Tourism and the Traditional Arts in Bali

If you scroll back a few pages, you’ll find that I am following up my reading of Claire Holt’s wonderful book Art in Indonesia:  Continuities and Change – a book that addresses the emergence of a modern Indonesia – with a book by Princeton anthropologist Hildred Geertz, Tales from a Charmed Life.  Like Holt, Geertz addresses the coming of modern Indonesia, specifically by following one example – in the life of Batuan painter Ida Bagus Made Togog – of a Balinese artist coming into contact with the west, and finding financial gain in developing his culture with those of some the foreigners coming to Bali.

Tales from a Charmed Life is essentially an auto/biography of Ida Bagus Made Togog, told through a series of interviews with Hildred Geertz, which she in turn transcribed, and added simple commentary and structure.  The book begins in the 1920’s/30’s, and describes Ida Bagus’ childhood in Batuan, and then continues as he matures into adulthood, and develops his life as a painter.

From the perspective of an artist, there are two things of particular interest to me in his stories.  First, the myths, legends, and experiences that came to define his paintings are addresses in telling of his childhood escapades.  Second, is found in the how and why he developed himself as a painter.

As Indonesia grew into the modern era, there was more and more contact with the west and foreign powers and economies, specifically with the Dutch, Japanese, and Americans.  And the most influential foreigners that came to Bali in the early stages of this transition were artists and intellectuals, perhaps most noteworthy were Walter Spies, Rudolf Bonnet, Margaret Mead, and Gregory Bateson.

Together, these foreigners helped develop many of the visual arts in Bali of the time.  They provided encouragement, materials, and were quick to buy many of the produced paintings.  And for somebody like Ida Bagus Made Togog – without the resources of land or other resources for making money – this proved a great way to gain financial stability for his family.

While much of this proved to be remarkably confusing for Ida Bagus – with the foreigners came new languages (Malay, Dutch, and English), and also new currencies (the rupiah) and economic expectations (like exchanging work for money) – it also gave him a way to support his life, and helped lay the groundwork for a new, rich approach to the visual arts in Bali.

So here lies my third interest in the text:  much of Ida Bagus Made Togog’s life maps the coming of Balinese culture after World War II to the present day.  His life illustrates many of the cultural changes expressed/experienced in Bali today, as it has continued a unique relationship with the west and tourism.  Specifically, as its relationship with the west continues to develop, time and again Bali finds ways to market some of its unique cultural attributes to fit the expectations of foreigners, and always for the money.

Bali today embodies many contradictions.  It remains a destination for visitors from all over the world, who flock to the island to see the wonderful beaches, and to see all of its rich cultural offerings – music, dance, arts and crafts, and the ritual offerings that remain a part of everyday life.  In a way, Bali has done a remarkable job of building a substantial tourist industry based on the things they do best, a life based on community, creative expression, and a dynamic and unique ritual and religious life.

In a way, too, all of this has backfired.  At times, Bali seems like a cultural Disney Land.  The quantity of the arts and crafts produced for the tourist trade have reached gluttonous proportions, and with that, in turn, is a remarkable diminishing in the quality of these works.

On one of my last nights in Sanur, I was walking along the beach.  I walked by one of the elite tourist resorts.  A dining area was set up in the sand, with wonderful tablecloths, nice dinner ware, and ringed with tiki torches.  The tourists – really all from Europe, Australia, and America – dined on rich dinners made from the day’s catch from the local fishermen.  At the bottom of the ringed area, near the water, was a small stage, where a group of shirtless Balinese men performed a kecak.

At the time this seemed so indicative of the complexities I see in Bali.  While no doubt, kecak is a truly unique musical and theatrical expression (though I am not really a fan), yet at the time it clearly looked like a bunch of shirtless brown people doing an exotic imitation of monkeys to entertain the more fortunate (and dare I say more “civilized”) white people.  The real meaning of the theater was obliterated.  I witnessed the perversion of a unique Balinese art form to satisfy the needs and expectations of foreigners and their dollars, not a stretch from the experiences of Ida Bagus.

Ida Bagus Made Togog was undoubtably a remarkable and inventive painter, however he sets a precedent for many of the traditional arts in Bali, produced to satisfy the foreigners.

And while I believe these observations to be true, the remarkable thing about Bali is that reality of it is even more complex, and difficult to reduce.

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