Critics, what Critics?
M. Taufiqurrahman, WEEKENDER | Thu, 10/29/2009 3:47 PM |
The once burgeoning tradition of criticism that provided an honest appraisal of the arts has all but disappeared from Indonesian society. M. Taufiqurrahman wonders where all the critics have gone.
Forty years ago, a heated exchange took place between literary critic Wiratmo Sukito and journalist-cum-poet Goenawan Muhamad. Wiratmo, who wrote for the daily newspaper Harian Kami, argued that politics influenced much of contemporary literary criticism and thus undermined the credibility of critics.
Goenawan retorted that evaluating critics’ credibility was a non-issue, because they held no credibility to begin with.
“The literary scene itself is an island isolated from a sea of people who refuse to read … criticism, just like the art itself, will barely be noticed,” Goenawan says in “Tentang Kewibaan Kritik” (On Critics’ Credibility)
Little did the two men know that their exchange would be one of the nation’s last on the value of literary critics. Today, if the men were to engage in a similar debate, it would probably be to mull whether there are any true professional critics left in the country.
The scarcity of real critics is ironic, because it comes when the Indonesian literary scene has entered another golden era with a new batch of young writers producing impressive works.
It began when the new millennium ushered in a band of talented young women novelists whose fresh and bold approach dipped into the once taboo subject of sex. In a genre dubbed sastra wangi (literally, fragrant literature), several writers made an impression internationally when their works were translated into other languages.
But the respected critics who could authoritatively dissect, analyze or contextualize novels, poems or short stories were no longer to be found.
The “latest edition” of literary journal Kalam was published more than four years ago, despite the publisher’s pledge to publish the journal twice a year (the domain name for the journal on the Internet is up for sale). Once a beacon of literary criticism, Horison magazine has vanished without a trace. Of the dozens of Indonesian-language newspapers in Jakarta, only Kompas and the literary-leaning Koran Tempo still devote space to literature, occasionally printing quality short stories and inspiring critiques of new novels, short stories and poems.
Still, don’t expect the massive spread that Le Monde devoted to Jean Paul Sartre’s polemical passages, or The New Yorker’s generous allotment for John Updike’s take on Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s new biography. In the two local papers, literary reviews must vie for space with entertainment news and articles on the capital’s culinary scene.
It used to be that almost every major newspaper ran a separate literary review section. Earlier this year, dailies like Republika, Media Indonesia and Bisnis Indonesia closed their literary sections to provide broader coverage of the presidential polls.
Readers also don’t need to look further than the jacket of the books they read to know that literary criticism is in its death throes. Rather than excerpts culled from reviews already published in the media, they boast sweetly worded blurbs provided by senior literary figures.
As a consequence of the absence of established literary criticism, young writers now have no choice but to align themselves with the clique of established figures in the literary scene in the hope of securing favorable reviews of their works.
When reviews are finally printed in newspapers or magazines, more often than not they consist of superficial plot summaries or general impressions of the work.
While critics abroad wear their scathing attacks like a badge of honor, reviewers here are reticent, even timid, in their assessment. As one observer noted, this can be seen from their penchant for using words like “superb”, “splendid” and other superlatives.
The same lack of trenchant criticism is found in music and film columns.
Most music reviews in Sunday editions of local newspapers consist of an almost CV-like listing of the names of the members of the band, the number of albums released and similarities between their old and current works. It seems reviewers are taking their job name too literally, either afraid of upsetting the artist or lacking the knowledge to give balanced criticism of the work before them.
Rarely is there a discussion of the technical aspects of the reviewed album, such as why certain bands prefer odd time signatures, or why band members prefer to pile up reverbs on their drum sound. Also missing from most reviews is any discussion of the political or cultural significance of an important new album.
Film criticism has been reduced to a simplistic plot summary, although there may be an attempt to give the review more weight with the mention of impressive camerawork or its film noir leanings, a genre that is currently hip among young filmmakers.
Perhaps nobody has heard of English poet W.H. Auden’s evaluation of the art of criticism as akin to a casual conversation. In contemporary Indonesia, it has become instead a calculated exchange where words are carefully chosen to ensure that feelings are not hurt – and that there will be no risk of reprisals.
One of the country’s most renowned critics also moonlights as a sometime publicist for a major entertainer, organizing her press conferences and even offering an endorsement of her latest works. In the art scene, some art critics are allegedly glorified salespeople on the payroll of art galleries. Galleries hire familiar names in the art criticism business to pen their glossy catalogues that promote expensive imported paintings. Everybody needs to earn a living, and so most turn a blind eye to the potential conflict of interest.
