By Yeah Jin Leng
In the last 20 years, this country has seen the rise in the number of art galleries as well as the number of private art institutions. There are many venues provided for art exhibitions, even in hotels and political institutions. To certain people, this augers well as it gives an indication that the economy is doing well and art is receiving the support that it should. Ironically, only about 2% of artists can survive on art as a career. Art is such an important factor in nationhood with respect to cultural identity and heritage, and it is an essential growth which determines who and what we are as Malaysians.
However, the understanding and appreciation of art is extremely low level and backward. Cultural literacy is overshadowed by policies for functional literacy, geared mainly for the business world. Critical literacy in relation to the arts is of scant importance in education and as a result, the critical appreciation for the arts is the low level it is. For many, art has been reduced to any activity with the novelty factor confounded as creativity. Imagination is anything construed as ideas for problem-solving purposes, beneficial to the scheme of things related to the desires of the mind, not necessarily related to the merit and quality of the art making. It could even be deceitful where instances of making machine and the success in money terms alone can be exploited for a consent easily manufactured through the media when cultural and critical literacy in relation to the arts and general quality of life are at a low level, even vulgar in some sense.
There is a historical reason for that. About 25 years ago, the powers that be brought about a policy change for education in schools to reduce the curriculum to the basics identified as the three R’s – reading, writing, and arithmetic – essentially for a society literate enough to cope with the mundane functions of life and business mainly. Needless to say that there was a political and social agenda for that change. Cultural and critical literacy were thrown to the periphery. Cultural identity and the characteristic personality of Malaysians developed at the crossroads of multi-ethnic and cultural influences over centuries were taken for granted and ignored in the development of the young Malaysians in school. We are what we are today with poor critical literacy through a policy “Don’t think, follow what I tell you to do.” We should not be surprised with the low level of creativity we have today.
Everything is art
In this country, paintings seem to be the only form of art. It is even considered that paintings must essentially be painted on canvas. Oil paint must be used, otherwise there is no value. Water-colours are considered equally high as an art form. Amusingly, they were the first visual presentation made by British artists to record the exotic east of the British Empire for the London illustrated newspaper in the later part of the 19th Century. These watercolours were translated into wood-engravings suitable for the lino-type printing machines developed then for the wide dissemination of the news to British society with regard to their exotic colonial empire. The oil painting tradition came via Shanghai, introduced by the Nangyang artists enchanted by the modern Impressionist movement developed in the epicentre of Paris in the mid-19th century. These early paintings in oil were painterly for effect and for the establishment of a veritable movement for artistic expression, themes were based on the exotic sunlit landscapes of the “shouthern lands”. The “kampong” scenic paintings were familiar subjects, so were Gauganish “kampong women-folk” used as subjects for pictures. The Balinese inspiration is an unenviable phenomenon by these Nangyang artists.
Once upon a time, in the western art tradition, painting and scultpture were considered high art. All other forms of art are low art – printi-making, textile art, fibre art, studio pottery, fine metal jewelry, calligraphy and so on. We in this country have not realised that there has been a change in thinking in the western world about this high and low art debate. As always, we seem to be lagging behind in our thinking with out-of-date ideas, clinging to them because somebody says so, because it is fashionable or because our cultural and critical literacy is so low largely through ignorance.
We are in the new millennium of Postmodernism in art with the deconstruction that came before. Meta narratives, rules, principles and guidelines of what art is or is not have been flung out into the trash-can. In the proliferation of art as a result of the cross-cultural clash of civilisations, anything goes. We have Conceptual Art, Installation Art, Pop and Post-Modernist Art, and whatever that can be capitalised for sensational effect for media advantage. The information technology and mega-multimedia power help to provide the need for hungry desires of the mind for roles in a fast-changing world. Everything is art these days. Advertising art is art, cooking is art, fashion is art. Anything is art if it is creative, a word used randomly to express novelty, unusualness, subversiveness, expressiveness or imagination. The widespread misconceptions of the arts are the result of that poor consideration for cultural and critical literacy in our educational policies. We do not seem to even recognise or care who and what we are except that we are “all right and doing fine”, whatever that means.
Eroticism is understood as a metaphor
What is art is the big question. Can we really determine what art is these days? Can we teach art? Technicalities of making art, or so-called art, are not art surely. Students in their first year’s studies have to deal with technicalities and they are required to do so for the necessary skills to learn how to express their ideas, thoughts and feelings. It is amusing, almost farcical, when artists exploit these technicalities of first year foundation studies, make their paintings as pretty as possible, and call it art of the highest sophistication, with a high price attached to it no less. The cost of the golden frame is all that it is worth.
