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3.2 ART: Spiritual Missions, Institutional Parodies
There are several ways in which art as an ethical theme is presented in kontemporer performances. Some of them are philosophical in scope, addressing the role of the artist in society, as a motor of change and a keeper of historical records. Others narrow this reflection to wayang as an art form which should be adapted to suit the times. In yet another subdivision, we can find a performance that parodies the institutions and the economic constraints that limit the work of artists. Yet, in all of these variations, ethical questions are addressed: What is the role of the artist in society? What are the ethics of arts practice?
I will start this section by suggesting that a local concept of art is better suited for the present exploration than a universal definition (in case such a thing is even possible). In A Subversive Understanding of Seni, artist and art critic Jim Supangkat makes a provocative suggestion: that the word 'seni', the most common translation of ‘art', be taken out of the Indonesian dictionary. As a replacement, he proposes the Javanese word kagunan. Originally linked to the word guna (use), kagunan suggests a particular use: the development of the mind by expressing the sense of beauty (Supangkat 2009: 70). In his view, this definition is more appropriate to the way art is understood in Indonesia, since it “reinforces the link between seni and contemplation, proving that seni is not merely about forms of beauty that trigger a feeling of happiness due to visual aesthetics, but that it also reflects the moral esteem and spiritual development that are deeply embedded in Indonesian art and culture” (Supangkat 2009: 71).
The character of art as an exploration of both beauty and moral or spiritual development is closely linked to the perspectives of most dalang I talked to. This section will begin by looking at performances which question the role of the artist in society. The work that addresses this most directly is Raden Saleh, by Ledjar Subroto and Ananto Wicaksono. This performance tells the parallel stories of prince Diponegoro and Raden Saleh. Diponegoro is commonly acknowledged as a Javanese hero, who led a war against the Dutch in the early 19th century, known as the Java War (1825-1830). Raden Saleh was “the first modern Indonesian painter” (Kraus 2006: 29) and one of his most famous works is called The Capture of Diponegoro.
In this performance the lives of Saleh and Diponegoro are intertwined. Yet, this is a historical fantasy. Among other things, Saleh was already in Europe when Diponegoro was captured, and he painted The Capture of Diponegoro 25 years later, upon his return to Java. But the fantasy presented in the performance is neither new nor accidental. The figures of both Diponegoro and Saleh are deeply ingrained in the collective Indonesian imagination and their lives and deeds are difficult to distinguish from the myths that surround them. This imagined idealization of them both allows the dalang to explore two themes: the role of the artist in society and the spiritual aspect of Diponegoro's war (the latter is discussed in more detail in Spirituality).
The performance begins with a fictional dialogue between a German man called Bayern and the young Raden Saleh:
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BAYERN. Saleh Sarif Mustabat. I am surprised by your greatness; your ability for painting is unmatched. I want to send you to study in Europe, so that you can spread your wings wider in the visual arts world. I hope that this will allow you to create your masterpiece. Do you agree with my suggestion, Saleh?
SALEH. Tuan Bayern, I consider you as my own teacher in the matters of art. I would never refuse this, tuan. However, I cannot leave the world where I was born, which is currently overridden by pain as a result of the colonizers who have seized the right to live and insulted the pride of my people. Without hesitation, the warriors must fight to save their people. If I comply with your request, then what will happen to my respect for my land, tuan Bayern?
BAYERN. Saleh, a warrior need not bear a weapon or march into the battlefield. You can fight through your paintings. These are weapons of unmatched power. Show this! Show the world that your people's pride is worth as much as that of those who have colonized you.
Raden Saleh left for the Netherlands in 1929 (Oorthuizen 2009: 26), when he was very young (his date of birth varies according to different sources, from 1807 to 1814). The initial objective of his trip was not to pursue the artistic mission so poetically described in the dialogue above, but to work as a clerk, as part of the retinue of a colonial official by the name of Deligne (Oorthuizen 2009: 26). In fact, it was only later that he was able to pay for painting lessons with the money he had earned as a clerk. He never met Diponegoro, although both Sanne Oorthuizen and Werner Kraus, who have written extensively about his life, hypothesize that he was sent into exile to prevent him from joining the political struggle which was stirring in Java. This hypothesis is justified by the fact that Saleh's family in Semarang was directly involved in the Java War.
