Kamis, 05 Juni 2008


By : Bambang Sugiharto

Art is always an articulation as well as a representation of the dynamics of culture and society. In terms of modernity most of Asian countries are newly emerging states. In various forms and dynamics they are struggling to grow and shape new modes of existence. In so doing, one way or another they tend to get trapped in dilemmatic situations. This paper seeks to articulate the multilayered dilemmatic situations and thereby tries to reformulate the role of art therein.

Asian Context
In the post-colonial era Asian countries were compelled to face a dilemma. On the one hand, they had to harness their own culture, tradition and resources to develop their countries, while getting rid of western tradition. On the other, almost at the same time they had to take part in the global networks of interaction, which often times means taking back the West as their model and basic orientation, and incessant problematization of their own heritage and tradition.
The problem is that, since the time of post-World-War the globalizing movement of the West had been so much fueled by politico-economic power and interests that the issue of ‘culture’ had gradually been losing its intrinsic value. If culture is a realm in which supreme values are enacted, symbols are crafted and peculiar meanings are created, the globalizing West seems to have lost the belief that culture really matters. As Milan Kundera puts it, the West has become ‘post-cultural’.[1] Just as the primacy of religion in the medieval was replaced by the new culture of modernity -with individual as its centre of creativity-, culture is now subjugated to the predominance of political discourse and economic interests.
For Asian countries the problem is, then, manifold. While in terms of political ideology and economic power they have to manage some sort of autonomy and to safeguard their own integrity; in terms of culture they have to catch up modernity by adopting western ethos and cultural pathos, at least at the initial period of their modernity. Politically, actions and idealism are commonly construed under the pretext of particularity, collectivity or cultural tradition. Economically, the touch of tradition and the exoticism of local colors are also considered central for doing business. Yet culturally, the prevalent ethos is the modern conviction that the ultimate authority of a society is neither tradition nor religion, but rather, individual -the thinking and doubting individual in particular. And the pathos is the pursuit of the modern ideal that mature individuals are those capable of articulating their own aspirations and shaping their own lives. [2] The problem is , by the time Asian countries are busy pursuing such modern formation of individual subject by orienting their cultural strategy to the West, in the modern West itself the discourse has already shifted to the other extreme end, that is, to the claims such as ‘the end of Human Subject’ (Foucault), ‘the death of the Author’ (Barthes), etc. This post-structuralist tendency discloses critical insight on various layers of structures by which cultural meanings and individual human self-awareness are unwittingly constructed, hence the relativization of the primacy of individual subject. [3]
In Asia the situation becomes more complicated due to the fact that some of Asian countries suffer from confusing paradoxes. The so called tradition and heritage oftentimes are nothing but political slogans with no clear content and power. In some countries the terms like ‘cultural identity’ and ‘tradition’ often bear pejorative and traumatic connotations, since they have too often been manipulated by authoritarian regimes; the so called ‘harmony’ is used as a mere strategy to defend status-quo; the concept of ‘local cultural identity’ is abused to evade international queries; the word ‘pluralism’ or ‘heterogeneity’ are misused precisely to inculcate the need of unity or uniformity, etc. [4]
Thus, despite all the obvious emancipatory efforts of individual subjects in the cultural realm, in reality, individual is decentred and trapped in the intersections of paradoxical impressions and arbitrary impuls. The structure of one’s way of looking at her/himself falls apart and becomes fragmentary. People are too much aware today that the world of symbols are arbitrary, vulnerable, ambiguous and shifting.[5] Culture and knowledge are constructed and determined by relations of power. Identity and human subjectivity are no longer understood as a unified whole, but rather, as polymorphous, fragmented and without centre. Hence, the loss of nourishment of tradition is exacerbated by the feeling of alienation even within one’s own tradition. Basic categories, which in the past rendered reality and experience intelligible, are now called into question. Everything is viewed as contingent, insufficient, and lacking transcendence. The belief in objective or absolute truth is replaced by alternatives, ranging from radical relativism to negotiated concepts of truth.
In the realm of praxis, Asia seems to be plagued with loss of coherence and erosion of consistence, but also suffers from lack of cohesion. People even doubt, reasonably, the so called ‘Asian values’ or the dichotomy between East and West. The decline of traditional principles is exacerbated by the loss of normative discourse due to the critical movements of micro-politics of identity everywhere. Worse still, the use of terror in some forms of the movements has created the production of fear, contradictory certainties, an atmosphere of suspicion among each other, and intolerance toward differences. Hence, paranoia, solidification of identity, xenophobia, genocide, and the intensification of international systematic control over individuals. Like in the sixties, today again ‘the personal is political’. Even more, today ‘the personal is also economic’ in that capitalist technology is becoming more and more determinant in shaping the interiority of individual.[6] The dream factories of capitalism has brought about the illusion of liberty and satisfaction that disguises the impoverishment of individual’s self-determination. Individual self is under the pressure of heterodox and contradictory visions. Thus, personal creativity and independence are either under constant threats of tradition, religion, and politics, or absorbed by the ubiquitous capitalist machine of commerce. All this has put individual in the prison of many power structures, the prison of discordant polyphony of contradictory lines, hence the heterogeneity of subjectivity.

