Culture Is A Spurned Mistress

Culture is a spurned Mistress in a country where Colin McPhee came to pursue his lifelong dream of learning the gamelan music and later yielding his studies to the world to usher in the middle way of atonal music, in a country where Adrien-Jean Le Meyers, Walter Spies, Antonio Blanco found the ideal place for their truest expressions, in a country where Clifford Geertz, Benedict Anderson, later followed by countless anthropologists, came and are still coming to study the unique diversity of her cultures, in a country where Robert Wilson encountered I La Galigo and was impelled to bring it to world acclaim, and still in his footsteps, this June, another maestro, Evan Ziporyn will present a trial run of A House in Bali as an opera in Ubud before showing it to the world. Considering the suitors that never stop wooing this irresistible lady, why does she remain spurned in her own country? How many more years and how many more expatriate suitors should we wait before our lady gets her deserved attention from her own master?

She once held her head high during the Soekarno era. A spurt of national pride had prompted the reconstitution of culture and the arts in their proper stature, albeit the campaign almost bankrupted the country, but of which we remain grateful and proud till now. But those were the founding days of a nation delirious with hope, a nostalgic era when national visibility in the world was worth any sacrifice. Thirty-odd years of the New Order rule had systematically cleared out what had just been inscribed, leaving only ruined monumental traces to pontificate more about the failures of the past than its triumphant rise. But as what the previous minister of culture and tourism, a certain Mr Ardhike, once told me, when asked maliciously by this writer why the arts and cultures of this country still flourish albeit without due attention from the government. A question that was aimed to cause a few furrowed wrinkles and perhaps a light bulb to flash in the mind about how much more flourishing everything would be with the benefit of a little attention. His remark showed a government officer’s naivety and yet not without a kernel of truth: it’s like the wild growth in the garden, he said; it grows with the slightest blessing of sun and rain. Such is the splendor of our fecund land!

And thus is the harsh reality to be faced with regards to our government stand on the issues of culture and the arts: let there be plenty of sunlight and rain, the rest should take care of itself.

In another occasion, this writer had the great fortune to be seated next to Joop Ave, the maverick ex minister in various past governments. Since he appeared to be in a good mood and a willing listener, so this writer broached the question of why there was not any representative cultural center in the capital. He held my hand like an avuncular mentor hushing a novice in the world of things and drew a deep sigh before launching a heartbreaking tale. A long time ago, in the beginning and the middle of Soeharto rule, he had been offered the Pertamina building for the site of a commanding cultural center. Blueprints were drawn and the Japanese government had stepped up to the plate to build the theatre, but the then first lady had a different idea. She wanted a theatre to be built in her Taman Mini. So the fund was relocated and a private investor, who had just made a fortune selling his company to a telecommunications giant, was recruited to see to the construction of the theater. Today that theater, ironically called Teater Tanah Air, still stands but is rarely used. It brought the private investor to the brink of bankruptcy. Like a gallant son of the nation, he finally managed to pay off all his debts a few years ago. As with anything to do with first scott, the government seems to have the knack of running scott free.

Ten years after reformasi, proud sons and daughters of the spurned Mistress continue unflinchingly to produce impressive works: the Galams, Aguses, Ugos of the plastic arts world fetch prestigious prices in present day auctions; new young writers gain world attention for their boldness to sever with the ho-hum moralistic past and guided democracy; the performance arts, goaded by attention from abroad, attempts to soar with meager means; more independent films are made and flunked out of the market that still feeds on gores and ghouls. But how long will these foolhardy and yet determined drives last is anyone’s guess. Luckily, there are always the generous and welcoming offerings of a Goethe, or an ErasmusHuis and the various kindly hands extending from institutions of the West.

Meanwhile, each successively appointed minister of the culture learns the ropes to remain in office by erroneously thinking tourism is solely about landscapes and mainly about Bali. Watch the current tourism ad campaign for a great laugh: an expat tourist stuffs Indonesian landscapes, dishes and things-to-do in one convenient duffel bag! As if there is no prouder statement to make than it’s cheap and cheaper. While civilizations might not have begun here, there are certainly traces of their beginnings inscribed all over the land to boast about.
The Mistress remains spurned. She has nonetheless grown sullen with disillusion. She sighs plaintively for all to hear, “If not now, whatever!” All things considered, there are after all plenty of sunburns and floods for every searching soul to extract for her art. The new generation belongs to the avenging artists. Ecology, what ecology?

Previously published in Now Jakarta, June 2009 issue.

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