Of the 25 years Saleh spent in Europe, most of that time was spent in Dresden. It was there that he was able to become a master painter and to achieve international recognition, after spending nine years in The Netherlands. However, the dialogue quoted above suggests that he went directly to Dresden, almost against his will, to learn a way to represent his people in the eyes of the world.
This suggestion is also not accidental. The performance was commissioned by the Goethe Institute in Jakarta as part of the opening of the first major exhibition of Raden Saleh's works to held in Indonesia, which was hosted in the Galeri Nasional [National Gallery] in Jakarta in 2012. In his opening speech, one of the officials of the Goethe Institute said that Germany has always supported Indonesian artists and that Saleh was just the first of a long line of artists to receive recognition there. This historical claim is almost hilarious. Though Saleh did receive recognition and ample opportunity to exercise his art in Dresden, neither Germany nor Indonesia existed in the early nineteenth century. That said, however, the connection between several patrons and institutions in what is now Germany has proved central to the international careers of artists in what is now Indonesia.
Wanting to make their sponsors look good, the two dalang took the liberty of changing the story, thus making Saleh go to Europe against his proto-nationalistic instincts. However, it appears from historical documents that Saleh made himself a name and a home in Europe, where he stayed for 25 years. In Dresden, he was treated as an equal by the local aristocrats, intellectuals and artists. In Java, upon his return, he was unable to find a space for himself in Javanese society. He moved in with a European woman, opened the first art museum and the first Zoological garden in Java, and was the first to dig for paleontological remains (inspired by scientists he met in Europe). But he died "as a devastated man who failed to achieve recognition and equality" (Kraus 2006: 39). He was “the first colonial intellectual who finally could not find his place between the cultures” (Kraus 2006: 39).
The performance is of course not concerned with the life journey and failures of Saleh. Rather, he is presented as an unchanging figure. One way in which this is suggested is through his attire. Throughout the performance, the puppet that represents him appears clad in white robes and a turban, even before leaving for Europe. However, when he first arrived in Europe, he dressed and behaved as a European dandy, “with all the manners expected from a young cosmopolite of the times, and that included unpaid debts at his tailor shop and sexual affairs with certain ladies in the city” (Kraus 2006: 33). It was only later, in Dresden, that he would refashion himself as a Javanese (Oorthuizen 2008: 28). This allowed him to build an aura of mystery around himself. This aura has continued to exercise fascination about his figure, long after his death. A growing number of academic and artistic works reference Saleh and “with every article that appears and every work of art that is produced, the functional ambiguity that the man himself created is renewed” (Oorthuizen 2008: 33).
Many people have contributed to the almost mythical quality of Saleh's life. Perhaps, Oorthuizen is correct to note that the first one to do so was Raden Saleh himself. In Europe, he invented a version of himself that granted him admiration and access to aristocratic and intellectual circles. He did not have a problem adapting his paintings to suit a version of Java that matched the expectations of his sponsors. He painted, for example, people fighting lions in Java, an island that was as lionless in the 19th century as it is now. But today, this invented version is sometimes taken at face value: “what was created as an invented representation of Javanese reality for a European public is now accepted by a postmodern Indonesian bourgeoisie as the representation of a real Indonesian past” (Kraus 2006: 38).