Some will say that it is about aesthetics. What aesthetics and what are aesthetics? Canons of beauty? Is it not a free space today to explore without canons, rules if you like, even in the name of deconstruction and the postmodernist confused situation? Is it a national identity, cultural identity or is it the personal identity of the ego that is all important? The space is so wide and free.
Let us consider Indian Art and its aesthetics. Indian art in paintings is highly stylised, flat and linear in conception and perception and has its specific aesthetic for not only symbolic, iconic but historically founded reasons. Indian sculptural traditions, on the other hand, are sensually erotic and volumetric in dimension. In Indian thought, to quote Shilpa Mehta on the Rasikapriya of Keshavadas, “eroticism is understood as a metaphor for the union between the human devotee and the Infinite Being, an inter-relationship expressed poetically in the visual and literary arts.” That cultural tradition has been developed and sustained through millennia in poetry, literature, paintings, scultpture and the performing arts. To quote Alice Boner, Sarma and Baumer in their book Vastusutra Upanishad on the essence of form in sacred Art, the Indian artist’s vision “is not blocked up within limits of their own individuality and their small ambience… He transcends them to explore the mystery of creation” without the kind of modern thinking that such a treatise is severely limiting or frustratingly restricting on individual expression in art.
Chinese calligraphic ink-painting tradition also has its specific aesthetics very unlike the Indian iconographic tradition. The naturalistic conventions of light and shadow of western traditions are dispensed with for the light that pervades all over the painting. Lines seldom meet at a vanishing point for perspective devices. Lines are conceptualised, parallel in dimension and meet in the mind. Western art traditions are at variance with those mentioned above.
A psychopathological problem
Some will say that art is about self-expression. Are we sure it is not a psychopathological problem, a problem for the doctor? The tsunami victims have a better and genuine case to express themselves, a tragic condition that we, the whole world, can feel and understand. These poor suffering refugees should all be artists. In this affluent country, our problems are slight by comparison. We have to be wary about the exploitation of the sensational that is disgusting. Some of the charitable projects for funding to help the affected people are laudable but not always without a claim attached to them.
What has happened to the communication of values, of which art is all about? We seem to have lost sight of the values embedded in art that have been the very powerful integrating force contributing to culture. Is it not tenable anymore for these values to be the important factors for giving meaning to our lives? These values embedded in it are important because it deals with philosophy and that is too cumbersome for small minds. It particularly troubles the poor souls with commodification in mind, especially those who “prostitute” art.
Global capitalism is about the exploitation of the conflicting free space for desires of the mind to capitalise on whatever the box-thinking can produce the benefit, particularly for the Self cherishing of the Ego. It is really not free but entrapped within modes of thinking and intellectualisation of the means, essentially to exploit the confused conditions of value dimensions widespread everywhere today through the clash of civilisations, culture and value norms. Exploitation in this age of mega-multimedia power is a reality and critical literacy of the populace with social responsibility is necessary to challenge misinformation that is destructive and disintegrating as a force to the wholesome development of a democratic society. Needless to say that the arts have an important role, and can contribute as an integrating force in culture.
Art, so it seems, must essentially be embedded in culture. Given the progress of humanity and the development of civilisations, mankind projects very complex, profound and rich foundations of human values, spiritual in dimension and perceptibly visionary as well, in all the arts – the visual and plastic arts, music, poetry, literature, and the performing arts. We have tended to forget these values because they are not concomitant with the modern world of corporate and global capitalism. It is necessary that we must not lose sight of who and what we are as Malaysians. We need to re-examine what our cultural roots are and not fall prey to the “superficial imitation endemic in modern culture”, one largely derived through the western window so prevalent today, that is, the ruthless pursuit of individuality over all other considerations.
Knowledgibility becomes confounded as intellectuality
Today, the Information Technology has provided opportunities for us to gain knowledge very easily. To be knowledgeable is to be intelligent, clever, smart. Knowledgibility becomes confounded as intellectuality. The intellectual will produce a theory. Another intellectual will come around with another theory to counter that theory. So… it is, as somebody has said, a lie following another lie, and this becomes terribly confusing and befuddled in the course of the conflict of theories.
We seek for knowledge as if intelligence is based on the wealth of knowledge we have. We forget that Man is just not intellect. He has a consciousness that scientists cannot define. He has emotions and will, also heart and feeling. What is more important is the knowing. Knowledge is not about knowing. Knowledge and the facts are external of oneself. The knowing is within. Knowledge is only the suggestion. You may have all the knowledge contained in the national library but you may not develop the knowing. If somebody says he can teach you art by providing you the knowledge based on his screwed-up perceptions of it, treat it with suspicion.
