Tuesday, October 26, 2010

When the kissing had to stop.

This is the draft version  .....

When the Kissing Had to Stop: Converse Dialogues with Balinese Art

An Asian proverb says `If you want to learn about water, you do not ask the
fish...". It is hard for a convert to be objective about the process they
are going through. Skeptical observers of the conversion experience
invariably ask "to what, from what, and for how long?" I try to keep these
things in mind as I talk about my experiences in Bali and Java. I also keep
in mind some of the traditional art forms we associate with that part of
the world: shadow theater puppets, masks, and elaborate dances sometimes
performed in a `trance state.' Hopefully, the hard questions and my strong
attraction to some aspects of the culture will bring some balance to these

The traditional approach to arts and culture in Bali seems very different
to the `museum and gallery' approach in the Fine Arts which we have in the
West. Due to the intertwining of several intellectual and cultural
developments in our culture, we have separated art from many other aspects
of life. We have tried to protect the aesthetic dimension from the different schools
 of thought that wanted to analyze truth and `reality’ in linear terms. In doing this, 
some say that we have cut beauty, truth, morality and utility adrift.
In Bali, by comparison, there is no word for `Art.' It is said that the
Balinese try to do everything beautifully, or artfully. Wooden masks and
the leather shadow puppets are carefully carved and painted. Performances,
from rudimentary village ceremonies to complex music and drama, are
precisely and gracefully handled. Every ritual, from simple rice offerings
made at a roadside shrine to the elaborate temple dances inviting the gods
to descend, is part of this dynamic continuum. Social, cultural and
spiritual practices seem to interpenetrate in a way which holds the
personal, social and cosmic worlds in dynamic balance. Furthermore, the
cultural forms and imagery draw heavily upon the lush surrounding nature for inspiration.

Is it any wonder that naturalists, explorers, and anthropologists have come
here in days gone by and declared Bali a paradise? Or that artists, writers
and musicians have arrived to celebrate the idyllic quality of Balinese
life and culture, as they found it? They have also gone on to mourn the
culture's inevitable change and decline, blaming everything from
Eurocentric cultural imperialism to the growth of the tourist economy.
Which makes one wonder: did the 'real Bali' ever even exist?

So, back to our skeptical questioner. Are we converting `from’ the sterility 
and bankruptcy (as some would see it) of  our Museum based and increasingly  
market driven art world? If so, in the light of the lamentations  of some of those 
who have discovered Bali…..can we be sure of what we are converting to?  
Before I go on , I would like to say that in spite of the marked
differences between our `museum-based' approach to the arts and the more
contextualized approach associated with cultures like Bali, both approaches
have produced wonderful art.  However…on with my personal testimony.

My personal encounter with Bali came about as a result of two International
 Christian arts conferences.  These conferences drew
people like moths to a particularly enticing flame. Artists came literally
from all over the world to share their faith, their visions and their
struggles. And what better place than Bali to do it in? We could observe,
`up close,' a culture in which art, life and spirituality were still
interwoven. We could interact with Balinese Christian art makers and dream
our own dreams of what such an integrated approach to culture might look
like once suitably redeemed and transformed. Personally, I left both
conferences `fired up' with the potential I caught a glimpse of there,
making my own side trips to Java to gain a little more exposure to these
cultures which so attracted me. However, in my travels and my subsequent
reflections I was haunted by questions. Was this the real thing? How could
I be sure?

In Jogjakarta I purchased the book Bali 1912 , a collection of photographic
prints made from the glass slides taken by anthropologist Gregor Krause in
the early 1900s. Perhaps here, in these crystal clear black and white
prints of temples, children, waterfalls and faces, I would find `the real
Bali.' But even here, was I looking at what was `real' or was I up against
the selective framing and the acute focus of a sympathetic, but paternal,

Perhaps the `real Bali' is not so easily documented. Not only does nature
and culture weave together to paint a picture of integration, but so do the
visible and the invisible dimensions of existence. To speak of the 'real
Bali' is to speak of its underlying spirituality. An important aspect of
that spirituality, for many, is the trance state. Would I find the `real
Bali' here, in those practices centered on going into trance or `entering
the other mind?'

I had the chance to observe some things firsthand, and heard and read about
I watched Balinese priests writhe on the floor, seemingly intent on
lacerating themselves with sacred knives. I know that in some villages
young girls perform the fabled sangyang dedari trance dance, allegedly
possessed by the spirits of `heavenly nymphs.' But even here we should ask
 about the tangled relationship between the
observer and the observed. Who is truly in trance here? 
Is it the priests and the young girls caught in the spiritual dark side of.
the 'real Bali' or is it us, hypnotized byour own unfulfilled wishes, hopes and dreams? 
If we are the ones in trance,is this trance state merely a byproduct of our 
unexamined assumptions about beauty and art, or some form of `cultural imperialism'
 attracted to the exotic orientalism of this culture? 

Or is there something deeper?

The Balinese shadow puppet drama weaves together God, 
clown figure, history and myth in a way that some Balinese feel
 is more `real’ than the audience watching it..
 Perhaps, in a similar way, our longings to
know and experience the `real Bali' may be a truer indication of those
unanswered questions and unrealized aspirations lying close to the core of
our being--truer than all the heated sermons about `cultural imperialism'
and `Orientalism.'

Perhaps its is something closer to the analysis of some aspects of Romantic
Love offered by Denis De Rougemont in Love in the Western World. De
Rougemont argues (among other things) that when we "fall in love" we in
some ways project our "felt needs, hopes and aspirations" in a somewhat
idealized form onto our prospective partner. They become "the answer" to
our question. De Rougemont and Anders Nygren (Eros and Agape) both write
about the Eros-driven experience as a distorted parody, rather than a
possible parable, of Agape love. Is something like that driving us? Is our
entranced infatuation with some aspects of Balinese or other exotic
cultures simply an idealized projection of what we want and feel we need to
find in art, life and society? . Is it little more than a mask to hide our 
own nagging sense of incompleteness?
 How long before the mask comes off? (asks our skeptical questioner) 
and what happens then?

When Christian artists gathered together on Bali for a time of sharing and
discussion, we all broke bread together in a eucharistic
service heavily influenced by Balinese cultural forms.
Painter and puppeteer Nyoman Darsane performed a dance and broke
through layers of Balinese tradition by removing his mask before inviting
us to join him in the rest of the dance and the communion celebration.

The floor of the church was taken up by a huge Cross of interwoven
fruit and flowers. This cross was emblematic of what drew us all together
in our common faith. It also spoke of the redemption of these natural
elements and cultural forms, and gave us a foretaste of their eventual
transformation and renewal in Christ. In this cross--and by implication,
through THE cross--utility, function, beauty, truth and goodness are
reconciled........I do believe that we in the west can learn  a lot about 
art and life from cultures as integrated as the Balinese one appears to be….
However, whatever the `real Bali' is beneath our Romantic projections
 and their mythic constructions
 --it is but a dim and distorted mirror image of the kind of
 integrated and transformed reality
that is only possible because of, and through, the Cross.

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