The Changing Art-World
At the beginning of this century, the visual arts have undergone significant changes, an unprecedented transformations in their character, identities, structures, and perceptions of what it means to be an artist. The category of ‘Visual Arts’ now encompasses a wide range of works, from painting, sculpture, to hybrid forms in previously unthinkable materials : human body in performance, invisible matter (gas), energy (telepathy), large scale projects and earthworks in remote landscapes or urban centres, interventions in social and political institutions, computer and other electronic works, postcards, records, video, etc.
The impact of this tendency of ‘dematerialization’ of art is a paradox. On the one hand, theoretical and methodological practices of art history are doubted and put under scrutiny; on the other, artist’s theoretical strategies become as important as their works of art, especially when the works are so unconventional and even ‘immaterial’. On the one hand, the arts come to blend more and more with daily activities and stripped off their philosophical pretense; on the other, arts become even more conceptual and philosophical.
“The end of art” is a statement that captures very well the paradigm change in the last four decades. [7] This is of course the aftermath of Duchamp and Warhol, that is, on the one hand Warhol perfected the Duchampian question of “what is art”, and so brought art into philosophical self-awareness; on the other, he precisely also deprived art of its philosophical pretense so that art henceforth could do whatsoever and became pluralistic: its practice pragmatic, its field multicultural. From the post-structuralist point of view, there is no more ‘art’, what exists is ‘representation’, to be understood in terms of textual production and psychological reception. In terms of Marxist perspective, art is overwhelmed by the practical dominance of the ‘image’, the visual, the primary form of commodity in a spectacle economy, from which art can no longer pretend to be distinct.
Corollary to this situation is that there is no more a single and strong paradigm for artistic or critical practice. This surely opens the way towards artistic diversity, although this may also mean a flat indifference, a stagnant incommensurability. Or perhaps commensurability is not important anymore, since there is this tendency that art is no more an object of contemplation but a means of communication and self-presentation, an act of self-determination and self-differentiation, or a never-ending process of life itself.
One thing is clear, however, that today art is not necessarily an artisan production. It becomes a process of mere personal and peculiar way of looking at things. The specific gaze of the artist is suffice to turn an object into an artwork. And by using computer, video, photography, etc. everybody can become an artist. The standard and benchmark of success of the works are similar to those of a pop band. It is judged not based on some sort of historical canon, but rather , in accordance with today’s level of dissemination of the product, indicated by its position in the classificatory list like Billboard Charts. Reflection is replaced by numeric-statistical assessment, words are replaced by numbers (numbers of visitors, of reviews, of the finance balance-sheet, recognition by colleagues, etc) . The inclusion or exclusion of certain artworks in an exhibition, museum, institutions, or gallery is no more decisive, although is still appreciated. Contemporary art is indeed the sequel of Avantgardism and Pop-art so that it bears the characters of pop-products, especially in that they emphasize the discontinue and a-historic newness of the here and now (hic et nunc), where consequently museums loses its power and significance. The history of the past is no more determinant. History becomes eternal present. Art then celebrates what is contextual, ephemeral and even banal. Everyday life is the new context and playground of today’s artists, since it is the repository of the potential to subvert and transform established values, and it is also the context for the re-invention of self and subjectivity.
Today art is also transgressive, in the Foucauldian sense of the word, that is, it explores borderlines to question their arbitrariness and cruelty. The border is a no-place, a meeting point and ground for creation as well as for questioning authority or any kind of fixated dualism (high-low, public-private, pure-hybrid, in group-out group, etc.). In Deleuzian sense of the word, today art is a micronarrative in progress, working through rhyzomatic networks in its production and dissemination of ideas, a collective project to nurture a plurality of ideas and to nourish interrelationship. Indeed, in the contemporary situation, art has been undergoing the extension of object, the intensification of appreciative experience, and the enlargement of scope.[8]