The lack of real criticism is justified as inevitable, because it would put at risk the relationship between the so-called critics and their “friends”, whether in the art business, filmmakers, band members and their labels, or writers and their publishers.
While harsh criticism could land critics in jail during the New Order regime, today in the film world it would probably lead to a disinvite to red-carpet premieres, and a cold shoulder from book publishers.
For music writers, honest reviews will kill the chance of them traveling with the band, sometimes abroad, on a label-sponsored tour, probably the most sought-after perk in the business.
Arian 13, music critic for Trax music magazine and the now defunct Playboy Indonesia, says that it does not take much to ensure tame reviews from critics.
“Financially, there’s nothing much to be gained from a close relationship between the media and the music industry. It is very rare for the music industry to put expensive ads in music magazines. But both parties maintain a good rapport still. The industry needs publicity in the media; in return it gives backstage access for music journalists.”
It is common practice today that handlers from the music industry interfere with the work of music journalists, prodding them to write favorable reviews for their musicians.
But don’t just blame the industry.
“Journalists also need to do their homework. A large number of them know nothing about music they review, so most of the time they just write about tidbits irrelevant to the music itself,” says Arian, who moonlights as the lead singer for underground hard-core band Seringai.
Ironically, when the New Order government was still in its infancy, a small music magazine could do so much more than just carrying gossip about musicians. In fact, the magazine helped both to reflect and to shape the burgeoning literary scene. Led by music critic Remy Sylado, Aktuil magazine, besides introducing a more incendiary version of rock ‘n’ roll, also nurtured the Beatnik-informed poetry genre known as puisi mbeling (subversive poetry).
Cyberpunk poet Saut Situmorang attributes the lack of full-blown literary criticism to the more than three decades of New Order authoritarianism. He believes the New Order regime is responsible for stifling any critical thinking in favor of Javanese-style consensus, or gotong royong.
The New Order educational system encouraged students to accept whatever their teachers spoon-fed them in class, with dissension considered unacceptable and “subversive”.
However, he is quick to assert that Javanese culture in itself is not opposed to critical thinking.
“It is a racist statement to equate being Javanese with the lack of critical thinking,” says Situmorang, who wrote his book Politik Sastra to address the malaise of the country’s literary criticism.
In fact, some of the country’s best literary critics — and writers — such as Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Subagio Sastrowardoyo and Toety Herati were from the country’s main ethnic group.
His statement also rebuts the opinion of the late man of letters W.S. Rendra, who was once quoted as saying that the Javanese were not capable of critical thinking and were by nature submissive.
As for those who presently make a living as literary critics, Situmorang states bluntly that most don’t have what it takes to do the job.
“What they write in reviews are raw and impressionistic comments with no theoretical foundation to back up any claims. Most people think that sense rather than reason is what’s needed to digest literary works, and that’s wrong. Literary criticism is a serious business. It involves the application of a wide range of theories.”
He says that the penchant for consensus and the lack of basic knowledge about literary theories have made it next to impossible for critics to engage in a more expansive discussion about where the country’s arts and culture are heading.
In the past, critics helped lay the country’s cultural foundations.
In the 1930s, critic and writer Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana engaged in a debate with prominent cultural commentators, represented by Sanusi Pane, Adi Negoro and Ki Hadjar Dewantoro, about the true nature of Indonesian literature and, in a larger context, the meaning of “Indonesia”.
Alisjahbana asserted that being modern and Western was the only way forward for Indonesia. His opponents argued that Indonesia should be like a marriage between East and West, a marriage of Faust and Arjuna.
The debate is considered to be the one of the most outstanding polemics among Indonesian intellectuals ever.
The second great debate among Indonesian literary critics took place in the mid-1960s over whether literature should coalesce with politics for social progress or should stay completely independent – l’art pour l’art.
The New Order regime quickly stifled the debate. Ironically, the reform era has failed to revive it. In the post-New Order period, the only polemic of any significance was one between German-born critic Katrin Bandel and activists from the Teater Utan Kayu community over the politics behind the success of the novel Saman, penned by one of the leading lights in the sastra wangi movement, Ayu Utami.
It’s also true that during the New Order era, some of the nation’s greatest film critics, including Asrul Sani, Salim Said, Gayus Siagian and D.A. Peransi, were active. That was also during the heyday of local film production, before foreign film imports took over in the early 1990s.
“Today, we don’t have strong film criticism simply because there aren’t that many good-quality films to write about,” says Ekky Imanjaya of movie criticism website www.rumahfilm.org.
Compounding the problem is that writing film reviews is often merely an avocation.
“It is a labor of love. You got to have love for movies and you better have the calling to do it,” Ekky says.
“Nevertheless, no one wants to take the job seriously. You can’t make a living from being a professional critic in this country.”