A work of art can alienate if it remains an object of presentation perceived to belong on some unreachable plane. Unreachable in a sense that it is considered too highbrow or in the way it does not reach out and speak to the observer. Such misperception, that art is generally unreachable, can stem from both the artist and the observer.
The artist can produce a work of art which can be lost in the arrogance of conceptual coolness; artwork which does not communicate everyday language and instead resides in an intellectual tower which intimidates the pedestrian observer below. The artist and her work of art can also be selfish; artwork that is overwhelmingly personal traps itself in its own introspection and speaks inwardly rather than projecting an outward gaze. The observer is complicit in her apathy to confront the nature of a work of art. Art demands courage. Cowardice can stop the observer short of a meaningful encounter when faced with things which take time. The observer may also be guilty of limiting herself by the shallow aesthetic boundary of “this looks good” (subjective taste) but asks for nothing further from a work of art. In limiting herself, the artwork too becomes limited. Art in Brunei can only flourish meaningfully if we recognize that there is so much more beyond this boundary.
The lack of technical or historical knowledge about art can make the task of appreciating a work of art very daunting. There is perhaps a general assumption that to engage art requires an acquired discourse. It is no surprise that the general imagination of the art world is a stereotype of sophistication and intellectual rigor. Far from this, a meaningful work of art expresses the everyday and the ordinary. What I mean by ‘everyday-ness’ in relation to art is a work of art that is conscious of its surrounding; its historical, political, material and personal context. Good art bears witness to the ‘ways of being’ in its past, present, future and everything that is composed in time. ‘Being’ is our place in this world in relation to the ‘other’, the way we exist in this world and our interaction with everything in it. For instance a human may walk in a forest and happen upon a river. What is the river? A river is not just a physical feature of the earth; a river to the human is seen as a place to wash, drink, find food, and transport. The river has meaning to the human in relation to being with others. The point of this is that when we encounter a work of art, it must not just be an independent object; it must reach out to our ways of being in relation to others and our surroundings. Such art is questioning us and invites questions about its being. What does this work of art express in terms of its context in time, the artist and the observer? In other words, it must convey an idea (historical, socio-cultural, economic, philosophical, political etc.) that reveals the spirit of the present time.
Art seen this way gives it depth and dimension. It also lets a work of art, the artist and the observer engage in a conversation. In this conversation, good art must be responsible. Responsibility in this sense is the conscious acknowledgement that art must not exist independently on its own; it must belong in a context to make any meaningful sense even if it means to subvert other forms of art. Subversion is still conversation even if it seeks to change prevalent ideas as it is still an acknowledgment of existing with the ‘other’. Contemporary life attests to the fact that it is easy to produce and disseminate art in all forms. “Art” is prone to existing superficially just as it is almost effortless to be an “artist”. Consequently the appreciation of art can easily be dismissed by relativism and subjectivism. Art is reduced to a question of ‘taste’ and it stops at “this looks good”. If art is then just about ‘taste’, it renders art dilute and falls short of asking important questions beyond its aesthetic value. To restore importance to the work of art is to appreciate how important the role of art is in our ways of thinking.
Consider the painting ‘Grey Sea’ by Dato Paduka Shofry. At first glance I am struck by this painting’s manipulation of light and movement of the sea. I could stop at this level of observation and comment that it looks good. However in this moment of encounter I begin to transcend the boundary and engage in a conversation. I first ask myself why the artist did this particular composition. I start to wonder what the absence of a solid object means and why this painting is from a point of view that is in the middle of the sea. As a work of art that is produced in contemporary Brunei, I perhaps can ponder that the absence of a solid object is a reflection of the state of a Bruneian psyche. The cornerstone of our way of thinking lies in the humble surrender to the spiritual and unknowable. The absence of something which I can grasp and focus on (a central object) expresses the feeling of the loosening of a grip. This ‘grip over things’ is symptomatic of modern Western rationality that requires everything to be explained away as the logic of science might champion. In a world of spreadsheets, precise analysis, numbers obsession and scientism, this painting is therefore a rich expression of an acknowledgment that there is a remainder outside our grasp that is, and must be, left unexplained. Uncertainty is to be celebrated. That I am thrown in the middle of the sea might evoke the sense of uncertainty and figuring out. It is not a painting to escape into, it is a painting to escape from – but where to? The question of an eventual destination is always asked of us and perhaps it strikes at the heart of the Bruneian condition. Here lies the turning of identity and the currents of modernity – it unsettles us to our very core.
It must be noted that perhaps this is not the intention of the painter. Instead, attention must be paid to the kind of thinking process that might involve in appreciating a work of art. However this type of thinking is only possible because I share the world with the artist and the work of art. I am involved in this community which also where the ideas of the artist are borne out of – therefore art does not exist independently of us, it is being with us together in the spirit of our time. To ask the type of existential question above is not wide off the mark – in fact they open up possibilities of exploration that even the artist might appreciate in developing his ideas. The importance of the work of art therefore cannot be understated. Art is our being expressed in another form – usually in a medium where language escapes us. It also captures our thoughts and ways of thinking and living in a particular era. Not only does it capture the current state, it can also express the process of transformation. The most powerful art of course seeks to transform the spirit of the time it exists in.
Visiting an art gallery can be something more than an escape from your normal routine or an outing to look at ‘beautiful’ things. The gallery is a gathering of ourselves expressed in different ways. It is an exercise of the mind and a reflection of our past, present and future ways of thinking. Such is the importance of the work of art.
The painting ‘Grey Sea’ by Dato Paduka Shofry is on display at the Rainforest Gallery at the Silver Jubilee Park, Bandar Seri Begawan. For opening times and further information visit their Facebook page.