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"A POEM OF NOTHING"
I have forgotten
They do not truly know you.
Truly they know you not.
THE ARTIST AND SOCIETY
The artist, treated on scientific and economic standards, is often found to be non-productive and is therefore a non-functional being in society. He is viewed as an outcast of society. Only when his works reveal certain intellectual, informative, social or moral values is the artist tolerated. But these seemingly important qualities do not form the essence of a work of art. Furthermore, art is neither a substitute of photography nor is it a representation of nature's beauty, through different mediums. The essence of art is non-rational. It may be termed vitality but it cannot be measured in terms of common sense or of scientific accuracy. It is essentially a product of creative act that cannot be measured in terms of scientific rationality and utility. Serving no purpose, it must be valued for its own sake.
The artist's apparent non-productivity, non-functional quality labels him as a problem member of society. But Society should be more careful in its regard. The artist, it must be realized, forms the essential continuation of the 'growing points of the plant of the human mind'. It is only through art that the value of civilisation in a society can be measured.
It is quite untrue that the work of an artist totally lacks all practical purposes for, in truth, there are certain aspects of the arts that society can make use of. As such society is not landed with a totally useless individual. National celebrations, public announcements and so forth demand music, decorations, posters, typography and these demand the artist's creative abilities. Society through the provision of these can then assure him of his welfare and livelihood. But greater importance lies in his freedom for 'the more he is left free in his field the better'. Any form of dictation or control on the artist's work is disastrous to his freedom of expression. Society may not be wise in placing the creative achievement of the artist under the authority of typically materialistic government official. The success of the English patronage, as shown in the undertaking of the War Artists work lay in her wisdom in setting up a board of art connoisseurs who approved the subjects but allowed freedom of development to the artist.
Today, in a world of scientific dominance, mankind looks towards science as his guide. Here rises the growing danger of scientific tyranny over the arts. The world's progress in prosperity and civilisation cannot be achieved by material progress alone, Spirituality and Truth that the arts represent constitute a part, if not, the more important part.
Because art appreciation is limited to a small minority who possess the exquisite gift of valuing the artist's work for none other than its own sake, it does not mean that the bigger part of mankind should remain ignorant and therefore prejudiced and contemptuous of the artist. Society must do its fair part, not by educating the masses in art appreciation. Surely, this would only stultify art appreciation and make it into a set of rules and principles which would not be in accordance to the spirit of art. It should instead fulfil its dual role - one of responsibility to the artist and the other to the public. To the one society should make open to him all the sources of inspiration, whether from past or from contemporary achievement. To the other, her responsibility lies in encouraging in the community a sense of interest not only in the work of contemporary artists of all mediums but also in the work of past masters. This mixing of the old and modern will constitute a 'rich embodiment of man's inexhaustible creative vision'.
Perhaps a clearer picture of the relationship between the artist and society may be formed by examining the position of art in various societies. In Russia we have a view of vast process of mechanisation and dehumanisation which is tending towards a technical and organisational unity". Here the Marxist politician's inability to treat art and political sicence separately has resulted in the confusing subordination of art to politics. Such is the absurd position of the artist in Russian society. Severini asks if it is possible for such a thing as a Marxist artist whose philosophy inspires, helps and informs his art. Like early Fascism in Italy the Russian politicians supported the modern aspirations of Russian Artists. To the Marxists, the artist of the past only produced pictures suitable for apartment decoration. Such art was akin to bourgeois art, hateful in Russian society. To suit the mechanical nature of modern Russia, modern art should also follow a mechanical technique. It should represent materialism and the industrious psychology of the proletariat. Such were the delusions of Russian artists in the beginning.
Realisation in the artist's ability to uncover state mechanisms, soon led to a feeling of distrust and hostility. Marxist principles demanded that the sole purpose of an individual is to contribute to the productivity of the State. Russian society soon demanded the same of the artist. Art became used as propaganda to further the ideals of Marxist theories. Such was the theme of Russian art, to stress socialist realism and materialism. The inevitable instrument became the artist himself. To this was added the fact that if the artist was to serve society dutifully, his art must be popular with the 'masses'. In other words the artist should present his work in an understandable form. Thus, conditioned, the artist became the slave of society - his work lowered ostensibly by the odious nature of forced servitude. Paradoxically, Marxism, supposed to be the liberation of man and the birth of a 'new humanism', has not proved to be so with the arts.