This presentation of Saleh in the performance as an idealized and unchanging character is thus not without irony. Who could accuse a contemporary dalang of inventing an idealized version of a man who made a career out of similar poetic licenses? As Oorthuizen notes, “if we ask the real Raden Saleh to stand up and be counted, we are therefore only going to hear the echoes of our own words” (Oorthuizen 2009: 34). The character presented in the performance, an unchanging Saleh, eternally committed to the spiritual endeavor of the Java War, indeed echoes particular voices: those belonging to the dalang who use the story of Saleh as an opportunity to say something about art and something about the history of Java. Thus, the performance is structured around the pivotal moment where the stories of Saleh and Diponegoro become poetically linked through a painting. The Arrest of Diponegoro [De Onderwerping van Diepo Negoro aan Luitenant-generaal De Kock, 28 Maart 1830], one of the most revered paintings in the history of ‘Indonesian' visual art is, according to Werner Kraus, “an attempt at emancipation, an attempt to reformulate, on the artistic level, one of the most dramatic and traumatic events in Javanese history” (Kraus 2006: 39). At least, this is the way in which it is interpreted today. Werner's interpretation is not far from the view presented at the end of the performance, where Saleh addresses Diponegoro. Right in the midst of the capture, when Diponegoro is halfway through a passionate monologue where he condemns the cowardice of his captors, Saleh appears. The story stops, the lights change and the painter addresses the hero:
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RADEN SALEH. Human beings are imperfect. Life does not go according to our dreams and our hopes. My prince, the story of your heroism will be represented in my work. I will show the world how fiercely you fought. Prince, your bravery and the way in which you defended your land and your people are the inspiration behind the screen of my own fight.
This scene is, of course, a poetic interpretation that makes no claims to historical accuracy. By highlighting the ways in which this performance substantially departs from ‘real' history, I am not attempting a criticism. But pointing out these differences serves the purpose of showing how the story is reinterpreted to present a particular idea of Java and a specific idea of art, which are supported by common views on the importance of Saleh's representation of Diponegoro. Kraus states on The Arrest of Diponegoro:
It is the first representation, interpretation and comment on the contemporary. For the first time, a local artist left anonymity to proclaim that it was his job to comment on the world. For the first time in Southeast Asian history the artist as a topos established himself in the middle of society and took, self-assured, his seat in the front row, next to the political elites. This was an immense modern act. It was the prerequisite for the beginning of a new era, a prerequisite for modernity (Kraus 2006: 52).
Although Saleh's story as presented in the performance is a fictional account, it is, in a certain way, truthful. It is a viable representation of the way art is constructed today in Indonesia. This link is made explicit in the middle of the performance. After the comic interlude, Ledjar, who has remained silent throughout the performance, talks to Rendra, a young theatre artist (not to be confused with the late W.S. Rendra!)
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LEDJAR. This is the time where, if we don't keep developing and protecting our culture, the craziness will get out of control. But people are not paying attention. Cultural developments like this performance, who is thinking about them? If the makers themselves don't do it, they will be on their own. Isn't that so, le? Why are you quiet if I ask you a question? Instead of becoming stressed out, we can have an intermezzo. If we only listen to the stressful stories, we will become dizzy and crazy ourselves.
Ledjar is doing at least three things here. He is signaling the beginning of a segment with a different register, he is complaining about the lack of recognition he receives (and in doing so praising his own work), and he is calling for attention of Nanang, whom he calls le (son) and inviting him to a dialogue. Nanang then suggests that Rendra should be the one to answer Ledjar's questions, who continues expounding his views on art, especially on his own art. This segment is a relatively long moment in the performance and I will quote from it at length to give an indication of how the ideas are presented and elaborated. During the performance, as people listened to this interaction, both Rendra and Ledjar were almost hidden from the audience's sight, as they were sitting in the dark with their backs to the audience, looking at the wayang puppets on the screen as they spoke. They were also not captured by the video cameras recording this performance.
Although this dialogue was always unscripted when performed, roughly the same ideas were repeated on the three occasions when I saw this performance. The following transcription corresponds to the performance I recorded on June 9th at the National Gallery in Jakarta.
