Balinese aesthetics

According to the Balinese expert, Dr. Anak Agung Mad ´e Djelantik, “no writings about aesthetics specifically as a discipline exist in Bali.”1 The arts are discussed in ancient palm leaf texts, but mainly in connection with religion, spirituality, ceremony, and the like. However, there are famous accounts by expatriate Westerners and anthropologists.2 There have also been collaborations between Balinese and Western scholars.3 In addition, there is a significant literature written in Indonesian by Balinese experts, beginning in the 1970s.4 Considerable experience of the culture is necessary to appreciate the full detail of these analyses and to be able to understand the arts from a Balinese perspective. I attempt neither task in this paper. What I have written is addressed more to the cultural tourist than the anthropologist. Tourists are often captivated by the colorful opulence of Balinese culture and the centrality of art to the daily lives of ordinary Balinese. At the same time, all but the most indifferent or obtuse cannot fail to notice that the Balinese attitude to the arts is sometimes strangely different from our own Western culture. In following sections, I outline what is likely to strike non-Balinese as puzzling or unique in the Balinese attitude to and treatment of the arts. I focus on four areas: the relation between art and religion and between art and community, the competitive aspect of the arts, and the high value placed on novelty, innovation, and adaptation. I begin, though, by discussing notions that are foundational in Balinese aesthetics.
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