"Leonardo says that the artist is universal and solitary". If society does not wish to have intercourse with the artist then it would be better if he remained isolated. Unfortunately, this has not often proved to be so.
The wealthy capitalistic society sees in art a means of satisfying its vanity and therefore indulges in the artist's works. The artist, seeking to gain recognition and security reacts favourably to the capitalist. Such an evil and false relationship is an obvious factor towards the degeneration of art.
As in the world of the proletariat, the artist as a disinterested and sensitive member of society is considered to be of no-value. Economics demand that society should be fruitful and so the artist again becomes the outcast of the wealthy society. The worth of the manual worker is easily valued by the amount of work he produces. A wide difference arises in the artist's case. His work may only prove of value perhaps in the next generation, perhaps even later. For society to judge the immediate value of his work is quite unfair and impossible.
That a society with money and capitalists totally regardless of cultural, spiritual, intellectual and moral values, should continue thus is a matter of concern for all of us. Severini says that the artist is the hyphen between man and universe. Inherent in the artist is that quality of creativity, expression and insight which is able to lift the object out of its appearance. Hence the artist, in spite of society's cool indifference to him should make an attempt to communicate with it, to establish a new social order that would understand the position of the artist in society. It is to the artist that the community must look to for elevation from degeneration for we must remember that the history of civilisation of peoples is written by their art, not by their economics, industries and politics.
Perhaps it may be of interest to note that at least such an attempt has been initiated by a group of artists. The movement 'Maison de la Culture' began in Paris in 1832 aimed to reconcile the needs of absolute liberty as regards culture with those of discipline as regards a new social order. Though, unfortunately the movement terminated with the advent of the war it is to be hoped that further such movements may arise in future, movements that may eventually lead to a harmonious relationship between the Artist and Society.
THE ACTOR IN DRAMA
The theatre involves three parties. There is the man who writes, the man who acts and the man who makes the spectacle. The history of the theatre shows that these three are continually engaged in rivalry as well as in co-operation. In one epoch, the generation is particularly distinguished for the quality of its plays and of the authors whom it attracts to the theatrical service. Another is the golden age of the actor who is admired for himself alone. The theatre of England in the nineteenth century was predominantly an actor's theatre. "Pageantry there might be; personality there had to be." Most playgoers thought in terms of the actor and his individual magnetism.
Henry Irving, whose performances as Richard the Third and Shylock are considered brilliant, was one of the few actors who could raise a melodrama like the Lyons Mail from its natural level of efficient artifice to a higher category of the 'tragedian's art. The Victorian theatre was the home of the rhetoricians and the flamboyants, and Irving was at once the sovereign and symbol of his time.
Before the modern period, acting was an amateur occupation. The actor remained confined to simply illustrating the text by means of a narrow scheme of gesture and rhetorical speech. But in the "Commedia del' arte", the actor used only an outline, a plot; he improvised the play giving free rein to the actor's art, developed his own characters or masks that he repeated in each play. Since this demanded high skill, the actors joined into companies. He became professional, and by doing so, he stimulated the development of modern drama.
The essential requisite for the drama is its performance. The word is freed from its purely literary connotation, and is embedded in its action. The dramatist's creation finds fulfilment not in the writer's study but on the stage. This fulfilment can best be achieved through the contribution of the professional actor. It is up to the actor to make the play; he either makes it or breaks it. Here, the amateur only repeats the words of the writer; the actor fuses them and creates the real image of the word and deed. "The professional actor is the prerequisite of great drama." It is not enough for the actor to pose, move and speak his lines magnificently. He must be able to create a character immersed in a situation, behaving in it and thinking and feeling beyond it.
