon, can hardly do more than passively attend to them.
But the terms in which that concern is expressed these days -- terms centering around so-called cultural barriers to understanding -- do more to conceal what is going on than they do to reveal it. The idea that the aim of the festival is to get Americans to respond to Indonesian art forms as Indonesians respond to them begs most of the questions that the enterprise poses. Is such a thing possible? Is it what either of the parties to the engagement are after? Is seeking out "cultural barriers" and tearing them down really how the spirit of one people comes into practical contact with the spirit of another?
Consider, in this regard, an article that appeared in the Arts and Leisure section of The New York Times last September on the sixty-four dancers from the central Javanese court city of Yogyakarta (a place of some half million people in the heart of the island's rice basket) traveling about the country under the festival auspices. Headlined "can Java's court dancers cast their spell abroad?" and subheadlined "In its Tour of the U.S. the Festival of Indonesia is Hoping to Overcome Cultural Barriers," the story went on:
The rewards of a global view of art can be immense. But it would be naive to think there are no barriers to understanding between cultures. Festival organizers are confident that Americans will respond to the color and beauty of their culture, but they want more than that. They want Western audiences to see the depth beneath the surface exoticism. At the same time, they worry about finding ways to fit Indonesian art forms into a foreign theatrical context without diluting or distorting them.
The image is clear enough. The "barriers" lie wholly on the "consuming" side, in the foreign conditions under which the dancers must perform and in the foreign audiences they must address. The "producing" side, by contrast, merely offers what it has as honestly as it can.
The "overcoming" of those barriers, moreover, is a matter of seeing through gorgeous surfaces to hidden depths, of "transplanting ... fragile, indigenous art form[s]" from a city whose cultural status "is not unlike that of Kyoto in Japan" to American showplaces where tomorrow there may be jazz or Shakespeare. The writer evokes the "velvet thunder of gongs and drums," the crouching walks "reserved for court entrances and exits," and the "layers of symbolism ... personifying the commingling of male and female principles, the union of divinity and king, the triumph of mind over body" of the ballets and shadow plays, and asks, not unreasonably: "How can such complexities -- and subtleties -- be translated from one culture to another?"
The responses to this problem are familiar enough. There is the provision of copious program notes that will do what the arts by themselves cannot do, that is, provide a technical and historical context for their interpretation. (The catalogs for the main exhibitions, largely the work of American, and in one case Dutch, scholars, are unusually detailed.) There is the simulation of the settings in which they are, on their home grounds, performed. (In Los Angeles the dances were held in an outdoor arboretum, considered reminiscent of a Javanese palace. In Boston a shadow play was staged in a street market.) And there is the adaptation of the performances to "Western theatrical milieus." ("We have mastered the Western proscenium," a Javanese choreographer is quoted as saying. As "most festival events will last about two hours," works that run longer have been subject to "judicious cuts, primarily by eliminating repetitions or by advancing the plot through narration rather than action.")
Though eliminating repetitions in a shadow play comes perilously close to eliminating the shadow play, which works by repetition, and advancing the plot of a court ballet through narration assumes that it is telling a story rather than displaying a realm, all this is surely inescapable, the mere condition of things if outright bafflement is to be avoided. And anyway the same sort of streamlining goes on these days, even more flagrantly, in Indonesia itself. But whether it leads to "young and old, black and white, Indonesian and American," to quote another newspaper piece on the Yogya dancers, this one from The Boston Globe, "reach[ing] across the cultural divide and discover[ing] harmony in the international language of art" is another question.
For in fact the shows and the showings of the festival do not obliterate difference. Nor are they really meant to. They are meant to mark it, to define it, to set it out, in some sense to entrench and to celebrate it. Like an Academy Awards show or a St. Patrick's Day parade, the festival is a sort of art form in itself, a constructed thing that somebody (or somebodies) has constructed with somebody (or somebodies) else in mind; and we are better advised not to try to look through it, to some distant innerness that journalists, anthropologists, curators, or impresarios have assured us it conceals, but to look at it. When we do that, the image that comes to mind is not one of walls falling. It is of frames and scaffoldings being wheeled into place.
