Bali: an Indonesian island where all individuals learn arts and crafts from babyhood; it is integral to their lives. Inventive “still-life” arrangements of fruits and foodstuffs balance on the heads of walking women; magical costumes add flare to mythological presentations of music, mime, and dance performed by amateurs with impressive skills; flowers adorn elaborate hair arrangements or simply peek out from behind an ear. Life in Bali offers a palpable aesthetic presence for the poorest rice-patch farmer as well as for the affluent. Art is life and life is art for the Balinese on a daily basis, and it carries extra drama during religious ceremonies celebrated simultaneously by several villages in a common temple every 210 days.
Whenever and wherever I travel, it has been my observation that the arts and crafts of every region not only concretize the local esprit but also, via the aesthetics and disciplines inherent within different forms, reveal the personal value systems of individuals as well. So when visiting another country, it’s enlightening to seek out indigenous art and witness the inner lives of the inhabitants through their expressive creations. We can be disappointed, yes, but we will always learn something, and best of all, we never know what unexpected treasures might be discovered to enrich our own lives.
To illuminate how even seemingly simple crafts can become meaningful art, I’ll relate an experience in Bali that illustrates why the most soul-stirring art must be idea based and the joys it can bring if one answers its siren call. In the woodcarving village of Maas outside Ubud (the Balinese cultural center), I wandered past a nearly-three-foot-high sculpture of an ethereal, draped female meticulously carved from one chunk of hibiscus wood. The piece was in the last stages of sanding/polishing, and the woman working on the figure was seated on a straw-mat-covered-gazebo-type structure in the open air with trees and flowers surrounding her. I was irresistibly drawn to both the exquisite figure and the refreshing environment. Although elongated and highly-stylized past any “proper” anatomical verisimilitude, the aesthetic values of the woodcarving were breathtaking: the lyricism of undulating lines, the stunning complexities of the composition given that it was carved from a single block of material, the fluidity of the negative spaces, the colors of the two-toned wood worked brilliantly into the overall design, the details of accompanying subject matter (swan, lyre, flowers, etc.), the serenity of facial expression, and the grace of the body and the hands all combined into a lush, sensuous beauty that greeted my eyes wherever they traveled.
Entering a gallery where finished statues of animals and human figures were offered for sale, I found many delightful works. All were beautiful, most simply decorative, some exhibiting fine technical skills, and a few that seemed to vibrate with internal meaning that I couldn’t understand but sensed intuitively because the complex compositions suggested a more cerebral intent on the part of the artist that elevated their artisanal craft into a work of art. Happily, I searched around for an affordable memento.
But. . . I couldn’t get that mysterious female out of my mind, so I went back outdoors to watch her progress. I wasn’t going to buy her: too expensive, too large to carry, and a month of travel left in Southeast Asia. I loved her charm and elegance. I loved the objects intertwined into her convoluted composition, too, guessing they might be part of a codified religious system, but since she projected no clear universality of significance beyond her sinuous beauty (like Greek art, for example) and I knew no iconography, she remained an intriguing but purely aesthetic pleasure for me.
Noticing my continued interest, my Balinese driver came over and defined the evocative qualities I had only sensed within “Saraswati,” Hindu goddess of education, the arts, and wisdom. The lyre symbolizes art; the swan symbolizes wisdom; the flowers symbolize beauty. He explained that the long wave of parchment papers spilling down over one of Saraswati’s shoulders symbolized the power of the word. Well! I am a wordsmith who tries to educate individuals toward wisdom through beautiful art. Suddenly, I wanted to meet the artist.
There he was, maybe thirty, working nearby on another piece that I knew by its complicated design was also going to have internal meaning beyond external form. As a craftsman he had no concept of being an “artist” in our Western use of that term, but he had intentionally chosen Saraswati for subject matter. By every tiny cut of his knife, he had focused on expressing her density and depth of meaning, her generosity of spirit, and her unique beauty both intellectually and physically; thus, he had imbued her form with meaning. The piece had taken him four months to complete. He spoke no English and I spoke little Balinese, but by smiles and gestures we knew we were soul mates because we shared an intense mutual appreciation for beauty expressing life-affirming values. So I bought his Saraswati, and she is now an ever-enchanting-ever-enriching part of my exterior environment and my interior joy.
Ideas. Unlike decorative art that uses aesthetics alone (and can be beautiful), meaningful art uses aesthetics to express ideas, blending all separate elements into a spiritual whole indescribably greater than the sum of its parts. By expressing values beautifully, this kind of fully integrated art can awaken us, speak to us, and quicken us to feel alive inside. This is why we should explore new environments with a curious mind and follow our hearts to discover art unexpectedly. I have written elsewhere and repeat here: “As comestibles nourish our bodies and ideas nourish our minds, art nourishes our souls.” Such is true for all of us who wish to live and love the wonders of art in all its glory.
Alexandra York is an author and founding president of the American Renaissance for the Twenty-first Century (ART) a New-York-City-based nonprofit educational arts and culture foundation (www.art-21.org). She has written for many publications, including "Reader’s Digest" and The New York Times. Her latest book is "Adamas." For more on Alexandra York, Go Here Now.
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