A fork in the road

hellobali Guide to Bali - - THE BA­LI­NESE ART SCENE(S) -

SINCE THE FIRST YEARS of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury Bali has en­joyed, or been bur­dened with, a close as­so­ci­a­tion with art, a con­nec­tion whole­heart­edly em­braced by vis­i­tors, ex­pats and Ba­li­nese peo­ple alike. Per­haps as a con­se­quence, there is so much art around to­day that it can be dif­fi­cult to sort the trea­sure from the trash.

Of course you might say that it’s all a ques­tion of taste. That when ap­pre­ci­at­ing or choos­ing to pur­chase a piece of art the main cri­te­ria should be whether you like it or not, or whether it touches you in some way. But the sheer vol­ume of sim­i­lar pieces can cloud judg­ment. Then there’s the curly ques­tion of whether what you’re look­ing at is art or not. The an­swer will usu­ally have to do with who pro­duced the work and why, and where it is on dis­play, but none of these are de­fin­i­tive.

One of the fea­tures that usu­ally dif­fer­en­ti­ates ‘tra­di­tional art’ from the ‘mod­ern art’ that dis­placed it is its rep­e­ti­tion of de­signs, styles and mo­tifs passed down through the gen­er­a­tions and shared by artists in a com­mu­nity. The Art ex­hib­ited in gal­leries, by con­trast, typ­i­cally cel­e­brates the idea of orig­i­nal­ity and in­di­vid­u­al­ity. That is, Art is usu­ally thought of as work that com­mu­ni­cates a named artist’s sin­gu­lar idea or world­view. The pro­duc­ers of ‘tra­di­tional art’ on the other hand are fre­quently anony­mous and their vi­sion generic.

SINCE THE FIRST YEARS of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury Bali has en­joyed, or been bur­dened with, a close as­so­ci­a­tion with art, a con­nec­tion whole­heart­edly em­braced by vis­i­tors, ex­pats and Ba­li­nese peo­ple alike. Per­haps as a con­se­quence, there is so much art around to­day that it can be dif­fi­cult to sort the trea­sure from the trash.

Of course you might say that it’s all a ques­tion of taste. That when ap­pre­ci­at­ing or choos­ing to pur­chase a piece of art the main cri­te­ria should be whether you like it or not, or whether it touches you in some way. But the sheer vol­ume of sim­i­lar pieces can cloud judg­ment. Then there’s the curly ques­tion of whether what you’re look­ing at is art or not. The an­swer will usu­ally have to do with who pro­duced the work and why, and where it is on dis­play, but none of these are de­fin­i­tive.

One of the fea­tures that usu­ally dif­fer­en­ti­ates ‘tra­di­tional art’ from the ‘mod­ern art’ that dis­placed it is its rep­e­ti­tion of de­signs, styles and mo­tifs passed down through the gen­er­a­tions and shared by artists in a com­mu­nity. The Art ex­hib­ited in gal­leries, by con­trast, typ­i­cally cel­e­brates the idea of orig­i­nal­ity and in­di­vid­u­al­ity. That is, Art is usu­ally thought of as work that com­mu­ni­cates a named artist’s sin­gu­lar idea or world­view. The pro­duc­ers of ‘tra­di­tional art’ on the other hand are fre­quently anony­mous and their vi­sion generic.

The repet­i­tive as­pect of the tra­di­tional is in ev­i­dence in the bulk of the art on dis­play in art shops all over the is­land to­day. This is some­times com­bined with the prac­tices of the as­sem­bly line to ac­com­mo­date the de­mands of tourists and the im­port-ex­port trade, prac­tices that also be­stow a level of anonymity on the cre­ators of those works.

The com­mer­cial im­per­a­tive also means that as much as pos­si­ble, these artists and art shop own­ers try to an­tic­i­pate the chang­ing tastes of the mar­ket or, at the very least, keep a close eye on what sells and what doesn’t. When you buy a paint­ing it is likely that an­other, al­most iden­ti­cal one will ap­pear in its place. It should be noted, how­ever, that al­though the paint­ings and sculp­tures that re­sult might ap­pear to be mass pro­duced, they are still made by hand and some will still stand out from the crowd.

