[image from “Uzumaki”, by horror manga mastermind Junji Ito]
Widespread backlash towards a subversive art performance by Indonesia’s premier dark art practitioner Natasha Gabriella Tontey shows the general public’s lack of depth in understanding the true meaning of art.
To ban and censor artwork is to deny discussion around the art itself.
Natasha Gabriella Tontey’s MakanMayit art piece embodies the very meaning and purpose of art itself: that it is also a medium to disturb other than to please. It proves to be “too disturbing” for the Indonesian public, because the general public has been mostly raised with the idea that art is one-sidedly beautiful.
Now I am not saying that everyone should like the MakanMayit performance. Taste is subjective and nobody should be forced to like art. The main problem of the backlash is the response by those online who stumbled upon uploaded and shared images of the piece and immediately concluded that Tontey was a sick woman for her art, or the ones that said Indonesia is simply not ready for this kind of art and will therefore never understand its context.
If that’s the case, then when will we be ready?
Art itself does not demand anything of the viewer. If anything, artists are merely asking for an understanding of how they are through their works. Artists aren’t even demanding the public understand their work, so long as the public recognizes the context on why it was made.
In Indonesian general society, art itself is rarely discussed in its whole form. The stereotypes of art are taught but its depth and meaning is never explored. Without exploration, art can never be understood, nor will its capabilities to make us understand ourselves or the world around us.
Discussion is what fuels the growth of creativity, and by refusing to do so, Indonesia will never be ready to accept what is outside their comfort zone. Tontey earned the appreciation and understanding of her artistic peers because they are used to working in that field, but did not earn the appreciation of a confused public that was raised on the notion that art’s purpose is simply to comfort and entertain. It was harder for her to gain the appreciation of the general public, but her aim was never to win public approval anyway.
The idea of the piece was to explore the primal psychology of the human being through the notion of cannibalism, which has been proven to exist in the human psyche because cannibalism DOES happen, no matter how gruesome or how rare these occurrences are.
One can look at figures such as Japan’s Issei Sagawa, Germany’s Armin Meiwes or even Central African dictator Jean Bedel Bokassa as acting proof that the human desire for human flesh is real. The eating of infants is an extremely rare (if any) level of cannibalism that a human being can practice, but within the psyche, it is indeed possible for a human being to do and nobody can’t deny that. Possible doesn’t mean that everyone chooses to do so, because for many, the act does not speak to their common sense.
A similar situation to what Tontey is facing happened to Chinese contemporary artist Zhu Yu seventeen years ago. Yu’s art primarily deals with the human body and encourages the use of actual human body parts as part of his work. In 2000, he photographed a performance called “Eating People”, where he was depicted cooking and eating a human fetus. The fetuses themselves were later debunked as fake, but it stirred an emotional reaction in China similar to how the Indonesian public and government reacted to Tontey’s art. Zhu was then labelled an official menace to society by the uppity Chinese government who later banned art exhibitions involving things such as culture, corpses, and sexuality.
A sensitive public disturbed by this link to reality will obviously outrage, because they do not understand, or choose not to understand. You can’t blame them though, they were never taught to understand. In Indonesia, no medium exists that discusses art in its purest form and education in its universities are usually too safe or (in the case of public schools), non-existent.
The general consensus here is that art is still seen mainly as happy commodities for sale, for entertainment’s sake, which is also the prevalent attitude seen in creative industries such as music and film. Pure entertainment does not help advance society nor does it challenge them to innovate.
Regarding the offensive aspect of MakanMayit, it makes more sense if apologies were offered to those who have experienced the trauma of stillborn birth. Trauma is not easy to shake and some may not be able to overcome that trauma enough to be faced with artworks that are so subversive. However, apologies should not be given to those who simply cry moral outrage.
Because in essence, morality is an individual setting shaped by one’s own environment and prejudices, and is part of common sense. Common sense is also the ability to recognize art as art, without the need to drag people’s personal beliefs onto it. If one does not like what they’re seeing, they can simply look away.
Common sense is made up of criticality and reasoning, and without common sense, there is no morality.