The Death of Art

Art for art’s sake died along Jalan Raja Laut the first Friday of Ramadhan this year. It was laid to rest at the steps of Suhakam, alongside the cadaver of campus democracy. Draped with a Malaysian flag, their shared coffin was bold and black, and their entourage, young and defiant.

Traffic and tourists witnessed a sight reminiscent of Reformasi – young Malaysian citizens marching from Masjid Negara to Merdeka Square and on to Menara Tun Razak. The downpour, which began right after Friday prayers, did not deter them. Clad in black, this long line of mostly university students plodded along patiently, waving long stalks of white chrysanthemums, chatting as they walked in the rain. The coffin bearers, on the other hand, looked more grim as they negotiated walking in unison while watching for oncoming cars. No-one tried very hard to keep dry. It was a funeral march; the rain was only fitting.

This was indeed performance art like no other. If not for the ubiquitous cloth banner with “Kembalikan Demokrasi di Universiti” in black block lettering, the entourage performing death rites could easily have been mistaken for the real thing.

But what are demonstrations if not performances of the people writ large? Just as we perform compliance and conformity each day, we occasionally can be compelled by indignation to perform protest.

Yet, rarely do Malaysian art (or artists, for that matter) enter into the fray. Unlike the social realist and activist art impulses of Indonesia and the Philippines, Malaysian art is often self-involved, preferring to languish in its own ivory tower (or within the white cube of the gallery equivalent), observing society and drawing inspiration from it but never directly immersed in the conflicts of the present day.

That contemporary Malaysian art has become lamentable is nothing new. Faced with the onset of global economic crisis, massive unemployment, spiraling HIV infection rates, and environmental degradation, the notion of art for art’s sake is destined for demise.

The artwork for this particular street funeral was certainly not meant for pristine gallery walls but its symbolism is rich with clarity. This was neither sculpture trying to be obtuse nor performance art trying to befuddle. The coffin, banners and placards were constructed with purpose in mind – purpose beyond the realm of art but also dependent on it.

What began as a conventional protest march became a visually provocative publicity vehicle for the demands of the university students. Representing all 11 public university campuses such as UM, UIA, UiTM, UPM and UKM, among others, the students personified collective strength against the unfair election practices of their universities. Citing interference and harassment by university officials during campus elections, pressure to vote the university-backed aspirasi candidates, as well as restrictions placed on non-aspirasi candidates from campaigning, the students were univocal in their call for re-election in campuses nationwide.

The student organisers understood that a conventional march would not garner as much visual interest or media attention as their funeral procession along the streets of KL and subsequent memorial service on the steps of the Human Rights Commission office. In short, they realised the potential of art to radicalise public interest and appreciated its power to affect a different good.

This was not art sitting in a rarefied space, consumed with refined senses by the elite set, able and willing to buy. Its market is a public too caught up in the trials and tribulations of everyday to be able to afford the luxury of taste. But its impact can still be huge.

Campus democracy is dead and the notion of art for art’s sake is fast decomposing but there is no denying that student power! – that raw-throated and brazen refrain throughout the memorial service – lives. And it looks certain to inject the Malaysian art scene with something it sorely needs: courage and relevance.

This article was first published in Off The Edge magazine, November 2005 issue.


Carmen Nge is a lecturer and frequent contributor to Off The Edge.

First Published: 01.12.2005 on Kakiseni

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