In this post-mod­ern age, the cat­e­gories ‘tra­di­tional’ and ‘mod­ern’ may be handy but they don’t re­ally tell us much. A bet­ter word is con­tem­po­rary. All the art you will see in Bali, un­less you hap­pen to be look­ing at some­thing pre-twen­ti­eth cen­tury in a mu­seum, is con­tem­po­rary in­so­much as it was pro­duced in re­sponse to the de­mands and aes­thetic con­cerns of its times. Even the early–mid twen­ti­eth cen­tury works held in Ubud’s Mu­seum Puri Luk­isan, for ex­am­ple, are con­tem­po­rary be­cause they were pro­duced by named artists at the in­ter­face be­tween tra­di­tional themes and styles and the im­pact of the colo­nial in­va­sion and the col­lapse of the royal courts.

This was also the era of ex­pa­tri­ate Euro­pean painters like Ru­dolf Bon­nett, Wal­ter Spies and Arie Smit who set­tled in Bali from the 1920s - 1950s. While it’s easy to overem­pha­sise the in­flu­ence of these artists, they did

When ap­pre­ci­at­ing or choos­ing to pur­chase a piece of art the main cri­te­ria should be whether you like it or not, or whether it touches you in some way.

en­cour­age the idea of art for art’s sake and, while fear­ing the ef­fect the rise of tourism would have on the art of Bali, they also pro­moted the po­ten­tial of the tourist mar­ket to se­cure a vi­able fu­ture for lo­cal artists.

A num­ber of con­tem­po­rary art move­ments de­vel­oped through this pe­riod. As well as greater Ubud’s Pita Maha Group, which in­cluded such lu­mi­nar­ies as I Gusti Ny­oman Lem­pad, in Bat­uan artists be­gan to cre­ate in­tri­cate works on pa­per of su­per­nat­u­ral be­ings and scenes from ev­ery­day life. Around Sa­nur artists cre­ated airy im­ages of sea crea­tures and coastal vil­lages. And later, the Young Artists of Pen­es­tanan, be­gan to use bold colours to pro­duce naive com­po­si­tions of trees, an­i­mals and flow­ers.

Art move­ments like these planted the seeds for much of the art we see in Bali to­day, both in terms of its sub­ject mat­ter and its com­mer­cial un­der­pin­nings. Since the 1980s, how­ever, it has evolved and pro­lif­er­ated at an ac­cel­er­ated pace as a re­sult of the steady rise of mass tourism and the ac­com­pa­ny­ing growth of the arts, crafts and sou­venir in­dus­tries. This can be thought of as the fork in the road, the point at which two dif­fer­ent ideas of art di­verged. One be­came a high­way.

To­day, the vast ma­jor­ity of paint­ings on open dis­play can be grouped ac­cord­ing to pop­u­lar gen­res. As well as a con­tin­u­a­tion of work in the ear­lier twen­ti­eth cen­tury styles, there are thou­sands of bright im­ages of frangi­pani blos­soms, paint­ings of Bud­dha stat­ues, ab­stracts to match all colour

schemes, even paint­ings of Volk­swa­gens against turquoise back­grounds of per­fect shore-breaks.

There is no deny­ing the kitsch cre­den­tials of this tech­ni­colour in­ven­tory by rel­a­tively un­known or en­tirely anony­mous artists. But while many de­ride it as art­less trav­esty it should be con­sid­ered as much a fea­ture of the con­tem­po­rary Ba­li­nese art scene as the Art with a cap­i­tal ‘A’ ex­hib­ited in the is­land’s grow­ing num­ber of cut­ting-edge con­tem­po­rary gal­leries.

This is not to di­min­ish the as­ton­ish­ing work of con­tem­po­rary artists - both lo­cal and ex­pat - or the con­sid­er­able ef­forts of gallery own­ers and cu­ra­tors to pro­vide con­tem­pla­tive spa­ces in which art is much more than a quick sale. In many ways there re­ally is no com­par­i­son be­tween the art of these gal­leries and the stuff that lines the streets and fills art shops. Yet while they may be at op­po­site ends of the spec­trum, both are cru­cial fea­tures of the is­land’s cre­ative ecol­ogy, each with the po­ten­tial to nour­ish and pro­voke the other and to change the ways we look at and think about art.

Art move­ments like these planted the seeds for much of the art we see in Bali to­day, both in terms of its sub­ject mat­ter and its com­mer­cial un­der­pin­nings.

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