The festival is a composite of elements that would not appear together in any Indonesian context save the most artificial (state receptions, some museums inherited from the Dutch, some culture gardens set up by the government, upscale tourist hotels) and that are in various sorts of tension, some severe, with one another. It is an anthology, an assemblage of "the highest exemplars," as that same choreographer who has conquered the proscenium stage put it. It is certainly a form that has no real parallel in Indonesia, where eclecticism proceeds by way of mixed art syncretism, not greatest hits compilation. Traditionally, at least, the arts have developed in Indonesia through the absorption of "foreign" materials -- Indian, Chinese, Mideastern, Oceanian, Western -- into indigenous forms; by softening contrasts, not highlighting them.
And the festival is troubled, and energized, by the problem that troubles and energizes all anthologies that aspire to be more than inventories: determining principles of selection and balance, focus and comprehensiveness. This is difficult enough for a country that is relatively consolidated culturally, like Morocco or Mexico. For a scattered archipelagic country like Indonesia -- with 180 million people, generally Islamic, but with important Christian and Hindu minorities, mostly Malayo-Polynesian, but with significant Chinese and Papuan populations, and with a host of languages, religions, ecologies, social structures, races, histories, political forms, colonial incursions, and levels of development -- it is so delicate a matter as to loom behind virtually every act of national assertion.
Whether the stupa or the minaret, the kris or the prau, the staircase topography of upcountry rice terraces or the high-rise architecture of downtown Jakarta is taken, in this instance or that, to be the perceptible token of "Indonesia" is a consequential business. There are real investments, political, personal, moral, material, in "Indic Indonesia" or "Islamic Indonesia," "civilized Indonesia" or "folk Indonesia," "modern Indonesia" or "traditional Indonesia." Those are all categorizations that, aside from being porous and ill-defined, also clash, diverge, interact, or align in complicated and fateful ways. Like any diplomacy, then, "cultural diplomacy" has its designs and its dilemmas. Before a country can display itself abroad, it must decide what it wants abroad to imagine it to be.
The cultural issues that vex Indonesians are as various as the country, and the festival simply avoids -- reasonably enough, for a celebratory enterprise bent on providing a come-hither picture -- a fair number of the more explosive of them. (Rising Islamism, for example: Suharto's recent return from the pilgrimage to Mecca has sent shock waves through the less pious parts of the population, already worried about fundamentalist attacks on "non-Islamic" aspects of indigenous culture.) But three of these explosive Indonesian issues, at least, are so all-pervading that they cannot be avoided, no matter how intense the desire to do so: the "Java-centric" issue, the "folk art/high art" issue, and the "modern/traditional" issue.
The first, the Java-centric issue, is the most particular in its precise form to Indonesia. In part, it is the mere result of the overwhelming demographic preponderance of Javanese in the country, a half to two-thirds, depending upon how and whom you count, with the remainder divided among seven or eight moderately large groups and literally hundreds of small ones -- a core and periphery pattern that seems to have obtained for a thousand years.
But there is more to it than that. The great fluorescence of Indic civilization occurred in Java (and, after the fourteenth century, in Bali). The extraordinary trade expansion of the sixteenth century -- the one that brought Islam and, on its heels, the Portuguese, Spanish, English, and Dutch -- was centered on Java's north coast. The Dutch settled the headquarters, first of their East India Company, then of their colony, in Java. The rise of nationalism and the revolution against the Dutch mostly took place there. So did the popular massacres, in which thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, died in 1965-66, following the abortive coup in Jakarta for which the Communists and their allies, also mostly concentrated in Java, were held responsible. And today Java and the Javanese remain, despite strenuous efforts by the government to cloud the fact, and occasional efforts, sometimes violent, by non-Javanese to alter it, the axis upon which the life of the country turns. The Javanese contrast of Jawa and Seberang ("across," "facing," "opposite") may be an oversimplification of a more complex pattern, as well as a parochial view. Folk categories usually are. But it does catch the effective look of things. Folk categories usually do.
In contemporary Indonesia, in the state that has come into being over the past twenty-five years under Suharto and his army-directed "New Order" (the army itself is about 80 percent Javanese), the position of Java and of Javanese culture within the country as a whole has become an even more delicate matter. The propagation of a state ideology -- the Pancasila or "Five Points" (Nationalism, Humanitarianism, Democracy, Social Prosperity, Faith in God) first set forth by Sukarno in 1945 as a call to arms at the outbreak of the revolution, but turned into a systematized civil religion by Suharto -- has provided a summary of national identity to which everyone is expected to repair, but it has also raised fears that it is a vehicle for the progressive Javanization of the entire country. The resurgence of Islam as an international force has made the irony of the world's largest Muslim country being most generally perceived through Indo-Javanese imageries -- gamelans, shadow plays, batiks, temples -- ever more obvious, and to the zealous intolerable. And the rapid development of the various regions outside Java, timber in Borneo, oil in Sumatra, copper in West New Guinea, has added to the awareness of the issue and of the problems it poses for overall unity.
