Taste, Taste of Art, Politics of Art By NURAINI JULIASTUTI

IMG_3164-politicsofartThe fields of cultural production occupy a dominated position in the field of power: that is a major fact ignored by ordinary theories of art and literature. Or, to retranslate this into a more common but inadequate language, I could say that artist and writers, and more generally intellectuals, are a dominated fraction of the dominant class. They are dominant, in so far as they hold the power and privilleges conferred by the possesion of cultural capital and even, at least as far as certain of them are concerned,the possesion of a volume of cultural capital great enough to exercise power over cultural capital; but writers and artists are dominated in their relations with those who hold political and economic power. (Bourdieu, 1994: 144-145)

This article is more accurately described as ruminations which are not closely related to each other, but at least collectively tell a story about the struggle of a person or an organization in advocating or establishing cultural capital on the strength of the economic capital he/she holds, or vice versa. Also, it talks about “taste”–something which makes us feel better or worse than other people – and also hopw an institution strives to establish its own taste in broader application or acceptance.

I remember a large advertisement in KOMPAS newspaper in 2000, regarding an event called the Asia Pacific Nokia Arts Awards 2000. At that time, Nokia was, and certainly at present still is, in the midst of a tight competition with other hand phone brands. They compete with each other in matters of sophisticated technology, physical appearance and functional operations. Nokia was striving to become the most popular hand phone brand name which would always be remembered, like Coca-cola, Marlboro, or Lucky Strike. Nokia was trying to broaden its image beyond its existence as a communication tool. In 2000, the theme of the Nokia Arts Awards was “Your Imagination Playground”,which easily reminded the public of the Asia-Pacific Philip Morris Arts  Awards which are held anually by Philip Morris, a multi national company which produces the famous Marlboro cigarettes. In 1997, the American Library Association requested permission from Mattel, the makers of Barbie, permission to use the pretty doll in their campaign to promote reading in America. With the slogan, “Reading is Always in Style”, the campaign ran with large posters which featured a picture of Barbie in the middle (Rogers, 1999: 95).

The Nokia Arts Awards can be seen as an effort to achieve a certain social position. By organising an event like this, Nokia willnot only be considered as a telecommunications product. It is also striving for a social position as an institution which has the authority or competence in judging the quality of art.

Cultural capital is a capital of knowledge and competency which is necessary to differentiate or evaluate whether an object is ‘art’ or not. According to Bourdieu, several classes struggle with each other to increase the volume of the cultural capital that  they own, and raise the value which is placed on certain capital forms. Bordieu also assures that the relationship exists on both sides between cultural capital and economic capital. He is certain that people actively invest cultural capital to attain economic capital.

Nokia has a high economic capital. However,it has low cultural capital. By creating the Nokia Arts Awards, they desire to improve the position of their cultural capital. It is clear that Nokia wants to win the sympathy of a group which has high cultural capital, but low economic capital, in this case, artists.

The Nokia Arts Awards advertisement published in KOMPAS on October 29, 2000,announced the names of the winners who won the right to represent Indonesia on the Asia-Pacific level competition: Deni Rahman, Tulus Rahadi, Wahyu Gunawan, Deskhairi, and Dadi Setiadi. They were all students at the Indonesian Institute for the Arts in Yogyakarta.

From the above explanation, it can be seen that Nokia continues to try to establish itself as a popular brabd name. This can be seen not just in the success of the event Nokia has  sponsored, but also in the success of its marketing strategies.

One exhibition organised by Cemeti Art Foundation, and the most interesting one for me, was an exhibition entitled, Awas! Recent Art from Indonesia. This exhibition opened in Yogyakarta on October 11-15, 1999, and then travelled to galleries in several countries, including Australia, Japan, Germany and other European countries, and finally closing at Bentara Budaya in Jakarta, October 1922. There were 14 artists included in this exhibition: Agung Kurniawan, Apotik Komik, Bunga Jeruk, Heri dono, Arahmaiani, Hanura Hosea, Popok Tri Wahyudi, Tisna Sanjaya, Samuel Indratma, Krisna Murti, Nindityo Adipurnama,S.Teddy D, Eddie Hara, and Agus Suwage.

It was not just the name of the exhibition that interested me, but rather one of the works by Apotik Komik,entitled “Under Estimate”. This work intended to illustrate Apotik Komik’s perspectives towards the phenomena occuring in the world of art and especially the relationship between artists, curators, collectors, and the community.

Apotik Komik’s work,a collaboration between Ari Dyanto, Samuel Indratma, Popok Tri Wahyudi, exhibited a characteristic style: lively, bright colors, tumultuous and full of symbols, comical, and created with a cheerful, playful spirit. This work was made out of old photocopy machine ink containers which were split vertically and arranged to be standing straight. The split bodies were then drawn upon and “filled” with cardboard figures which were placed appearing to emerge out of the containers,or other objects and texts,both those self-composed and those taken randomly from advertisement clippings.