The Role of Art in Asia
As we have seen above, in most of Asian countries, global economico-cultural interactions as well as internal socio-political problems have created environments which are full of paradoxes. In such environment people are susceptible to moral and emotional disturbances. They live in multilayered reality which oftentimes are illusory and bewildering. To name some of the potential bewilderment, for instance, are : between the issue of global-village and the fact of disinformation; global-economy and the fact of barter practices; the frenzy of difference or pluralism and the reality of violent and intolerant politics of identity, etc. Art, as critical dialogue between experience, imagination and thought, would be of a good help in bringing forth these often hidden confusions and illusions to collective awareness in effective ways. The sensibility of the artists towards traumatic experience and incongruence would enable them to delve beneath the surface, oftentimes by way of problematizing and playing with the very surface. And this, in turn, would call for self-awareness of the artists themselves of the complexity and the illusory side of reality.
In a world characterized by the paradox between heterogeneity and homogeneity, between the oblivious frenzy of cultural heritage and ignorant enthusiasm of modernity, or between the fastidiousness about borders and the transgressive inclinations of global networking, if there is still something to celebrate, it would be the survival of the individual and the re-invention of identity. In such a world, however, identity is an ambiguous project. It is, in Deleuzian words, a micropolitics that embraces the global, that has to search for transversalities between the macroscopic social environment (the ‘molar’) and the subjective mental ecology (the ‘molecular’). In short, identity is something to be understood within the dynamic relationship with the other, a flux with its mutations of values, a malleable concept depending on the networks. In this junction, the power of art would lie in its capacity to identify where and how contemporary subjects seek refuge and protection; how the so called ‘identity’ (as fixated category) works as an illusory security blanket to hide powerless anger and helplessness. But in a more productive way, artists can support and initiate alternative spaces which introduce different power games and different networks, channeling new aspirations and thereby shaping an ever growing sense of self. In this way, while the peculiar art world seems to dissolved, its essential relation with the bigger human life is resolved.

Bambang Sugiharto, professor of philosophy, currently teaching at Parahyangan Catholic University and Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB), Bandung, Indonesia. He can be reached at: ignatiussugiharto@yahoo.com

N o t e s

[1] Milan Kundera, “The Tragedy of Central Europe”, New York Review of Books, vol. 31, no 7, April 25, 1984, p 36
[2] The basic root of modernity is usually conceived of as either Cartesian reflective subject or Kantian autonomous individual.
[3] While the primacy of rational subject is a sort of necessary prerequisite towards modernity, postmodern reflection found out that the very concept of subject is nothing but formation of discourse. Cfr. Michel Foucault in Paul Rabinow (ed), Michel Foucault: Ethics (New York : The New Press, 1997), pp 87 - 108
[4] This kind of manipulation of cultural issues are commonly practiced by authoritarian regimes, be it in Indonesia, in the Phillipines, or in Myanmar, etc.
[5] Saussurian Structuralism reveals the arbitrariness of meaning; whereas Derridean deconstruction has shown the potential instability of meaning in any kind of discourse or text.
[6] Concerning the position of individual subject within the latest capitalism, see Frederic Jameson, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” in Hal Foster (ed) The Anti-Aesthetics : essays on Postmodern Culture ( Washington : Bay Press, 1983) p 111-20
[7] The claim became notorious due to the statement from Arthur Danto but soon other art critics seemed to follow and approve it as well. See Arthur Danto, Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art ( New York : Columbia University Press,, 1986); Victor Burgin, The End of Art Theory : Criticism and Postmodernity (Atlantic Highlands, NJ : Humanities Press International, 1986); also T.Adorno, Negative Dialectics ( New York : Continuum, 1973)
[8] Arnold Berleant sees this as stages of evolution of awareness, which I take simply as different characters with no distinct period or stage. Cfr. Arnold Berleant, Rethinking Aesthetics ( Hampshire : Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2004) p 111

Bi b l i o g r a p h y

Adorno, Theodor, Negative Dialectics, trans. E.B.Ashton. (New York :Continuum, 1973)

Berleant, Arnold, Rethinking Aesthetics, (Burlington : Ashgate Publishing Company, 2004)

Burgin, Victor, The End of Art Theory : Criticism and Postmodernity (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press International, 1986)

Danto, Arthur, Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art (New York : Columbia University Press, 1986)

_____________, After the End of Art (Princeton : Princeton University Press, 1997)

Deleuze, Gilles, Negotiations, (New York : Columbia University Press, 1995)

Deleuze, Gilles et al, A Thousand Plateaus ( London : Continuum, 2002)

Foucault, Michel, Ethics, in Paul Rabinow (ed), Michel; Foucault, Vol. I ( New York : New Press, 1983)

Stiles, Kristine, et al. (ed) Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art : A source Book of Artist’s Writings (Berkeley : University of California Press, 1996)

Wallis, Brian, Art After Modernism : Rethinking Representation (New York : The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984)

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