The thoughts of Mind cannot be free from what we call conditioning, influences by the books read, the thoughts of other minds, views, personal desires, ego, traditions, culture, religion, and so on. We have too much of that kind of thinking contained within boxes in art, from aesthetics developed in the west, in the east, New York, London, Paris, Tokyo, Sydney, Taiwan, also from nowhere these days. We have to know who we are and learn to be free, though that freedom is limited in some ways. Only then will we realise our creativity and what real creativity is. Knowledge is only the basis of suggestion, or the friction. Knowing is like a flintstone. When struck, a spark comes about and an internal light glows inside. We will know what and how to react, not entrapped by the thinking contained in boxes. It is essential that we must develop the courage to be free and reject thinking in boxes. There are many good artists but real artists are few and cannot come about if they are trapped in the mind.
Freedom does not denote a lack of discipline, of anything goes. The mind is only free if it is governed by responsibility. Understanding that will provide the light for intuitive action to determine the form for expression, one derived from the free spirit dwelling within. We all are born with that gem that can shine brilliantly with meaning, for ourselves and for those who can share the light with us.
The mind becomes spongy
Change is absolute if we are to benefit from an ever changing world for meaning in our lives. Nothing is static. We may not realise that sitting or standing still in any place, we are already moving more than 64 thousand miles per hour. A second past is already a second in the past tense. When minds are entrapped in the past tense, it resists change for security reasons, for the clinging to the ego, the clinging to memories, many with delusions of perceived greatness. I sometimes think it is about the psychology of the fear of death. It is the box-thinking of frogs, or toads under coconut shells, “saperti katak-katak di bawak tempurong”, giving us the half-baked perceptions of the phenomenal reality of our temporal existence, even less so of the reality within the psyche. It is the mad-cow disease relating to the forces of consumerism, about the offal offered to cows to fatthen them for the market, and down the line, the mind becomes spongy with spongiform encephalitis. Simply, we must break free of boxed thinking, or limited “tempurong” thinking, and if change is necessary, we must move forward wherever and whenever our creative energies demand, as always for a better world, energised by a responsible free spirit, particularly in the arts, to renew itself as the integrating force in culture.
Change is like the metamorphosis of the caterpillar into a beautiful butterfly, developing the cocoon that gives us the silk cloths which adorn many a lady to enhance yet again vivacious forms of our external world. Unfortunately, some caterpillars, like artists, die in their hibernating state and never get to become beautiful butterflies because there is an agenda for the pretty silks to be commodified with pretty colours and lined with golden borders.
We need to cast off the narrow-minded thinking for a broader view of what art is. A painting is not simply a pretty picture to decorate a wall. Art students in their foundational course in art schools do that kind of exercise in their first-year colour studies. In this country, we are aware that water-colour and oil painting traditions were introduced into this country by way of colonialism.
However, we must realise that western art is bound with specific aesthetics developed in the western world. Are those the only aesthetics considered the best in the world? Are they not founded on realities of a western socio political and belief-system different from those aesthetics developed of Asian cultural dimensions which may have as sophisticated and profound underlying meanings for life with regard to realities? Who gains by us being copycats, in the wider dimension of globalisation? Must gain in monetary and other terms, even selling our self-pride as Malaysians, override all other considerations in the pursuit of art making? It is indeed futile to dwell on culture when the mind is cluttered with confused visions. Cultural and critical literacy are so necessary to cope with the ever-growing power of media empires.
In this country, in our backyard as it were, there are aesthetic traditions and realities other than those of a western one. Distinctive cultures were well-developed over thousands of years in this part of the world and they give us the distinctive identity that we are, Asian in dimension. The externals of clothes and other aspects of life are trivial matters for trivial affectations and globalised conventions, but what is within from the internal spaces of the psyche is crucial for determining who and what we are, and with honesty and confidence, especially in the arts, we can contribute to the world as free spirits without being copycats subservient to the powerful and major influences determined only by corporate and global capitalism, or the arrogant egos, for dominance, even deceit.
Yeoh Jin Leng, 76, came to prominence in the local art scene in the late 60s with his abstract expressionist paintings. His personal exploration into the spiritual has made his style vary, venturing even into ceramics and bronze work. He was the dean of the Malaysian Institute of Art and was awarded the Anugerah Kesenian Perak in 1998.
First Published: 02.12.2005 on Kakiseni
- On December 2, 2005