The second issue, about the distinction between folk art and high art, may seem to be a Western obsession, like narrative unity or vanishing-point perspective. But it is, in fact, an issue that tends to appear in some form or other in any complex society, in any society in which there exists a "great tradition" (Sanskritic in India, Iberian in Mexico, Islamic in Morocco) over and above the "little traditions" of village, tribe, chiefdom, or region. In Indonesia the simultaneous presence of multiple great traditions, Indian, Islamic, in some localities Christian, in some Chinese, as well as the vast range of quite variously structured little ones, Minangkabau, Dyak, Bugis, Papuan, gives the issue a particular sharpness. The weight that is to be given in any effort at cultural summary to architectural set pieces like Barabudur -- the enormous ninth-century Buddhist monument in south-central Java -- or developed mysteries like Sufi chanting, as against that which is to be given to longhouses, amulets, stools, boxes, sarongs, ladles, bird cages, and penis shields, is clearly of great moment. The picture that comes out, "civilized" accomplishment, subtle and refined, or "popular" craft, direct and vigorous, is quite different.
The problem is made more acute by the tendency, now quite general in the world, to regard the longhouse and penis shield sort of thing as "primitive," as natural outpourings of natural men, unreflected, anonymous, naive, beguiling; and to regard the Barabudur and chanting sort of thing as art, full stop: profound, deliberate, definitive of the soul and the soul's ambitions. A country seeking to recommend itself to another is not likely to want to promote the notion that it is culturally unsophisticated, and certainly not that it is "primitive." The need to celebrate its masterpieces, of which by definition there can be but a few, contained and set apart from ongoing life, and to celebrate the status of its arts in general, are both intense.
It is necessary, in other words, for such a country at once to embrace the distinction between high art and folk art, so as to establish the fact of great accomplishments, suitable to be mounted in the National Gallery or presented at the Kennedy Center beside the best of elsewhere, and to blur that same distinction, so as to prevent one's more ordinary, closer-to-home achievements from being sorted with the backward, the curious, the cute, the incidental. The elusive contrast between "real art" and "mere ethnology" becomes, suddenly, ideologically charged.
Finally, the third issue, the modern/traditional one, is perhaps the most familiar to us, who have passed in this century through so many efforts to work ourselves loose of the past or reconnect ourselves to it. Still, we do not always recognize that such efforts are even more determined in countries such as Indonesia (or Morocco or Mexico), where the tension between established forms, familiar and assuring, and innovative ones, anomalous and challenging, is especially great. When one enters onto the world stage as rapidly as these countries have, the question of the adequacy of one's heritage to the statement of one's condition -- are Buddhas and betel-chewing really us? -- is no longer remote and academic.
Thus, the bulletin of the quasi-official body that has general responsibility for the festival from the Indonesian side, the Nusantara Jaya Foundation, itself has noted that when the festival was being organized there was concern as to "whether Indonesia -- a country where economic development is now the central theme of government -- wanted to project an image of ancient traditions and quaint customs." Another article from The New York Times, this one marvelously headlined "the joe papp of bali finds himself in a cultural pickle," quotes the Balinese impresario I Made Bandem to the effect that "there is still no art with a capital 'A' in Bali," and says that "Mr. Bandem [a member of Parliament who has a master's from ucla and a doctorate from Wesleyan] wants to change that," but finds himself roundly criticized "for commercializing sacred dances" and for making Bali's art into something it has never been, a professional activity, complete with stars, producers, conservatories, critics, and theater tickets. And in Indonesia itself, extremely popular "Broadway-style" song and dance productions by the playwright Riantiarno -- Suksesi and Opera Kecoa ("The Cockroach Opera"), filled with images of businessmen rajas struggling with Kshatriyaesque army generals and public monuments that fall from the sky -- have unleashed a storm of public controversy as to whether they are advancing Indonesian culture or trashing it.
