Balinese Art

Art still plays an integral role in the ritual life of Bali's culture, even though the artworks are produced primarily for the tourist market. Art surrounds the Balinese from earliest childhood and is everpresent everywhere. The Balinese seem to make an art out of even the simple necessities of everyday life: fruit salad is served with flowers strewn on top, and coils of pigs' intestines are used on temple decorations.
     Since the start of the 20th century, the Balinese have never allowed artistic knowledge to become centralized in a special intellectual class. Everyone down to the simplest peasant can be both an artist and an aesthetically conscious art critic. A field-laborer might chide a clumsy instrument maker for a job poorly done, and even young dagang (foodstall sellers) from humble families are skilled practitioners of Bali's classical dances.
     While painting, sculpture, carving, and music have traditionally been the province of men, women have channeled creative energy into making lavish offerings to the gods. At almost any festival you can see spectacular pyramids of flowers, fruit, and cakes up to two meters high, fashioned with such love and adoration that they could only be meant for a higher being.
     These religious obligations have also ensured that the arts be constantly practiced-the gods demand it! Feverish and backbreaking preparations go into the celebration of festivals as well as the transitional events in the life of a Balinese. In service to religion, each artist strives to make objects well-proportioned and pleasing. New shrines have to be built, reliefs renewed, new prayer offerings made, dances and dramas rehearsed, and music practiced continually in order to please gods, appease devils, and honor ancestors.
     Although put at the service of religion, Balinese art does not solely serve religion. Sacred symbols decorate speeding bemo, jackets, menus, motorcycles, hotel doorways. Their use in such ordinary earthly objects is not looked upon as sacrilege.
     An important factor contributing to the creative productivity of the Balinese is Bali's well-organized cultivation system. The astounding fertility of the island-everyone is fed, sheltered, and clothed-has given the Balinese the leisure to develop their arts for centuries.
     Though the impetus to create art has always endured, art objects have not. The Balinese have no eternally "great" art like Egypt's pyramids, Cambodia's Angkor Wat complex, or France's Chartres Cathedral. Bali's most readily available stone is soft volcanic sandstone, which crumbles easily and is eaten away by rainfall after only a few years. Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions ravage hundreds of shrines several times each decade, necessitating gigantic reconstruction projects engaging thousands of workers.
     Balinese art is not made to last. Humidity wilts paper and rots cloth paintings; dogs or people eat the magnificent offerings; white ants perforate wooden sculptures, all of which must be refurbished constantly. All this rebuilding, renovating, and replacing assumes that the island's unparalleled concentration of emphemeral folk art continually evolves and perpetuates itself.

Communal Art
Whereas in the West, an artist pours a great amount of energy into establishing a distinctive style and technique to achieve personal wealth and fame, Balinese artists subordinate their ego to the needs of the community and to the requirements of the belief system. Art is an expression of their collective thought. Many paintings, carvings, and sculptures are made communally in workshops, where a master craftsman supervises a group of apprentices.
     A statue or a gamelan composition may also frequently be the work of more than one artist, and the instructor may very well execute a portion of a pupil's painting. Though the colors and technique might be easily recognizable as the work of an individual, artists repeatedly use traditional standard themes and motifs executed in the local style. More decoration than art, the products of Bali's non-academically trained artisans still show a mastery of craftmanship.


Since the 15th century, the island has been visited by traders from all over the world, all of whom have unwittingly influenced Balinese art. From every foreign culture they've come in contact with, the Balinese have absorbed what they wanted-digesting it, improving upon it, and creating what is probably Asia's most artistic civilization.
     Their greatest inspiration was received from India via ancient Java. But starting in about 1596, extensive mercantile contacts with Europe, Japan, China, Indochina, Polynesia, and Arabia provided an international palette of influences. Decorative motifs, props, sculpture and painting techniques, and themes and characters for their theatrical performances were borrowed from the outside cultures. The Balinese are unabashed and uncanny copyists. Some of their paintings and stone carvings-a holdup, a plane crash, atomic bomb explosions-are copied right out of magazines or posters.

Ancient Balinese Art
As early as 300 B.C., coastal inhabitants created metal bells, lances, spiral-shaped rings, bronze implements, bracelets, and magnificent woven textiles. Although physical remnants of this culture are few, much of the spirit of these first Balinese has been passed down and is visible today in textile patterns, sculptural and dancing styles, theater forms, and rituals. In particular, the native Bali Aga of the highlands still adhere to pre-Hindu practices.
     An example of a motif of pure native origin is the lovely cili figure of a girl shaped like an hourglass, seen everywhere in palm-leaf ornaments for temples, on cakes, standing in rice fields, and even made out of Chinese coins sewn together. The mysterious cili is thought to derive from the island's original rice deity, Dewi Sri.

