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One evening, Popok Triwahyudi  came to my house with a mountain-sized question, what is the role of art for the people? I wondered whether he was serious or joking with such a question. I thought it was rather surprising. How could, in these days, an artist, and even a contemporary artist, ask a question about his role for the people? Hence, I gave him a question, which artist and which art that you mean? He said, of course the artists and their works we often see in galleries and being published in Sunday papers. In brief, the contemporary artists… Oh, I see. Then I asked him more questions, which people? He replied, surely the common people, the ordinary ones we meet in kampongs. Then I said to him, if that is the case, the answer is clear: the role is absent! We know that it's difficult for most people to understand and appreciate artworks exhibited in contemporary art galleries. What they know is that art is usually used for entertainment, commemorating a moment or someone worthy of remembrance. That's the concept of beauty in people's mind. Hence beautiful, more or less, should also be effective and efficient. If people don't understand (or to be baffled by) what they see in art galleries, how could they make use of these?
Concerning the contemporary art, people would at most call it 'nyeni' (arty). The word 'nyeni' may mean having art's characteristics (beautiful). However, the word 'nyeni' is also used to call anything strange or abnormal. People say that contemporary art is 'nyeni' as an expression of incomprehension, confusion, or even mockery towards something beyond their reach and useless to them. How could people appreciate artworks which in newspapers are called as 'conceptual art', or those according to a renowned writer attach importance to concepts, theories, and foreign terminology (hence, we may call them 'terminological art')? How could people understand those found or used objects exhibited in galleries and said as contemporary art? Paintings and sculptures in abstract and peculiar styles? An arrangement of diverse objects which said as installation art? Nudity or deluded self-torture which is said as body art? Pictures of celebrities or presidents put in a row with different colours and to be said as pop art? A series of repeatedly moving pictures dizzying, and absolutely boring but are said as new media art or video art of urban young generation? Ah, what's this? All will only confuse people.
The advocates of contemporary art would easily say that people or anyone who thinks so are those who don't understand art and that's why the contemporary art doesn't need to think about the people and their problems.
Sure enough, history has shown that (modern) art has no connection with people's interest and is not intended for them. In the early 20th century Java, Mooi Indie paintings and the works from the Royal Batavian Society for Art and Sciences and the Department of Archaeology in Batavia were only intended for the Dutch or the natives of upper class who received the artworks from the Kunstkringen (art club) of which membership was very exclusive. The Royal Batavian Society for Art and Sciences and the Department of Archaeology operated in the name of sciences and they said their objective are to preserve, restore, and study the ancient artifacts of Indonesia. European scholars of these bodies took an essential role in the transmission of knowledge and the formation of artistic taste of that time. Naturally, their works were written in European languages so that the art knowledge circulated limitedly among the European and upper-class natives.
In 1930's, S. Sudjojono  tried to take a stand against such art elitism by asserting that Indonesian artists should not only present the seemingly peaceful huts, blue mountains, or anything that looks romantic, beautiful, and sweet but should also paint sugar factories, skin and bones peasants, the cars of the rich people and the shorts of the poor, the sandals, trousers, and jackets worn by people in the streets. When in the 1940's he wrote his seminal pamphlet, "Kami tahu, ke mana seni lukis Indonesia hendak kami bawa" (We know where we should take Indonesian paintings to), Sudjojono said once again that, in paintings, truth is more important than beauty, since what is beautiful is not certainly true, while what is true is certainly beautiful. He told about a little boy dressed in military uniform, complete with cap, sword, and boots. Is this beautiful? No, as the beauty of a little boy, said Sudjojono, appears when he looks dirty, covered with mud, running around freely and naked. Why is this beautiful? Because, such is the truth of a little boy.
As he got angry with the artists who only serve the taste of the colonialist and upper-class natives, Sudjojono said that Indonesian painters are already finished because of their lust for money. Sudjojono was wrong and he surely never imagined that ten years ahead the paintings depicting the cars of the haves and the shorts of the poor young boys, the sandals, trousers, jackets worn by people in the streets, paintings that present a little boy covered with mud and running around naked and freely, and all paintings showing anti-fascism and anti-militarism would become the most-wanted commodity. What is absent in Sudjojono's idea is that, in contemporary art, there is no truth. The only truth is what we may call 3K ('Kurator, Kritikus, Kolektor' or 'curators, critics, collectors'). We will not find any beauty too, except the 3K. And, of course, artist should also be adept at doing 3K ('kongkalikong', means 'to collaborate covertly') with the former 3K. That's why the contemporary art is no more than art of deceiving or hoodwinking.
If one said that contemporary art is driven by the market, it's clear that the statement is not inaccurate. It's absolutely true. We will not find any agenda of social participation in contemporary art. If in the past people said that the 'content' of art is its usefulness for the people, now there's no agenda for thinking about such usefulness. If, then, art is explained with difficult words, abstruse philosophy, and intricate theories, these are all parts of a marketing strategy, and the more important is a reflection of the absence of such content, since contemporary art is no more than terminological art, babbling art.
Hence, if we look back at Popok's question, what's the role of contemporary art for the people? Surely, it has no role. Then, what is wrong and dangerous? What is wrong and dangerous is when one says that contemporary art is useful for the people. What is wrong and dangerous is when such art uses up public facilities excessively, dominates the curriculum of schools, newspaper columns, and exhibition rooms.
Art activist and author. Founding member of KUNCI Cultural Studies Center (http://kunci.or.id). Lives in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.
Art activist and author. Founding member of KUNCI Cultural Studies Center. Lives in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.