Illustration by Oliver Raw

What Are We Waiting For?

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In recent decades, visual art has helped to shape public discourses on social, political and educational issues while reflecting on identity and the process toward democracy in many Asian countries. In Indonesia, for instance, during Suharto’s regime (1968–98), art was essentially political. In a subtle way, by exploring around the edges of freedom of expression, art was often oppositional and in protest. 

During the Reformation period that followed the fall of Suharto, the art that emerged was primarily educational, community-based and liberating. There was a boom in critical and conceptual art that highlighted infrastructural needs for both galleries and alternative spaces, as art professionals and curators developed exhibition and research programs that encouraged new perspectives on society and history. 

The last five years have brought significant changes to the scene in Indonesia, notably the trends for “going global” and the rising influence of market forces. These developments have forced us to reconsider the relevance and function of art. At the moment, it seems like we cannot influence the things happening around us, which results in a situation of passive consumption. If art had once been a way to look at things differently and to alter our perspectives, today the questions are: What do we expect from art? What is its function in a society such as Indonesia? Do we still need art to challenge us? 

The younger generation of artists tends to create objects ready to be consumed at commercial galleries and art fairs, the result of their training, which often leads them into this system, and of their attempts to follow in the footsteps of “successful” artists. With no viable public museum for contemporary art that could provide an alternative to the commercial sector, independent art organizations try to fill the gap. As such, the largest challenge facing the Indonesian art community, currently controlled by market forces, is how to ensure the continued support for nonprofit art organizations, so that there is a strong foundation for potent and relevant art movements in the future. 

Until recently, several arts organizations, such as Ruangrupa, Indonesian Visual Art Archive, Cemeti Art House and Kelola, have attracted international funding; however, many of the foreign philanthropic foundations that provided this backing are slowly winding down their involvement. As a result, 20-plus arts organizations from various disciplines have come together to create the Indonesian Art Coalition (Koalisi Seni Indonesia), which aims to establish a national collective body that can advocate the importance of art and support nonprofit projects. But for now, with no government cultural strategy, we at Cemeti Art House, along with other nonprofit art and alternative art organizations, must depend on art purchases and fund-raising from private companies and overseas groups.

It is ironic that while today’s art is becoming less exciting and provocative, we are simultaneously witnessing increased attention from a wi der audience. At the opening of ART/JOG12, an art fair with artists but no galleries held in Yogyakarta in July, more than 1,000 people queued up on opening night. Contemporary art is the latest trend in Indonesia; youngsters love to photograph themselves in front of artworks and then post the pictures on Facebook. Local interest from young collectors is also promising. 

However, considering the increased commercialization of Indonesian visual art, there should also be a greater emphasis on critical discourse. Hou Hanru addresses the need of curators to encourage both artists and the public in his article “A Third Way,” which appeared in ArtAsiaPacific 80, stating that the place of the curator is in the production of intellectual cultural criticism. However, curators in Indonesia navigate between commercial and alternative initiatives under the term “independent curator.” Galleries “need” independent curators, who function—to be cynical—as brokers, to get access to popular artists or to validate emerging talents. Commercial galleries expect that curators will bring in artworks that will sell. Trapped in this cycle, curators’ choices can hardly avoid being dictated by the market. Moreover, this situation makes it very difficult for a new generation of curators—whom we desperately need—to emerge. 

Over the past six months, Cemeti Art House has organized four focus-group discussions with artists, curators and researchers of different generations. Talking to young curators confirmed our worries. In their rush for fame, emerging artists desire to work with older, established curators. This has effectively stifled the unique voice of this new generation, which should be articulated by the emerging artists’ peers who are writers, curators and critics. It also means that emerging curators have fewer chances to develop their own practice and a discourse with their contemporaries. Other reactions from young curators include the difficulty of balancing their curatorial vision with the demands of this money-dominated climate. They often prefer to prolong their studies, or fulfill teaching jobs instead. 

The arts are in crisis, and we hope for a reaction—any initiative that could shake things up. But, to be honest, those in the art community who are voicing concerns are mostly 35 years and older. Meanwhile, the younger generation moves around either in a comfort zone or in confusion, not wanting to be patronized by the previous generation and at the same time not having enemies to rebel against. We shall have to wait and see what breaks this stalemate.