Javanese Influence
As early as the 5th century, Bali was ruled by Javanese princes. Every political event and disturbance that occurred on Java had a ripple effect on the political life of Bali, and the art history of Bali reflects the development of art in the mother country.
     Java's golden age of monumental art-A.D. 600-800-finds its counterpart in the evolution of Balinese art. Besides edicts written on old bronze plates (prastasis), other physical remains of this classical period are found today in the vicinity of Pejeng and Bedulu-the area between the two rivers Petanu and Pakerisan-which has always been amazingly rich in antiquities.
     The most impressive examples of Java's classic influence on Bali are the nine magnificent cut-rock tombs of Gunung Kawi near Tampaksiring, completed around A.D. 1080, which are strikingly similar to East Javanese monumental architecture from that period.
     Under the great Airlangga's reign at the start of the 11th century, a vigorous renaissance of art occurred in East Java. The Balinese-born leader gave a new impetus to all the arts, particularly literature, reviving the old Javanese language of Kawi as Bali's official language.
     The rule of the nationalistic Majapahit Empire on Java in the 14th century saw a repudiation of the classic, austere, religious, Indic elements and a resurgence of the more primitive native Javanese art styles and motifs. The powerful, erotic architecture of Candi Sukuh in East Java typifies this period.
     Less than 100 years later, as Islam crept deeper and deeper into Majapahit territory, priests, poets, artists, sculptors, and painters began to migrate to Bali, bringing with them the earthy spirit of Majapahit. This influx accounts today for the extent to which classical Javanese romantic legends (the Panji and Tantra fables) have penetrated Balinese literature.
     The populating of Bali by Javanese migrants also explains the extravagantly decorative motifs found in all media of Balinese art: floral patterns in the paintings, sensuous flaming motifs in the textiles, baroque temples, fast-paced music, and the bizarre realism of Balinese sculpture.

The Balinization of Javanese Arts
The collapse and subsequent dispersion of the Majapahit's cultural elite is considered the great watershed of Balinese history. The influence of its artisans and craftsmen brought to Bali a golden age of the visual arts, theater, and literature. From the 15th century onward, the descendants of the original Javanese colonial rulers founded a number of small independent regional states on Bali, free of Java's administration.
     The Balinese natives adopted those Hindu practices, arts, and deities that suited their taste and rejected the rest, giving rise to today's distinctive folk art forms. Each noble house (called a puri or jero, depending upon rank) constituted a political and religious hub where the best orchestras practiced and where the finest painters, weavers, sculptors, architects, blacksmiths, dancers, and actors lived and worked as privileged wards of the ruling princes.
     These specialized artisans were paid in ritual gifts, relieved of certain social duties, or awarded tax exemptions and rice fields. Today, many of these privileged relationships remain in effect, the descendants living from the produce of the same fields, still carrying on their ancestors' handicraft or fine art.
     This flourishing artists' utopia ended with the crack of Dutch rifles in 1906. From that point on, art began to radiate out from the divine cores of the puri and started to touch the villages. Bali, as a colony of the Netherlands East Indies empire, was soon profaned with modern technology, tourists, films, books, magazines. As a result of a drastic political reorganization, most of the princes could no longer afford to patronize the arts; palace gamelan were sold, royal theater groups broke up, and Balinese art became a true art of the people.
     Art also became less decorative, representational, and formalized. Influenced by incoming European artists in the 1920s, Balinese artists for the first time dated and signed their paintings. They began to experiment with new styles, techniques, themes, and media. They set up sales organizations and the most outstanding among them received recognition overseas.
     The 1930s are known as the "classical" period of modern Balinese art, when many of the finest and most innovative pieces of the 20th century were produced. Samples of these works may be viewed today in the Neka Museum, Neka Gallery, Agung Rai Gallery, and in the famed Puri Lukisan Museum-all in or around Ubud, Bali's traditional arts center.

Modern Influences
Over the past 40 years, the once all-important sponsorship of art by the local aristocratic families has all but ceased. Bali's past 20 years have wrought even greater changes. No longer does art occupy a traditional place and purpose within the community. No longer is it produced simply out of service to the deities. Now it's created for its own sake or just to make money.
     Perhaps nowhere are artists more appreciated by their own people than on Bali, yet Balinese fine art isn't taken seriously by foreign buyers. In order to earn a living, artists have had to sacrifice quality. The "tourist corridor" up to Ubud is lined with opulent-looking galleries filled with an overwhelming range of kitschy junk, some of it good, and signs that say "You drop it, it's yours."
     Inside the galleries you'll see row upon row of lookalike carvings and color-by-number images of villagers fishing, stereotypical market scenes, fantastical birds from the island's Hindu lore, predictably posed nude figures, mass-produced half-life-sized copies of dramatic masks, and "custom-made" reproductions of antiques.
     On a weekend afternoon, the galleries are packed with tourists. Yet it's often deserted over at Ubud's Puri Lukisan museum-where for 35 American cents you can marvel at the bygone genius of Balinese painting. The island's two principal museums, in Ubud and Denpasar, lack the money to continue buying contemporary works. As a result, the really remarkable, high-quality pieces are bought up by discerning tourists or foreign art dealers, taken overseas, and lost to Bali forever.