Art – give us a break!

Recently a dog was starved to death as part of an art installation. And presently an artist is looking for a dying person to be part of another art installation – the artist’s depiction of ‘real death’. No canvasses, no oils, brushes or easels just insensitivity to all that nature holds dear – life.

The above news that filtered to Bali sometime ago started me thinking about the state of art on the island and where it was heading. So, I spoke to a few well-known foreign and Indonesian artists including the owner of a large art gallery. All of them refused to be quoted for fear of being ostracised from one clique or another. So here I am belling the cat and calling a spade the tool for digging one’s own grave.

A disturbing trend in art is taking hold in Bali – plagiarism and rampant mediocrity. Dramatic statements from orators posing as artists speaking eloquently at opening nights to the well-travelled high-heeled society only confirms one’s worst fears that a clash of clichés has sidelined the real artists.

There is a Latin saying which loosely translated means – poets are born, orators are made. Poets being the quintessential creative folk who are born with talent while the orators are devoid of any talent and have to practice their art ‘for’ perfection. Those ruling with paintbrush in hand pontificate about the lack of talent and vision (excluding themselves, of course); conveniently overlooking the struggling gifted local artists handicapped by language and oratory skills that fall by the wayside. These young people often resort to replicating artwork for a fee to keep the home fires burning.

So where has all the passion and originality in creativity gone? Has it been lost in the counting of bank notes or in the ever-shifting prism of the confluence of cultures on the isle? Some claim that the lifeless canvasses actually reflect a pervasive ‘surface society’. While others defend it by shouting from the rooftops that art is constantly in transition and therefore anything goes for a fee, adding that a dog does not appreciate art, only humans do.

Sometime back in a far off country an experiment was performed where a monkey was used to paint a few canvasses that were displayed alongside those of contemporary artists. The public was never told. At the opening of the exhibition the monkey’s work was hailed by critics and public alike.

This in essence reveals the sickening depths of consumerism that we have shrunk to. Established artists have become brands. And, as you probably know, brands are identifiable and therefore ‘good investment’. Whether the canvasses depict truth in art is irrelevant as long as the price is right. It has been heard in warungs that the Chinese have arrived in Indonesia buying the work of Indo-Chinese artists, some for staggering amounts. I have seen some of the artwork in question and presume that I can also buy a square black canvass and paint a few red lines on it, sign a fictitious ‘Chinese’ name and peddle the work for a few thousand dollars. What’s the difference between this and the fake Rolex watches being sold on the streets?

Maybe I will ask Dewi, the eight-year-old daughter of my landlord Wayan; to help me and we could split the sale proceeds.

“Children are natural abstract painters for they are closer to God and in a way on a higher spiritual plain than their elders. Many of us have lost contact with this spirituality and unfortunately the majority of contemporary artwork on display in Bali reflects just this” says a young artist in Ubud.

The ground reality is that society cannot do anything for art. It can only help ‘arrived’ artists. Every artist must make his or her way through the labyrinth of art galleries and various social levels infected with cancerous consumerism.

In the words of a leading Balinese artist, “Ubud is like a supermarket flooded mostly with cheap reproduced art. There is no life in this art. Everyone is just painting to get money. A true artist paints because he wants to transfer his thoughts to forms and/or colours onto a surface. He doesn’t create for a particular market or with a price in mind. You tell me Mark, have you met any such artist? It’s a shame that galleries are opening like fast food joints peddling artwork that distorts the truth. There is little or no integrity or spirituality in art anymore; it’s just about money. We are selling our souls as we are lost and need money to give us a false sense of achievement. Wealthy artists are not necessarily ‘real artists’ for they have probably sold their spirituality a long time ago and are now manufacturing work to appease the culture vultures that descend on Bali. We need to find the likes of Van Gogh among us to rekindle the passion in art. Originality is dead or dying. Creativity has committed suicide. What have we left?”

This is endemic the world over. A classic example is M.F.Hussain, an Indian painter, whose works sell for hundreds and thousands of dollars. Prior to one exhibition in India he arrived a few hours before the opening and ‘quickly’ painted all the blank canvasses on display; the result – a sell out.

Though brand identity works even in the rarefied atmosphere of the self-indulgent art world, it takes poverty, social strife, political upheavals and genocide to give birth to great artists. It has been said that it took 500 years for Switzerland to give the world the cuckoo clock while in the same period other countries under strife, plagued by violence gave us famous painters, poets, writers etc.

For me, an artist is the ‘integrity barometer’ of the society that he or she lives in. For example, Picasso (who is accused by many of destroying European art) and Salvador Dali successfully mocked the art world for they had discovered through their creative pursuits how to relate art to society. They ignited the then art world and forced it in another direction.

I cornered the owner of an art gallery to question him about the fate of young emerging Balinese painters and why he usually exhibited westerners’ work.

“I need money to help the struggling artists. So a percentage of the money I earn from sale of the foreign artists’ works I use to finance this venture. I send them to Yogyakarta and Jakarta to study. I exhibit their work. I feel time is not on their side right now. The market is too saturated with established artists. Also, the market works on trends like the fashion industry. Young Balinese artists are not in fashion right now. But their time will come, I am confident. And I will continue to financially support the local artists.”

My friend ‘the painter’ believes in the laws of Nature, of natural selection. He is confident that the art scene in Bali that is predominantly governed by mediocrity and self-gratification will in time level out onto a plain of acute monotony. This in turn will prompt the rise of young firebrand artists incubating in society like desert flowers that bloom whenever it rains. Hopefully they will revitalise the fading integrity of the present day art world.

So, till such time this happens we will have to suffer the onslaught of insipid soulless art that is fast becoming a fashion statement in Bali and elsewhere.

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti Om