Thu, 23 Nov 2000

Colors and lines on canvas conform two trends

By Chandra Johan

JAKARTA (JP): This is an artist's story. He is a graduate of a noted university here. There is no doubt about his knowledge and skills in fine arts. His paintings demonstrate his talent and ability to grasp the visual elements. He explores a variety of themes: daily life, scenery, dances and staggering bodies. He also makes use of a wide range of styles. We may flippantly comment that he is still "searching" and is yet to find a settled style.

He is saved, however, by contemporary art discourse, one element of which considers style as "language" that may be used any time. However, to the artist, this is not quite an important problem. His frequent changes are simply an attempt to attune himself to the demands of the society. Society must be taken as the "market" here.

This story shows that in the present era of commodification, the "market" also has a say in shaping the mission and vision of an artist. If he is considered to be unprincipled or simply catering to the market's demands, he has his own argument. He says that the market has never dictated anything to him but that it is he that tries to "adjust himself" to the market, "to create" sweeps of colors and lines on his canvas to conform to the developing trends.

He was nominated in a Philip Morris painting contest which was held by the Indonesian Fine Arts Foundation last year. He was not disappointed because he felt he was almost able to prove the correctness of his theory as he could "attune" his paintings to the trends prevailing among the judges in this contest.

After observing the works that won prizes for a number of years, he could guess the trends popular among critics, art observers or curators, who are only small in number in Indonesia. So the artist has come to a conclusion that actually fine art discourses in Indonesia are easily predicted, especially regarding what judges in painting contests like the Philip Morris one have as their preference. Just adopt grand themes about the national crisis, horizontal crises, socio-cultural conflicts, environmental crises, the gender issues and it is almost certain that your works will get nominated as prize winners.

If these grand themes are explored by artists with an adequate ability to "create" the visual language, it is not unlikely that the works may get to the top ten group. Simply compromise with the "market", here at the competition, and you can win a prize worth at least Rp 15 million. This amount does not mean much to the artist compare with the "way to success" that he has opened up. (The fund that Philip Morris sets aside for each person is US$ 5,000, mind you.)

In addition, a Philip Morris contest, to the artist, is enough to explain that the discourses now emerging in Indonesia's fine art world today are the "market" discourses, and therefore what assumes greater significance will be the "courses" and "predicting" of the market, be they "a market of discourses" or a "market discourse".


Here then, is a story of "predicting the market trend" undertaken by another painter recently exhibiting his works in two places at the same time.

In one place, an arts center, he exhibited paintings, installation works and performance art works fraught with social and environmental problems. The artist is well aware that a gallery at an arts center like Taman Ismail Marzuki (TIM) is only a venue for him to practice arts "seriously" in order to get the media spotlight and "a market of discourses" (a number of artists have recently shown a tendency to believe that serious art must be associated with social criticism) and therefore in this exhibition he was prepared for no transactions. He made the exhibition, assumed an air of greater seriousness and organized a foreign cultural attache to officially open the exhibition.

However, in a commercial gallery somewhere else, he exhibited his works with simpler, more focused and easily digested themes. It seems quite clear what the artist was after with this strategy. In the first place, he would like to get what is called "a market of discourses" while in the second place, it was his intention to get a "market discourse". This may also be expressed this way: in the first place he "played his role" as a true artist without any compromise, while in the second place he was ready with compromises and treated his works as real commodities. Nobody will prohibit him from playing a dual role in the present era of "the market". So, why bother about this at all?

There are some implications, of course. First, both "a market of discourses" and "a market discourse" that artists are after today, may result in "dishonest" art works if they are considered as a trend only. As a matter fact, arts are concerned not only with what you can see on canvas but also with morality and conscience.

Second, amidst the present euphoria of "carnivals" of paintings -- with exhibitions being held at a much higher frequency and painting transactions increasing in number -- what are distributed are actually pseudo-art-packed products. This kind of art merely keeps up with the trend prevailing in the "market" and popular among curators.

An art market today can be "created" in such a way to meet certain wishes. Therefore, it is a quasi-market. A financially strong investor can "shock" the art market of a particular artist by, for example, buying up his paintings in certain exhibitions. Automatically, the works of the painter will be in greater demand because his works are believed to sell well. When his works can be sold at higher prices, it is the investor that can reap the profit because he keeps this artist's works ahead of other people and then can easily sell them, either through galleries or in other ways.

Third, this practice will lead to a belief that an art work that sells well in the market is an art work of a good quality. As a matter of fact, there is no relationship at all between selling well and good quality. The next implication is that a market trend will encourage the emergence of trend followers, plagiarists and duplicators. As a result, our art world will get farther away from values and "honesty". If values and honesty have been distorted by certain interests, do we still consider them "valuable"?