Somewhere I once read that the Balinese have no word for art. In their culture, “art” simply means doing things well, with care and attention. And they mean it. Every meal we’ve had here has been so beautifully presented and served. The temporal offerings made daily from palm leaves will decay by tomorrow, but still are created so artfully. The gamelan musician spends time painting his or her instrument— so are they artists or musicians? The decorations for weddings and festivals and the like are handcrafted with exquisite detail—no pre-fab decorations from Walmart.
I like this definition of art. Better than the Western pretentious notion of mere self-expression or constant self-presentation. Art requires a slowing down of perception, a care beyond the normal pace of getting things done. To sketch, you really need to sit and observe and see at a whole other level. To make music means organizing sound with skill, technique and attention to harmonious blends. Dancers take the gestures of ordinary life and expand or diminish or connect them. You get the idea. Art is ordinary life slowed down or examined more closely or brought into rhythmic form that commands the attention of performer and audience alike. By taking time, by taking care, by attending to doing things well, ordinary living becomes just a bit extra-ordinary, something to savor and enjoy and notice.
I live in a country graced with astounding natural beauty and a fair share of remarkable authors and poets and musicians and artists and dancers and actors and such. But decade by decade, we have become increasingly uglier, trading beauty for economy and efficiency. The fast food culture’s disastrous rise is not just a health issue or an epidemic of obesity. It teaches young people that beauty matters not, that presentation is a super-size plastic cup, that speed trumps the slowness that artful living requires, that the hideous Golden Arches will dominate every landscape. Walmart and the shopping mall likewise murder the pleasure of commerce in the marketplace. Ugly buildings, cheap merchandise, bad food, blaring TV’s, sprawling parking lots, brightly lit antiseptic schools—is this any way to live?
Bali says “no thank you” and I agree.