In the second pile of containers, for instance, there was a picture of three man wearing black hats, black eyeglasses and black clothes, against a red bakground and holding a sheet of newspaper entitled Art News. The man in the middle is saying,”Okay, guys! Here it is! The next works for the market!” but the man on the left says, “Wait! What’s the issue, ideology or the message?” then the man on the right responds,”yeah…what about the size, weight, space? Is it worth it?” written across the strip along the top border is: “Curator line–do not cross”.

On the fifth pile of containers, there is the message written: “History has begun…when we all together hand by hand,side by side, realised that fate is in our hands and it’s our right to work on building up our legacy…little help from outside is OK as long as not from them who have the control over everything just because they had their own”. Perhaps the reference to “those who are outside” in this sentence refers to the parties who have always been considered to hold rules in the world of art,such as the currators, collectors, or art dealers. Beneath this statement, there is a figure wearing an orange hat and black clothes. Across his chest is the word “artist”. He appears to be laughing, but is a bit uneasy because his hands are handcuffed. Beneath his hands there are the words written in large letters,”This could be a best seller”.

The label ‘young and talented artist’ is written on the sixth pile of containers. In the front there is young person riding an aeroplane which has words written “international route”. Perhaps this is an insinuation or expectation that every artist who is considered or consider him/herself to be young and talented will surely achieve the name and way to enter the international scene (which in this piece is symbolised with the words ‘international route’).

The most interesting illustration was on the seventh pile of containers. There was a small cardboard house,in front of it there was an open box which had a cross-section in it so that two photos were taken at the same time but from different angles. Appearing in the photos were Mella Jaarsma, Damon Moon (both Mella and Moon, along with Alexandra Kuss and M.Dwi Marianto were the currators for this exhibition), Samuel Indratma, Popok Tri Wahyudi, and Ari Dyanto. They were conversing together. The caption on the first photo is “invest a little”, while the caption on the second is “get a lot”. In front of the two photos is a separate caption, “a utopian community”.

These creations of Apotik Komik are very interesting to contemplate, not because of their unique form, which is different from anything else, and their theme which actually is rather strange in the midst of a boom for artworks which undertake themes of violance, political issues, but more because according to my own perceptions, the situation illustrated in this work is exactly what was happening in this exhibition.

When we discuss an exhibition, it is not enough just to discuss whose works are shown and what those works are like. An exhibition is,basically a strategy to communicate the power of certain knowledge (Lidchi,1997: 185). observing,collecting works or curating an exhibition are not natural activities that just happen. Further we can ask:why were these works chosen and not others? Why were these 14 artists chose and not others? Or we can ask: what is the objective of the currators in showing these works? What are the possible effects of exhibiting these works and  these artists and not others? What are they trying to point out to the public? Or from here we can know, who are the artist who are being promoted? What are the issues that are currently popular and attract public attention from abroad?

Basically, exhibitions never intend to ‘show something’,but rather to produce and construct a certain insight for people to contemplate. Exhibition are never neutral, but are full of strength. For instance (in this exhibit), by showing that these art works are the trend, these are recent! These are indonesia’s newest works or art that represent Indonesia’s current condition.

This is more the case because it was Cemeti Art Foundation which organised the exhibition. Art researchers consider the Cemeti Art Foundation to have influence not only through the contemporary art exhibitions it sponsors routinely, but because this institutions is actively engaged in forming its own intellectuality through various discussion forums, workshops on writing about art, art documentation activities, and activities which promote research on art. Hence, Cemeti Art Foundation’s own position actually has much potential to promote its own taste of art as the dominant art vehicle. It   is an agent of power. And it is expected that everyone believes this because it is Cemeti Art Foundation, a very influential programs, that says it.

In one discussion at that time, one of the Apotik Komik personnel, Ari Dyanto, said that  they were trying to tease the currators. But for me, they become in the end, the playthings of the currator as well. Their work actually implied an idea of anti-commodity,but when it was shown there, it became a commodity itself because the curators gave  it another meaning by saying:”This is the newest work of art from Indonesia. It’s interesting, isn’t it?” and the currator actually became a part of the bigger game. It is complicated game in the world of artists,currators, collectors, and the public. A game which involves a tug-of war and heavy stakes between desires, power,capital, and aesthetic values–those which draw blood and those which do not.


  • Bourdieu, Pierre, 1994, In Other Worlds, Essays Towards a Reflexive Sociology, Cambridge: Polity Press
  • Lidchi, Henrietta, 1997, The Poetics and The Politics of Exhibiting Other Culture, London: Sage Publications.

This essay has been published in Exploring Vacuum, a book published to commemorate 15 Years of the Cemeti Art House, 2003.

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