“Artists and the People: Ideologies of Art in Indonesia” by Elly Kent

Elly Kent Elly Kent

Art of course is often more than just art. When the National Opera of Ukraine reopened in May, defying the thud of artillery and wail of air-raid sirens, it was a political and social statement as much as an artistic one. Less dramatically, public performances of Cantonese opera in Hong Kong have for decades contributed to the formation and perpetuation of a local identity.  

Analyzing the function of art in society is not a new endeavor but one that has bemused art theorists and artists since the rise of the modernist movement in the early 20th century. Against the backdrop of the deployment of art by avant-garde movements in an attempt to shape social and political development, theorists and artists have employed sociological methods to raise awareness about the intersection of art and society through direct interactions with the audience, community and venue. This approach often draws on issues pertaining to production, institutions, authorship and status.


Artists and the People: Ideologies of Art in Indonesia, Elly Kent (NUS Press, August 2022)
Artists and the People: Ideologies of Art in Indonesia, Elly Kent (NUS Press, August 2022)

Elly Kent’s new book Artists and the People: Ideologies of Art in Indonesia adopts a sociological approach to understanding the practice of art in, specifically, Indonesia and its history and tradition. The fresh approach particularly underlines the prevalence of participatory art, that is, art in which the social context and the involvement of the audience are critical to the artists’ vision. What is the role of art and the artist in society? Conversely, what is the role of society in art and for the artist? How do formal and informal institutions, communities and artist-run-initiatives contribute to the practices and discourses behind socially-engaged art in Indonesia? What do artists do when they locate their practice in a broader social milieu? These are some questions Kent attempts to address, calling attention to the lack of scholarly attention on participatory art practice among Indonesian artists.

Drawing on interviews with artists, archival material and participation in artists’ projects, Artists and the People presents a context-specific, cross-disciplinary study of ideologies of art in Indonesia. The idea of artist-led communal work or gotong royong is one of several conceptions of participatory art discussed by Kent. She highlights the leading contemporary Indonesian artist Tisna Sanjaya’s Rereongan Nyinglar Korona as an example of many kinds of artist-led community action that took place across Indonesia when Covid spread in 2020. During a time of crisis, Sanjaya’s response to the pandemic was to trigger inspiration of art’s role in catalyzing community development by giving out food packages to the underprivileged of a rural community in Bandung. Propelling gotong royong through art forms including painting, etching and performance, Sanjaya believes that art should have a direct connection with the lives of the people. His gotong royong projects often address current challenges faced by Indonesia and the global community. Sanjaya’s dikirim (2020) tracks records of parcels of personal protective equipment consisting of gloves, masks and small labels with participants’ details sent by courier. Being highly collaborative, pedagogic and political, the work is a pertinent expression of his polyvalent and engaged practice. In a country where systems of social protection have largely remained informal, mainly depending on family and community, Kent points out that gotong royong is often the social safety lifeline that keeps “vulnerable individuals and communities from the brink of disaster” at a critical juncture.


Indonesian artists have continued to explore and draw on methodologies and discourses of social responsibility and artistic autonomy generated by pioneer arts practitioners through their early 20th-century encounters with modernity. Kent argues that studying artists who embrace multivalent and socially entangled approaches to art practice in Indonesia demands a re-evaluation of modernist discourses that surround artistic autonomy and the masterpiece. The approach would enable a critical deconstruction of apparent binaries of autonomy and heteronomy in art without deferring to stereotypes of Western individualism and Asian collectivism. Indonesian art discourses have hitherto followed a trajectory marked by a joint commitment to artists’ creative autonomy and a heteronomous responsibility to society.

Discussing the aesthetic theories of Sanento Yuliman, Kent demonstrates how modern and contemporary art is immersed in daily Indonesian life. Yuliman’s writing proposes alternatives to the often-contested concept of universal modernism, and in so doing builds on a history of negotiation and debate around this in Indonesian art history. He underscores the instability of the hierarchies of high and low artforms and their mutual influence on each other, concomitantly emphasizing an enduring significance of generating aesthetic and quotidian experiences through art across periods of history and modes of practice. Through this continuity, representation and abstraction are part of an ongoing dialogue between visual elements and the emotions they evoke; the apparent ruptures between tradition and modernity, the self and other, the one and the many, the universal and the dissolve within the artistic ideology.

Kent also discusses the participatory art practice of I Wayan Sujana (1967-), also known as Suklu, in relation to issues of multiple authorship and dialogical interactions. Suklu points out that he always invites other people to be involved in his work and to experience the process themselves, emphasizing the process and disregarding the form the result assumes. In his installation Fiksi, Suklu seeks to dissolve the boundaries between self and the other, autonomy and heteronomy, the individual and society. In so doing, Suklu is addressing another key concern of the postmodernist discourse, specifically the author’s role in determining the reader’s interpretation of the work. In his interactive works, Suklu continues the dissolution of singular authorship by creating works designed to engage with other artistic disciplines. In a desire to spread the cathartic, expressive energy he experiences in the drawing process to a broader audience, the artist is inclined to open up his practice to the involvement of others.

The interconnectedness of the individual artist, the artwork and the social context has marked contemporary Indonesian art practice. In the installation project Cenderawasih (Paradise, 2010), Suklu invites visitors and other artists to engage directly with the large bamboo constructions he has designed. The 5-metre-high bamboo construction is a hybrid artwork that became interactive “third spaces” when activated by the performance of dancers, musicians and other visual artists. Suklu builds an intersection between the social and the personal, retaining control over the design of the work and yet incorporating the intervention of other artists including dancers, musicians or other visual artists, as an integral element.


Kent’s discussion parallels the approach of other writers like Elsa Lenz Kothe on dialogical models of engagement in participatory art. This is based on the notion that the audience do not simply receive information but become part of the process of interaction that may take place between an artwork and a viewer, or between visitors in a group. The dialogical interaction may not be limited to predetermined visitors of the artwork but may occur between strangers who encounter the work or experience or between visitors and the artist. Participatory methods in art are strategic for better audience engagement and grounded in dialogical models of interaction and collaborative practice.

Through an intimate discussion of modern and contemporary Indonesian art, artists and curators, Kent highlights participatory art involving audience and the community as interventionist artistic practices in idiosyncrasy of Indonesian context. The study grounds the participatory strategy in a dialogical model of interaction and collaborative practice that are highly relevant to interactive art practice. The audience understanding of the artwork is deepened through engaging the processes the artists use, establishing a groundwork for more meaningful engagement.

Phyllis Teo is an art historian and writer currently based in Singapore. She is the author of Rewriting Modernism: Three Women Artists in Twentieth-Century China (Leiden University Press, 2016).