In the nineteenth century, the theatre produced some really outstanding actors. Sarah Siddons, 1755-1831, was one of the greatest tragic actors on the English stage. She was tragedy personified. Edmund Kean, Marie Doval, Ludwig Devrient were some of the other bright stars of the period. Devrient was an actor of fiery temperament, who after one of his death-scenes, when he retained his senses, said: "I thought I had really died."
The next important stage in drama was the rise of Stanislavsky. He tried to find means to stimulate and develop the actor's essential requirements: his concentration, his belief, and his imagination. The actor, according to Stanislavsky, should come on stage not to play act, but to perform the activities required of the character, to act. The actor trains his concentration so that he is able to create the impression of being private in public. He trains his senses so that he is able to see, hear, touch, smell and relate to the many objects which compose his imaginary situation. He learns to use not only intellectual knowledge, but also emotional experience by means of effective memory. The actor learns to delve beneath the lines to find the meaning or subtext of the play.
Acting is the most appreciated but least understood of the arts. Taste is too often confused with judgement. Acting is not mimicry. It is not exhibition or imitation. Acting is the ability to react to imaginary stimuli. It is also the ability to create a character which the author had in mind when he wrote the play. The work of such men as Nigel Playfair, Basil Dean, Tyrone Guthrie, John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier and Peter Brook among them showed a power to experiment without treating the author's texts as mere libretto or the actor as a unit in a regiment of automatons. They accepted the threefold partnership between actor, author and producer, and worked loyally to sustain it.
The rise of television and cinema has in no way presented a serious threat to the theatre. The films with their final touches and spectacular finish cannot compete with the theatre. They will be popular and successful in their own spheres. There will not be a clash between them. It is possible in films to put strips of film together to create a performance that was never actually given. The performance is created by the director rather than the actor. Here artificiality comes into play.
In the theatre, the actor can radiate his own personality on stage. This is lacking in the T.V. The effects on the stage are more realistic than on the fanciful world of the screen. Many of the successful actors found that they could not be as forceful and as powerful as on the stage, when they went into film making. These individuals, Richard Burton in particular, were different on the screen, but owing to their former status, the film making industry gained from these actors. Thus we find that whereas the American film industry is out to make money only, the British theatre is out to seek the best acting talents.
On the other hand, the screen has some advantages lacking in the theatre world. The cutting of filmstrips and joining them produces a perfect film, whereas the theatre has to face the mistakes made by the actors. Because of this, the stage makes the actor perfect in speech and flawless in intonation. Sir Laurence Olivier has been described as perhaps the greatest actor and his delivery of Shakespeare's lines is very realistic, truly-phrased and acted. Sir John Gielgud is the greatest English-speaking verse actor today. Truly, these two, with a few others, have left their mark in the English theatre in which very few can in the future surpass.
"Gielgud and Olivier are supreme among contemporary actors, because of the relationship they have established with the stored riches of dramatic acting. The relationship is such as to go beyond the normal approximations and routines of acting. What they have done is to raise their work domain of art, where it sometimes carries as much authority as that of the scholar or critic, although it is the actor's mysterious blend of intuition and technique which has brought them there."
Truly the actor is the most important party involved in the theatre. He is the person who makes a success or failure of a certain author's work. For example, the burlesque, which was introduced by J.R. Planche and well-developed by the founder's hand was grossly abused by less competent people later on. Many a delightful entertainment was spoiled by incompetent people. At the same time, very able people have made successes of plays which were really not intended to be so.
MALAY COSTUMES - A HISTORICAL SKETCH
By Malay costumes we usually refer to the costumes worn by the Malays not only in Malaysia but also in Indonesia. However, in this essay we deal specially with those of Malaysia not because of any political implications but because of our familiarity with the costumes worn in this country. Furthermore, it is quite unnecessary to refer to Indonesian costumes because basically they are not different from those worn by Malays in Malaysia.
