'Every person is an artist'



In the hands of a people's movement, culture can be a fine weapon. That was certainly proven the case on August 17 when the Indonesian military repressed a people's carnival organised by the national cultural network, JAKER, in Solo, central Java, arresting 14 of its members.

The festival was in commemoration of Indonesia's struggle for independence from the Dutch — but it also targeted more contemporary ills and oppressions. The network has been virulent in its opposition to militarism in Indonesia.

JAKER — Jaringan Kerja Kebudayan Rakyat or People's Cultural Network — was originally founded in 1992 by, among others, Wiji Thukul, the renowned Indonesian peoples' poet who was "disappeared" by the military in 1998.

JAKER's national congress, held in two parts in May and September 2000, established the organisation as a "cultural" network, rather than one focused on an exclusive notion of "art", in direct recognition of the need to create a peoples' culture premised on popular democracy.

Culture, according to JAKER, refers to the whole set of relations which comprise a given society and thus give it its specific nature or identity. Consequently, culture refers to economic/material, social, political and ideological motivations for human behaviour. A "peoples' culture" or "popular democracy" would be organised through peoples' councils from the district to national level.

Consequently, JAKER is committed to creating a way of life for all the peoples of the Indonesian archipelago premised on freedom of expression, rather than fear and silence. It intends to direct cultural work in the areas of literature, plastic arts, performance art, traditional dance, music, cinema and photography, martial arts and metaphysics, science and technology.

It has members and affiliate groups in most major cities of the Indonesian archipelago, and is expanding. On August 4-5, JAKER members in Solo formally established themselves as a city committee with a cohesive structure including a local leadership and specific departments. These departments cover education, finances and administration, literature and publishing, plastic arts, performance, and cinematography.

Capitalism's commodification and separation of art and aesthetics from everyday life, giving ownership of creative value to a privileged and profitable elite, was obvious during Suharto's New Order era.

JAKER was established in a direct attempt to reclaim "cultural aesthetics" and give creative control back to the disempowered masses, the rakyat. JAKER strives for highly developed skill combined with social purpose or social commitment, in all forms of human expression and production.

The value of art under capitalist society tends to be removed from its context of production. Hence, it has no immediate social value.

But art and artists are valuable commodities. The more removed the artistic process and product, the higher its commodity value tends to be. This, for example, is the origin of the bourgeois-imposed difference in artistic or aesthetic value between craft and art or community theatre and professional theatre.

The "art world" hovers apart from the concerns of the "real" world and its artists tend to be ordained as special spokespeople on behalf of the rest of humanity, or on behalf of a national cultural identity.

Aesthetics, as the judgement of creative value or "good" art, is far deeper than analysis of mere "form" but is in fact reflective of the conflict in material and political interests between a class of society which benefits from generalised commodity production and a class which is directly exploited and alienated by it.

Under capitalism, the artist as prized commodity becomes a "special" person or even a genius — a superhuman innately endowed with capabilities and sensitivities beyond the rest of us.

JAKER repels such an elitist notion of the artist, exposing it for its feudal-like spiritual hierarchism, as well as its bourgeois individualism or elitism.

JAKER is organisationally inclusive and in no way dependent for survival or recognition on "established" artists. The fact that a number of "established" artists choose to be members of JAKER, such as one of Indonesia's leading novelists, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, is based on the ideological foundations of the network and its socio-political vision.

One of JAKER's major areas of cultural work is within Indonesia's underground music movement.

The underground music scene in Indonesia allows a new generation to express cultural dissent which is created, valued and consumed on their own terms. Underground means separate from the mechanisms of the "free market".

The underground music scene is referred to in Indonesia by its members and sympathisers as an organised "web" of cultural dissent. No tapes can be found in shops and performances occur as part of community-organised festivals and at worker, peasant, student and other demonstrations.

A "people's stage" is a regular occurrence at such large-scale demonstrations and gives voice to not only music, but poetry, theatre, installation, film and happening art.

The art movement to which JAKER prescribes, seni pembebasan or liberation art, aims to free Indonesian culture of the oppressive doctrines associated with feudalism, capitalism and militarism and, through all forms of social expression, explore the potential for new and just cultural premises.

JAKER's popular slogan is setiap orang adalah seniman dan setiap tempat adalah pangung (every person is an artist and every space an artistic space or stage).

This refers back to Wiji Thukul's kerakyatan — a "people-minded" or socially committed artistic practice, one which speaks directly from the voices and experiences of the people themselves.

JAKER does not adhere to the strict formalism and subjective propagandism of Stalin's "socialist realism", but rather derives from a socialist realist tradition which organically situates the individual within a collective and class-conscious experience of oppression and struggle. Progressive and romantic revolutionaries are the heart and soul of JAKER.

JAKER's cultural theory and praxis are premised on engagement with material or "real-life" experiences. JAKER inspires a democratic vision for Indonesia by encouraging knowledge and discussion of Indonesia's history and historical development.

Through such a concrete and realisable cultural process for change, directed by those who have the most invested in a new and equitable Indonesia, JAKER struggles for a humanism premised on individual freedom for the majority, not just a select few.

Charil Anwar was a poet who became an icon for Indonesia's bourgeois humanist tradition throughout the 1950s and '60s, which unfortunately equated individual freedom with political and social irresponsibility or elitism. Anwar is infamous for declaring that "those who are not artists are not permitted to take part in this cultural sphere".

In our world the majority of us are not born free. Our freedom is directly proportional to our commodity value — a market freedom which is even further eroded by increased monopolisation through neo-liberal globalisation.

JAKER is part of an international anti-capitalist movement, having taken hold in both the "developed" and "developing" countries, which holds as its highest goal a material and ideological realisation of "freedom" which may explode the creative and cultural potential of all of humanity.

JAKER does not entertain crude dichotomies between traditionalism and modernisation or spiritual concepts of the enlightened East versus the decadent West, but rather attempts to filter the values and material attributes of each into a common cultural struggle for human liberation.

In doing so, it challenges Indonesia's existence as a modern "nation", if it means forced unity and Javanese centralism. Through actively giving a voice of resistance to the whole archipelago, monolithic concepts of "Indonesian-ness" and national identity are fractured.

JAKER, like other pro-democracy organisations in Indonesia today, seeks not to deconstruct, divide and destroy the Indonesian archipelago but rather unite all its peoples, who have suffered so long and so cruelly from military-enforced national stability as the counterpart to foreign investment, in a collective struggle for freedom from an imperialist world order.

It seeks to uphold the spirit of freedom, or semangat, which originally inspired the "awakening" of Indonesia's independence from Dutch colonialism.

If you like our work, become a supporter

Green Left is a vital social-change project and aims to make all content available online, without paywalls. With no corporate sponsors or advertising, we rely on support and donations from readers like you.

For just $5 per month get the Green Left digital edition in your inbox each week. For $10 per month get the above and the print edition delivered to your door. You can also add a donation to your support by choosing the solidarity option of $20 per month.

Freecall now on 1800 634 206 or follow the support link below to make a secure supporter payment or donation online.