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LEDJAR. This culture belongs to our people. If it is not preserved, they will do whatever they want with it. And then I will end up confused. Someone asked me: “when will you perform again?” And I cannot answer. There is only a performance when someone requests it. But there have been no wayang requests for a while. What can art creators do? We should do this together. This should be for our people. This belongs to us all; the wayang culture in all its forms. It is a cultural treasure that belongs to our people. We need to keep it alive, and do it together for the people. It should be like that, right? What do you think, le?
NANANG. Ask Rendra.
LEDJAR. Oh, Rendra.
NANANG. What is your view on this as a young theatre artist?
RENDRA. Actually this is quite "heavy".
NANANG. Heavy? What do you mean?
RENDRA. This is what I think about my friends in the art world, especially in the performing arts, mbah. Sometimes it's difficult to find performances which are "clear." The more things change and develop, the more unrecognizable they become. If my friends and I don't follow the developments of this age, we will be considered "classic". And we fear that no one will watch something which is classic. That is the same case with wayang. Maybe that is the way things are, mbah. I am sorry, but that's what I think.
LEDJAR. That is true. It is true that our culture of wayang is considered too traditional, such as wayang purwa. But wayang can be developed. It is not limited to purwa stories alone. We can still conserve that one, though, and keep it alive. It is part of our culture.
RENDRA. Our roots!
LEDAR. But wayang can be further developed, because the art of wayang can be used as a medium to convey things. Just like tonight.
RENDRA. This is also a wayang, right?
LEDJAR. Yes. But the story need not be classic, right?
RENDRA. Yes, it doesn't need to.
LEDJAR It can follow the times. You can let the classic one remain a classic. But we can create our own developments. This is an example of that. The art of wayang can be easily adapted. For example, I always comply with the wishes of the customers. In the Netherlands they want everything to be turned into a wayang. It is considered a good medium to communicate with the younger generation.
RENDRA. For example, in bread advertisements!
LEDJAR. Yes. I am also going to make wayang luwak, like the coffee! I will make a luwak coffee wayang! Because the luwak is the most exclusive coffee. And we should do something like that with wayang.
In the preceding exchange several ideas are presented: 1) culture needs to be preserved and developed, 2) wayang and theatre need not be classic, and 3) they can be used to convey a variety of issues. These points encapsulate the ethical obligations of the artists as expressed in this performance by the dalang. The theme of the artist as witness and innovator is thus presented both through plot development and directly in this long address.
A similar exploration of the role of art is presented in Cebolang Minggat. At the beginning of the performance, Elizabeth Inandiak talks about the reasons why the Cebolang Minggat section of the Serat Centhini was written. The literary work was originally commissioned by Prince Anom Mangkunegara of Surakarta in 1814. Cebolang Minggat corresponds to four out of the original twelve books of the Serat Centhini (I quote this passage for a different purpose in Youth).
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ELIZABETH. To his father, Pakubuwono IV, who was learned in the arts of grammar and etiquette, he [Anom Mungkunegara] said: "I will demonstrate that my passions and desires will one day bring me to the science of perfection." We must get to know the temptations that linger at the doorstep of spirituality. [The Indonesian wording plays with the similarity in the sounds of the words: kebatinan - spirituality and kebatilan - evil]. Unfortunately, after Pakubuwono IV passed away and shortly after the prince Anom inherited the crown, he was carried away by the angels of syphilis. Had he achieved the perfection he was looking for? The annals of the Kraton are silent about his short reign. You cannot be both a king and a free man. Nonetheless, "The Exile of Cebolang" bears witness to his story.
Two ideas of the use of art emerge here. Anom Mungkunegara intended the literary work as a way to convince his father to accept a different way of living. Thus, art is discussed as a powerful tool that could help change the mind of a king and present a different philosophy of life. On the other hand, it is the testimony of a distant historical past and its protagonists. The power of art as an agent of change and as a tool for historical record-making were also explored in Raden Saleh. However, unlike Raden Saleh, Cebolang Minggat makes no specific claims about the role of the artist in the present. Other performances do the opposite. They don't explore the ethics of art through plot development, but use an interlude to discuss art. The least substantial of these is Wayang Mitologi which makes tangential reference to the ethics of art making in the comic interlude.
