The average Malaysian is easily dismissive of the arts in Malaysia. They are quick to perceive local music as inferior, local films as something they would never see, always preferring an international brand name.
Make no mistake, Malaysia has had moments of artistic brilliance, from the inimitable talent of Yuna, to the internationally renowned Michelle Yeoh, to the beauty of Yasmin Ahmad films, to the jazz artistry of Michael Veerapen, to the sublime art collages of Ibrahim Hussein and even to the universally appealing comics of Lat.
However, these artistic giants are exceptions in the vast ocean of mediocrity in our arts. I really cannot fault the average Malaysian for being dismissive of Malaysian arts as most of it IS simply average.
Is this due to a lack of creativity? Or, a lack of funds to drive innovation in arts? Or, a lack of professionally trained artists?
We could blame ourselves for discouraging our children from studying arts and pushing them to a “safer” education. We could blame the scarcity of music venues and art galleries. We could blame a lack of investment to be able to create great art.
We could. But I feel there is a more fundamental reason.
I buy into the belief that all great art comes from great suffering. The blues originated from a tradition of work songs sung by slaves in America. It was their way to express suffering. It was their respite in the gloom of humiliation in life. The blues comes from such powerful emotions rooted in severe hardship that it became an incredibly potent primal force responsible for giving birth to modern music.
The ensuing racism faced by black artistes in the 1950s inspired their powerful songs, ironically enabling commercialism of black music in white America. Motown was a standout, producing important artistes like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson.
Our Malaysian lives in comparison have been relatively calm and pleasant. We can get Starbucks at nearly every corner in the city. Or take the mass rapid transit. Or see a BMW or Mercedes just about everywhere, or just walk around enormous shopping malls displaying new collections from Louis Vuitton or Typo, and then later have teh tarik with our friends in the middle of the night with no fear of anything really bad happening.
In many ways, we haven’t suffered enough. No oppression, no bombs going off, no bloody fights in the streets. Basically, no inspiration from suffering that can be turned into great art.
Art is a mirror of humanity. It is a reflection of ourselves. Therefore, art that is created from one who has had to overcome adversity will touch our very soul. That emotional connection makes it great art.
Iran is home to some of the most amazing filmmakers around. In fact, Asghar Farhadi just won his second Oscar. Abbas Kiarostami, another acclaimed Iranian filmmaker who thinks the reason for quality Iranian films is BECAUSE of the heavy censorship and strict environment in Iran, recently said: “Difficulties have always existed in our lifestyle and our role is to surpass them.”
I think the majestic beauty of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was not in spite of him being totally deaf when he wrote it, but BECAUSE he was totally deaf. That frustration of not being able to hear his own music must have driven him to write that suffering out into a masterpiece.
Bill Evans and Charlie Parker, two of the biggest giants in jazz, suffered throughout their lives but in that suffering made music that became an integral part of jazz history. Kurt Cobain hated how Nevermind sold millions which to him meant he was “selling out” and wrote the next album In Utero to be totally “non-commercial”, but in the process created an even greater album.
All these artistes turned their difficult lives into great works of art. I’m not saying that you can’t create art without suffering. You can, but the art that comes from conflict and pain will almost always be great.
But, how do we do this? How do we create suffering? Aren’t we supposed to avoid suffering as human beings? I actually have no answer. The closest one I can think of is for us to step out into the world and experience those going through strife. Feel what they are feeling.
It won’t be the same, but at least it will inject us with new emotions that may help elevate our art to the next level. And, we can sip our Starbucks while working on it.
(The new movie J Revolusi, showing in cinemas now, is a great example of how local action film can stack up againt the world.)
Ahmad Izham Omar works in the production of TV, film and music content and gets panicky trying to figure out his next tweet