Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Art and Politics: From Javanese Court Dance to Indonesian Art

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Art and Politics: From Javanese Court Dance to Indonesian Art

Article excerpt

'Art equips us for survival, conquest, and gain' (Goodman 1976: 256).

To speak of art is to speak of representations: their production, their form, their reception. Anthropologists may justify the use of categories such as 'art' and 'aesthetics' as a necessary form of analytical meta-language or 'experience-distant' categorization (Geertz 1983: 57), but necessity may result in inventions which misrepresent cases employing different categories and systems of discrimination.

A recurrent problem for anthropology has been to determine the extent to which art should be separated from, or connected to, other forms of social practice.(1) Western traditions of art history and appreciation have focused on the plastic form as a symbolic representation which stands in a relation of imitation to the real world. Such traditions determine contemporary cross-cultural approaches to art. The concentration is on objects, whether or not these objects were created for aesthetic contemplation in themselves, and neglects embodied cultural practices such as dance.(2)

Critiques of Aristotelian principles of naturalist imitation by aestheticians such as Gombrich (1960) and Goodman (1976: 1978) can help to solve the anthropological dilemma of how to contextualize art and aesthetics. Goodman in particular offers a way out of the paradox at the heart of the anthropology of art, in which judgement is central to aesthetics and marginal to anthropology (P. Gow in Weiner 1994: 32).(3) There is an affinity between what anthropologists do and what Goodman has called a critique of world-making. He approaches art as a relativizing study of the constructions of realities ('versions') and 'the comparative study of these versions and visions of their making' (1978: 94). Bourdieu's (1984) sociological critique of the Kantian tradition in Western aesthetics draws explicitly on Gombrich, but unwittingly approaches Goodman by arguing that art is not about things, but about struggles and conflicts to distinguish the self-in-the-group from others. To Bourdieu, these struggles constitute art as capital for cultural politics. For Goodman, more radically, the making and appreciation of art are stakes which vary in significance historically; it is not the beautiful and the true which are at issue, but the appropriate: 'Truth and its aesthetic counterpart amount to appropriateness under different names' (1976: 264). The power to define appropriateness must be struggled for.

This article argues that art and aesthetics are contingent concepts or attributes, not essential capacities which emerge at some stage in socio-cultural development. Drawing on research on social change carried out in Indonesia between 1982 and 1994, I focus on 'high' art with reference to Javanese dance performance to demonstrate that 'art' is not a cultural given. Rather, it is used in the processes of cultural production to define appropriateness, and entails struggles for power and identity. If, as Weiner suggests, 'nationalism has powerfully enhanced the aestheticisation of politics which has been such a key component of twentieth century modernism in Europe and North America' (1994: 1), I argue that the reverse is true of post-colonial states such as Indonesia. Rather than follow Baudrillard's (1983) extreme replacement of verity by versions which mark the end of reality, I follow Goodman in asking not 'What is Art?' but 'When is Art?' (1978: 59). However much one characterizes the contemporary West in terms of postmodern pastiche, art is not everywhere-in-the-world. Starting from this contingent 'when-ness' of art, which contrasts with the aestheticization of reality in postmodernism, I explore the historical conditions of the Javanese case, and ask whether a firm line may be drawn between Western aesthetics and Javanese practices as understood by anthropologists and some Javanese. Despite the Indonesian ideological separation of culture and politics, this case will furnish evidence of a politicization of aesthetics. …

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