Suksesi (a pun, of course, on both "succession" and "success," topics of some tenderness right now in Indonesia, as Suharto approaches what may or may not be his last election surrounded by charges of family corruption) was eventually shut down by the police because "the audience might be influenced to believe things that are not true." I owe my knowledge of it to a communication from the political scientist William Liddle, who reports:
What I saw was a professionally crafted entertainment, a well-paced Broadway-style play ... that also incorporated a wide range of indigenous theatrical styles and conventions, from the low verbal comedy of the Surabaya folk theater to the sophisticated aesthetic of the central Javanese shadow play. Just the right combination of foreign and domestic, high and low, to attract the urban middle-class audience to which Riantiarno explicitly directs his work.
And I owe my knowledge of Opera Kecoa to an article by the drama scholar Mary Zurbuchen, who, quoting an official government statement that "we will continue to subsidize the vitality of the arts, modern as well as traditional," pointedly remarks, "[It is not] obvious ... just what these categories consist of.... It is sometimes difficult to distinguish purely 'traditional' arts from contemporary creations in traditional idioms, say, or innovative expressions that have a traditional feel but borrow elements from outside the tradition." And Zurbuchen continues:
The touchstone of tradition in the arts has to do with perceptions of what really matters, what "belongs," what is tolerable within generally acceptable bounds.... [There is a] pervasive anxiety among the current generation of artists and teachers as to what the role of traditional art in contemporary society should be. Does it matter that [shadow play ballet] ... originated in the courts? Does this mean it is inherently "feudal" or "colonial"? Or can it still be relevant in independent Indonesia as entertainment with a changed message for an audience without the older elite's concern for spiritual and mystical values?... [The] current generation of Javanese artists ... has inherited a complex dilemma in which traditional norms of excellence, modern concerns for relevance, and art's ability to communicate with its audience make it difficult to know what kind of artist to be.
It is clear, then, that it's not just a question of whether the wine can travel. There are complexities on the sending end that dwarf those on the receiving one. The problems involved in staging performances or displaying artifacts for audiences ill-prepared to understand them in settings ill-constructed to accommodate them are indeed great. But those involved in creating a national persona out of clashing attitudes, cultural summary out of cultural swirl, are even greater. And the latter is what drives the Festival of Indonesia.
In that regard, the dispersed and invertebrate structure that its organizers have chosen -- lots of small- or medium-sized performances and exhibitions, in lots of places, some of them unlikely, around the country, rather than the blockbuster mega-presentations often favored by such enterprises -- has served it well, at least in avoiding delicate questions and direct confrontations. The main events, modest in size, limited in purpose, and strongly thematic, distribute themselves in the space "Java vs. Across," "high art vs. folk art," and "modern vs. traditional" -- unconnected points in an unacknowledged grid. A bit like the country, the festival is archipelagic.
"The Sculpture of Indonesia" show, which is in fact the sculpture of Java (and a few other Indianized places) to the fifteenth century, is the most precisely located in that space as well as the most self-enclosed, and self-admiring, of the major presentations of the festival. (It also has the most upscale itinerary: Washington's National Gallery, Houston's Museum of Fine Arts, the Metropolitan in New York, the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.) Confined to high art in Indic styles, to cakras, sivas, priest bells, and buddhas, the show takes a rigorously art historical and classical archaeological approach to its material -- Java as Indonesia's Greece (or, perhaps better, its Rome: India is its Greece).
It is an approach that has hardly changed since Dutch scholars first set it forth in the 1920s. Its objects, some 100 or so, drawn from the famous sites of early Indonesia -- Barabudur, Prambanan, Singasari -- are treated, to quote the catalog, as a "group of art forms ... understood as appealing to critical taste and therefore superior in aesthetic quality," and they are presented in terms of foreshadowings of such quality in preclassic works, realizations of it (a "superb" Prajnaparamita, a "fine" Mahadeva) in classic ones, and recessions from it in postclassic ones. There is the grand, three-and-a-half-foot seated stone Buddha from Barabudur (one of the 504 Buddhas on the monument), with its distinctively Javanistic rounded face and body, closed eyes, and its hands infolded into its lap in meditative calm. There is the set of eighteen miniature, two- to four-inch, highly worked statuettes of Buddhist divinities -- of the lamp, of the flute, of the drum, of song, of the exuberant dance, of the bow and arrow -- each displaying its specialty in marvelously expressive postures. And there is the heart-shaped gold repousse chastity plaque, adorned with the image of the falsely murdered heroine of a Javanese Othello-like legend (though, as it is Javanese, she comes back to life). Questions of iconography, of diffusion, of technique, of stylistic development, and most especially of hierarchical evaluation (which are masterpieces? which are not quite?) dominate. And the whole is presented as a picture of "underlying Indonesian ideals of beauty" that, it is held, continue to underlie the country's culture.