Broadly speaking, Malay costumes are composed of three distinctive parts; that which covers the head, the upper and lower portions of the body. This principle applies to both men's and women's clothing alike. Of the woman's dress, we have the selendang or shawl which covers the head except the face, the baju or shirt and a sarong. The man's garments on the other hand consist of a headgear known as tanjak or a songkok, the baju or shirt which is quite different from that of the woman, the trousers and also a samping - a short sarong covering on the outside of the costume. In fact, without the samping, the man's costume would be similar to a pair of pyjamas.
Opinions vary as to the origin of the Malay costumes. Although various theories have been put forward many people agree in principle that two factors play significant roles in the origin and development of the Malay costumes. First is the religious factors and secondly, the cultural influence of a superior race.
The Malay Peninsula is open to the influence of the Far East and down the ages that influence has been confined to commerce and certain skills that commerce brought. It was not China but India that so influenced the spiritual as well as the material life of the Malays.
The Indians came to the Malay world in the first centuries of the Christian era bringing with them their culture and religion. They set up a kingdom known as Langkasuka and thus from here their culture spread to various parts of the Malay world. Being culturally backward, the Malays were inclined to accept the new culture. Soon they renounced their animistic practices and adopted the Hindu way of living.
It is believed that in this process of cultural assimilation, the Malays, especially the women-folk, were first introduced to the sarong, they have been wearing the garment since then. However, nowadays instead of wearing the ordinary sarong, they prefer to wear batek.
The Malays adopted some of the Hindu customs, language and religion into their own way of life. But in the fourteenth century a new wave of influence came into the Malay world, which was destined to have a profound impact on Malay Society. This was the coming of Islam.
Like Hinduism, Islam was introduced into the Malay Peninsula by traders. These traders came from the Malabar states of South India, and it is generally accepted that they were the first to introduce the songkok to the Malays who used them on becoming Muslims. This is a result of a requirement in Islam that a man should cover his head when he is praying.
Islam also requires a woman to cover all parts of her body except her face, hands and feet. As such when the Malay woman became a Muslim she had to live according to the Muslim way of life and in this respect the selendang came into the picture. The selendang or shawl is used to cover her head except her face.
In some way, the agricultural aspect of the Malays has given the incentive for the development of the tanjak. Malay life is essentially an agricultural one. Most of the time he would be working in his padi fields under the hot, blazing sun. It is believed that to protect himself from the sun, he would tie a piece of cloth around his head. Even today, we can see this if we were to visit the padi fields. Incidentally, this was the basic principle towards the development of the tanjak. Later, instead of wearing it carelessly around his head in a 'turban-like' fashion, he tried his hands at making shape to the piece of cloth until finally the tanjak was formed. But nowadays, the tanjak is only worn at wedding ceremonies and state functions instead of being used for work in the padi-fields.
Similarly, the samping can be traced to another aspect of Malay life. In the days of Hang Tuah, or earlier, it was necessary for an individual to carry the kris because only this weapon would ensure his safety wherever he went. But it came to a time when he found it very inconvenient to hold it in his hands all the time. Secondly, it was impolite to hold the kris when he was in audience with the Sultan. Thus, a way out of the inconveniences was necessary.
The solution took the form of the samping. The samping is a short sarong to be used outside the baju. With this, it was possible for the Malays to slip their kris into the samping and thus no inconvenience was incurred.
Like any other costumes of other nationalities, the Malay costumes are subjected to the modern trends in fashion especially the woman's dress. Variations have been introduced here and there. The dress instead of being loose and knee-length, has been shortened to the waist and tightened so as to reveal the figure-lines. The worst yet to come of the new fashion is the slitting of the sarong. This, I believe is the contribution of the cheongsam towards the Malay dress. In fact, the general trend of today's fashion is to reveal the body as much as possible. This in itself is a paradox of our civilization. While more and more cloth is being manufactured yet we use as little cloth as possible.
On the other hand, the man's garments have not changed much. It has retained much of its originality. Perhaps in the future, it is very likely to be subjected to the trends in fashion but one thing is certain; the principles underlying the Malay costumes will not alter, if they do then they are no longer called Malay costumes.
Last update on 08 December 1999.