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GARENG. You really put everything into your dance, Truk!
PETRUK. Yes, it has to be that way. Art requires total commitment.
Another performance that addresses a similar issue through a comic interlude is Sungsang Bawono Balik, where Sigit Sukasman uses the punokawan scene as an excuse to express his views on art, linking them more directly to wayang:
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SEMAR. Nala Gareng. Don't forget who we are. We form an underclass. We are only small and stupid people. If we give them [our masters] advice, they will certainly not take it. It will go in one ear and out the other.
GARENG. So what should we do, ma?
SEMAR. I have been trying for a while to communicate using the arts as a medium, since the arts have a universal character.
GARENG. That is great, ma.
SEMAR. The most important part is that this can bring together the perspectives of many people. So my dancing earlier is a part of the search for that which needs to be fixed and developed so that it's not boring.
The notion of wayang as something that should be developed to suit the times echoes the words of Ledjar Subroto in Raden Saleh. Despite being mentioned in the comic interlude, these words acquire importance by the mere fact that they are delivered by Semar. Semar is the moral adviser of the warriors and kings of the wayang world, and it is not accidental that he is the one to deliver this message in response to Gareng's question.
There is another performance that deals extensively with ‘art' but in a very different way. If Raden Saleh and Cebolang Minggat are solemn interpretations of the role of artists in society, who acquire historical and spiritual dimensions, Wayang Kampung Sebelah is a parody of art institutions. Wayang Kampung Sebelah is actually a performance framework created by Jlitheng Suparman. In this framework, new punokawan who represent villagers mock current affairs in Indonesia. The following excerpt corresponds to a performance developed specifically for the opening of the LAF [Langgeng Art Foundation] gallery in Yogyakarta. During the performance they parody the role of artistic institutions and the impoverished condition in which many artists live. This theme is foregrounded from the very beginning as they sing a song about the different fortunes of diverse singers:
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You sing with all your heart, and you dance full of confidence.
Your spectators come and go.
However, you don't care.
Your competitors are the TV stars.
But you have a pure heart and you won't quit.
From night till morning you sing trying to make a living.
You're not that different from the famous stars of the capital. [...] The only difference...
[aside] What is it mas?
It is the money you get! [...]
People have different fortunes.
Even in the richest nation, some people will be poor.
No matter how rich a country, some people will not be rich.
Some singers travel abroad while others travel by bus between cities. You sing with all your heart, and you dance full of confidence.
Your spectators come and go.
However, you don't care.
Your competitors are the TV stars.
But you have a pure heart and you won't quit.
From night till morning you sing trying to make a living.
You're not that different from the famous stars of the capital. [...] The only difference...
[aside]What is it mas?
It is the money you get! [...]
People have different fortunes.
Even in the richest nation, some people will be poor.
No matter how rich a country, some people will not be rich.
Some singers travel abroad while others travel by bus between cities.
Once the song is over, we are introduced to the two comic characters which will become the protagonists of the night's show: the modern punokawan Karya and Kampret. In this instance of the performance framework, Kampret wants to become a painter.
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KARYA. What is your problem?
KAMPRET. My paintings aren't selling well, lik.
KARYA. Well, the problem is that you only paint in black and white. And I think that's no longer the current trend. You must follow the trends!
KAMPRET. So what's trending?
KARYA. The current trend is cubism.
KAMPRET. That's too easy. I have already tried taugism, cubism should be easier.
KARYA. What is taugism?
KAMPRET. Well, cubism is just drawing kobis [eggplants], right?
The linguistic joke sets the comic tone of the exchange between the characters. Kampret, not satisfied with the advice given to him, decides he needs to find a curator. This provides the dalang with the opportunity to present a caricature of a curator to an audience full of curators.