In the "Court Arts of Indonesia" exhibition, mounted at the Asia Society last autumn, then moved in turn to the Dallas Museum of Art, the Sackler Museum in Washington, and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, the problems of cultural representation are, as this mixed itinerary suggests, more complexly addressed. As the exhibition deals with materials from some thirty-odd courts, large and small, scattered across the archipelago from Aceh in the west to Tidore in the east, it at least partially escapes the problem of Java-centrism, as its organizers quite consciously set out to do, even if the preponderant weight of the Javanese and Balinese courts in such a frame is impossible to disguise. And as it is concerned with all arts associated, in whatever capacity, with the courts, it at least partially escapes the high-art bias as well, even if shadow puppets, dance masks, and kris handles tend inevitably to dominate less celebrated objects.
Here, in a most innovative move, the focus on masterpieces and on universalistic, connoisseur-style evaluation, the standbys of art historical scholarship in the West, is put aside. A pan-Indonesian concept, neither vague and abstract like "the commingling of male and female" nor vague and esoteric like "the union of divinity and king," but concrete and accessible, is used to organize the exhibition: that of the heirloom, what Indonesians call pusaka. It is the objects, some highly wrought, some extremely simple, that the court families, now relics themselves, have conserved as proofs and signs of their vanished power that define "Court Art."
Halfway between our notion of an artwork and of an artifact, yet not assimilable to either, the pusaka -- a water beaker from Bali, a bracelet from Sulawesi, a circumcision knife from Java, a spittoon from Sumatra, a twine bag from western Timor -- represents culture less as abiding ideals than as stored away heritage: things people keep. It doesn't much matter whether you install them in a specialist gallery like the Asia Society, a fine arts museum like the Dallas or the Sackler, or a natural history repository like Los Angeles County's. These "history objects," material anchors in an imagined past, fit as well in the one as in the other.
As its very title announces, "Beyond the Java Sea," the third major exhibition of the festival, which has been mounted at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History (and later will appear in Houston and San Francisco), is expressly designed as a counterweight to Java-centrism. All the pieces, some 200 of them, are from outside Java and Bali. And as both its organization, by ethnic regions (Nias, Batak, Southeast Moluccas, Northwest New Guinea, and so on), and its objects (ancestor figures, head cloths, blowguns, door handles, boat ornaments, drums, and so on) demonstrate, it is firmly on the "traditional" and "folk art" side of things as well.
Thus it has to face the "primitivism" question from the start. "Such art forms [as those displayed here]," the catalog says in way of introduction,
have sometimes been grouped together as "primitive" art, "tribal" art -- or even ... "archaic" ... art. Each of these appellations invites misunderstanding. The chorus of scholarly complaints about the concept of "primitive" art has grown quite loud ... for good reasons, as the sophisticated (even cosmopolitan) art in this exhibit will illustrate.... Moreover, the continued use of terms such as "primitive," "tribal," and "archaic" ... perpetuates a postcolonial view of this art as evolutionarily antecedent to, rather than just different from, Western art forms.
The undermining of these demeaning "appellations" is carried out in the exhibition itself in two main ways: first, by selecting the objects to be displayed "with canons of Western connoisseurship in mind" rather than in terms of their ethnological significance; and second, by displaying them -- an intricately painted Borneo war shield, a finely carved shell, and a palm-fiber boat prow -- in such a way as to bring out native conceptions, or presumed such, of "aesthetic value." Unlike most exhibitions of this sort, curated (as this one is) by anthropologists, we are not faced with dioramas and display cases crowded with functionally associated items of varying degrees of crudeness and refinement, but with carefully arranged vitrine displays of a small number of especially well-worked ones: "exemplars of indigenous Indonesian aesthetics as well as masterpieces as defined by a Western collector's aesthetic." Though the result is uneven -- the New Guinea material is disappointing, the Celebes material is stunning -- the dissolving of what anthropologists call "material culture" into what art historians call "aesthetic objects" is thoroughgoing.
