Sun, 18 Jun 2000

Visual modern art market all shaken up

By Chandra Johan

JAKARTA (JP): Indonesian modern art entered the commercial field more than 10 years ago. Commercial galleries have mushroomed in big cities like Jakarta, Bandung, Yogyakarta and Surabaya, as well as in Bali.

Modern art exhibitions have proliferated in art centers office buildings, hotels and the so-called "art houses" that are open for the art community. More people -- from housewives to celebrities -- have become painters. All these people want to exhibit "themselves" to be watched, sold. They want to be popular, although not all want to be real artists.

The commercial era is also an era of showing and commercialization. In this case, making money, self expression and communication a commodity is not taboo. On the contrary, all commodities strive to be valued and communicated. This reality cannot be avoided, as global capitalism cannot be rejected.

In the field of Indonesian modern painting, we find several interesting phenomena within this global trend.

First, the fact that the exhibitions are held in atypical locations, not just in art centers, indicates there is "glasnost" and democratization of exhibition space. People no longer see Jakarta as an art center and barometer of modernity, along with the fading image of Taman Ismail Art Center as an art barometer.

Nowadays one does not make an effort to uphold his/her existence as a painter through "arrogant" art centers. Instead, they display their works in cafes, hotels, and small galleries or art houses.

Second, art exhibitions are no longer perceived as a "sacred cultural event," as was the case from the 1960s to the 1980s. The sanctity of painting exhibitions has been lost because a painting is not considered to be merely a tool to support something with a more symbolic or oligarchical meaning. In the eyes of an art marketer, a painting is money. Understanding the concept, content and the meaning of the painting, is the problem of the artist or art critics. While in the eyes of the artists, success is measured from the nominal values they get from the work, and this will automatically decide their choice of style, theme or technique.

Third, the myth of an artist as the creator has faded along with the change from creative value to re-creative value. De-mystification of an artist as a poor prophet looking for truth, and originality has happened because the law of the market easily makes new myths and taboos acceptable. Many painters become successful and popular not because their works bring new value to the art world, but more because they re-create the ideas and style of the past which was a legend in the beginning of the 20th century. Many art dealers or galleries also demand certain styles from the past from today's painters.

Fourth, in accordance with the change of values in the market, the world of the art critic has begun to decline, disappearing from the public discourse. Potential and independent art critics start to be absorbed in commercial galleries, in which they can apply their profession and talent for a more suitable payment than merely writing for the mass media or art journals. This means art-critics, who controlled art discourse between the 1960s and 1980s, are no longer the authority on structure, content, style and talent. They are now replaced by the subjectivity of the consumers, collectors or other influencing figures.

In the past ten years the Indonesia art critic has sunk from his once respected pedestal. Writing about fine art is limited to a review or a report that is not deeply analytical. If there is a serious art critic who writes seriously in the media, art lovers and members of the art community pay no attention, not only because the language of the critic is hard to understand, but also because the artists nowadays prefer to learn from the marketing manager. Therefore, it is no wonder that there is a confusion of roles between the curator and the sales manager.

In this commercial era there are of course many positive things which directly influence the prosperity of the artist individually. However, the market spirit that flares up too much has effects that are worrying.

First, with the expansion of the exhibition spaces, the activities of exhibitions proceed almost without brakes. The exhibitions are not treated as an appreciation arena but more as an art market and bazaar. The painters are racing and hunting for exhibition places which can bring them a lot of money. They do not care if the works are hung in a narrow space in hotels or office buildings where viewers can only see them at a glance. Forget about appreciation. As long as they can be sold, it is fine with them.

In Jakarta, it seems there are almost continual exhibitions, although the number of visitors decrease day by day, not to mention the buyers. The painting world seems to be sinking in the exhibition euphoria. So what will happen then, or what has not happened, is the saturation market. Serious art lovers really do not want to be fed up with art works which are over-produced and are easily available anywhere. The artist as well as the organizer of the exhibition should anticipate the market saturation.

Next, over production of paintings does not fit with the law of supply and demand. The painters nowadays easily make paintings whether it is to meet the target of exhibition or the market and industry. If this is what is happening, so now fractal values are spread: values are produced fully and freely, but this only result in regularities, causing an emptiness of value. Of course, further consequence of this is that there are no parameters and values. Whereas the art world can live when it has to deal with values, whether merely the aesthetic, technique or thematic problems. While those values can only be built through critical debates against them, starting from small communities to bigger and wider communities. That is the reason why the tradition of dialogue, the study of discourse and discussion is an inherent part in each modern art. From that tradition, there will be acceptance or refusal of its values. And that critical tradition has become a characteristic of modern art itself, wherever art is born.

It is really a concern when the duration of fine art exhibitions become faster and wider in its space, the tradition of art discourse and criticism is decreasing and disappearing. We not only need infrastructure, but also superstructure to back-up ideas which make it possible to observe ideas to spread, examine, discuss and analyze. It is absurd if a painting which consists only of paint and canvas can suddenly have a high value and is highly praised, without people knowing the aspect of value inside it. A study, debate and continuous dialog are needed to understand the values before we agree upon it. That is the why in developed countries, books on arts and maestro painters are always produced by several writers with several points of view.