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KARYA. Do you actually know what a curator does?
KAMPRET. Of course I know.
KARYA. It's easy to be a curator, you just have to talk a lot. They just need to be able to talk and talk. And mention lots of theories. They have to pretend to be philosophical and use complicated words, and they can become curators. There's nothing difficult about it.
KAMPRET. Curators are the strangest of creatures. Aren't they? They just show up and then suddenly everything becomes an important occasion. But the only thing they do is criticize. That's the only thing they do!
For the next few dialogues, they will keep joking about curators which only triggers even more laughter from the audience of curators. Hong Ji, a puppet representing a curator walks in, introduced by Karya. Once this caricature of the curator is presented, Kampret tries to enlist her services. Happy with the news of glory to come, Karya organizes a music event, introducing puppets that parody well-known singers in Indonesia such Inul Daratista and Rhoma Irama. At the end of their songs, the presenter asks Karya for their fees, but he has no money. He suggests to pay once he has received money for his paintings.
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PRESENTER. This is over, please pay up so I can go home.
KARYA. Kampret should be the one to pay, where is he?
KARYA. You need to pay!
KAMPRET. Later, I will pay when Hong Ji pays me.
KAMPRET. Wait till my paintings are sold, they haven't offered a price for them yet.
PRESENTER. So how dare you order us around?
KAMPRET. Just wait a bit. If they sell well it will be a month...otherwise three months. And if three months ares not enough, then three years.
PRESENTER. Isn't that nice for you? The ones waiting are in a hurry but the one who needs to pay isn't!
KAMPRET. That's it. I am really sorry.
KAMPRET. We are forced to postpone this.
Comic as they are, the lack of money and a pretentious circuit of art institutions echo the criticism articulated by Enin Supriyanto: “It is the market that serves as the axis for artistic production, here, in Indonesia, in the present day” (Supriyanto 2009: 124). She links this to the main problems she identifies in the situation of the contemporary arts: lack of historical awareness which leads to repetition, and an excessive dependence on capitalist art markets.
The performances that address the ethics of art making highlight three aspects: the role of the artist, the adaptability of wayang, and the role of institutions in artistic production. Both Raden Saleh and Cebolang Minggat paint a picture of the artist as a committed individual who can change perceptions and make historical records. Raden Saleh and Sungsang Bawono Balik present the need to adapt wayang to suit the times, as an ethical maxim. Wayang Kampung Sebelah, on the other hand, mocks the role of artistic institutions through a parodic presentation of curators and of unmet payment promises made by producers.
Can the way these performances tackle ideas about art be considered conventional? This is a difficult question to answer and it depends on how we conceptualize the meaning of "conventional". Could previous works of wayang espouse similar views? Yes. In the ideas raised by these performances there is nothing counterintuitive or directly oppositional to commonly held views. These performances speak highly about the role of the artist and mock the mechanisms of artistic sponsorship; conventional wayang has always done the same. It is not uncommon for dalang in traditional shows to speak, indirectly or directly, about the importance of the artist. They often also mock their sponsors, in a way not dissimilar to the way Jlitheng Suparman delivers a parody of the art market in a gallery.
The continuity, from the traditional to the kontemporer, of the devices (jokes and off-the-cuff allusions) used to address the role of the artist and the mechanisms of artistic production is especially clear in some performances. These are the ones that only raise these issues through tangential references (Sungsang Bawono Balik, Wayang Mitologi, and Cebolang Minggat). However, two of the performances discussed here (Wayang Kampung Sebelah and Raden Saleh) make these issues their central theme and explore their implications through plot development. This is certainly different from the way conventional wayang would address similar views. The central theme of the purwa plots is never the role of the artist in society or the mechanisms of artistic production. Thus, that which is “contemporary” about the kontemporer performances that discuss art is not the oppositional or unprecedented edge of their views, but the ways in which those views are explored through plot construction, in a way that directly represents the life of a particular artist and the apparatus of artistic production.