And so the threat of primitivism, tribalism, archaism, and backwardness is effectively exorcised:
Two centuries ago ... Alexander Baumgarten first used the Greek word aesthetikos ... to designate the appreciation of art and beauty. Much ... has since been written about our aesthetic response to objects -- both objects created to elicit an aesthetic response ("art by destination") and objects created for other purposes that nevertheless elicit an aesthetic response ("art by metamorphosis"). This emphasis on the aesthetic response produced by art permits a useful cross-cultural basis for studying art, since "art" can then be defined as a human creation that produces an aesthetic response, and the aesthetic response of people in different cultures can be compared.
If archaeological remains, dynastic keepsakes, and ethnographical items elevated to aesthetic objects have slipped with relative ease into appointed slots in the institutional structure of American art display (as have shadow plays, gamelan music, and court ballet), contemporary productions have experienced a good deal more trouble getting seen. "It was difficult," the catalog of Modern Indonesian Art, the main festival enterprise in this area, bitterly remarks, "to find galleries ... that were willing to be venues for this exhibition." Its curators, a group of American, Indonesian, and Dutch critics and collectors, managed to obtain only one full-scale showing, at Mills College in Oakland, though truncated versions were mounted in four other Western cities. (In the East, the Bronx Museum of the Arts, which originally agreed to house the exhibition, abruptly backed off, for reasons that remain obscure.)
There are a number of possibilities why contemporary art, and painting in particular, has been marginalized in this way. (The situation is no better for fiction, poetry, and drama, which, a small film exhibition aside, have virtually no place in the festival at all.) It could be, of course, that the work is inferior. But with painters of the power of the meditative abstractionist Ahmad Sadali, the magical realist Hendra Gunawan, and the calligraphic colorist A.D. Pirous, to say nothing of the compositional originality of Widayat or Popo Iskandar, that is clearly not the case.
The curators tend to blame the galleries' need "to put on shows that are likely to be critically successful and profitable," and the consequent emphasis on traditional genres when it comes to non-European, "exotic" art. It is all right for Western modernists, Picasso or Gauguin, to draw inspiration from non-Western arts. moma will celebrate them for it. The reverse, non-Western artists drawing inspiration from Western modernism, is condemned as mimicry and soul loss:
Almost all the attention given to Indonesian art both inside and outside the country has focused either on folk art or classical ancient art. From 1950 to 1990 some eighty exhibitions of Indonesian art were held outside Indonesia, mainly in Europe and the United States.... All of these were exhibits of ethnographic or ancient art; of these twenty-seven alone dealt with traditional textiles.... There has never been in the United States a major exhibition of Indonesian modern art in museums or commercial galleries.
There is a good deal of truth in this. But again the constraints may lie as much on the sender as on the receiver. In a forming country, especially in one so marked with social tensions and cultural fault lines as Indonesia, contemporary art, whatever its intent, is inevitably caught up in foundational struggles as yet unresolved. During the 1965 upheavals, the leading association of Indonesian painters, writers, dramatists, and filmmakers was affiliated with the Communist Party, and when the Party was destroyed at the hands of the army, many of its members were killed or imprisoned. Gunawan, who has since died, served ten years; Pramoedya Ananta Toer, the country's leading writer, served fourteen, and he remains, his books banned, under city arrest in Jakarta. (The Suharto regime is especially sensitive to artistic resistance to its homogenizing tendencies. Students have recently been given long prison terms simply for selling Pramoedya's books, and many painters have found it politic to spend extended periods abroad.) Celebrating the richness of a broad and ageless "national heritage" is a good deal more comfortable for all concerned than exposing the tensions to which that richness has these days led.
Still, there is one form of "modern" art that the festival does not marginalize, but brings to the focus of attention: the festival itself. The dazzling achievements in an enormous range of arts that it places before us, the interpretive dilemmas of intercultural understanding that it forces us to reflect upon, and the social realities that, in spite of itself, it dramatizes -- all of these make of it much more than a celebration or a circus. "Indonesia's day of maintaining a low profile are over," the announcement of the festival's opening proclaimed. "The 'sleeping giant' is stirring -- stretching, putting its best face forward, and stepping into the limelight, soon to take her hour upon the stage." The worldly aesthetics of The Year of Living Culturally are indeed quite modern.
The year of living culturally: what is the festival of Indonesia? And what is Indonesia? A critical look at cultural diplomacy, in: The New Republic (New York/N.Y./USA: The New Republic Pub. Co.), vol. 205 no. 17 (October 21, 1991), pp. 30-36
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