Of central importance for art is the relationship that exist between the process of democratisizing a nation and the ability to foster a dynamic society. Both core functions has been interpreted in widely many popular medium like concert, drama, dance, music, theater, performance art, mural, and stencil as the means empower democracy within a nation.

“Art will not exist without artists, because artists are part of the society. Work of art would not exist in a vacuum and artist does not create art in a vacuum, because they do not depart from society and time when they work or make art“.

John Dewey in the theory of “art as experience” discuss the changes of understanding of what is important and the characteristics of the artistic process from the physical manifestation of the ‘expressive objects’. He also argued that, in general, the basic process and elements will no longer be a ‘work of art’, but more toward the development of ‘experience’.

“Experience is something that personally influence our lives”.

These theories are very important for our social life and education[1]. It is a dramatic expansion of the boundaries of aesthetic philosophy. These theories illustrates the relationship between art and our everyday experience and reminds us that the proper place for art, society and individuals are when it depend to one another.

Role of an artist is not only to create works of art and to hold an exhibitions, but to record what was happening, as well as personal emotions and the observation upon his situation at any given times. They should react to their surrounding which regards to various aspects of society including political, economic, social and cultural development.


In the history of art, there are many examples in which artists have used art as a medium to respond toward matters thus creating influential work while responding to situational or country’s societal issues.

For example, a wall mural by Pablo Picasso, the Guernica, was produced to respond to the bombing of Guernica, Basque, by German and Italian fighter planes during the Spanish Civil War by the order of Spanish Nationalist forces, on 26 April 1937.

Artist: Pablo Picasso
Location: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía
Dimensions: 349 cm x 776 cm
Created: 1937
Media: Oil paint

Famous artists such as Diego Rivera, also took part in the establishment of the Union of Technical Workers, Painters and Revolutionary Sculptors. His works are about the people’s power and struggle. The mural was made using fresco paint to illustrate the Mexican revolution in 1910.

The development of performance are can also be seen since the pioneers in Dadaist era of which combines poetry and visual art. German Bauhaus. It was the initiative established in 1919 looking in the form of theater workshops to study the relationship between space, sound and light. Similarly, the emergence of Black Mountain College in the United States from Bauhaus teachers that was formerly ousted by the Nazi Party continues theater study with visual arts and the “Beatniks”. It was a generation of literary movement of stereotypical media in the 1950s and the early 1960’s. Although the term has not yet been invented, but it was a precursor of Performance Arts[2].

In 1960, the artist became very critical and vocal in expressing civil rights, culture and youth rights, antiwar, the commentaries on religion, gender, race and gender stereotypes, consumerism, corporate greed and power and reshape the cultural landscape politics in art. Postmodern art is a term used to describe the art movements considered to be in contradict to some aspect of modernism.

In Martha Rosler’s writing, which she wrote in the 1960’s witnessed various forms of artistic rebellion against the free market and the emergence of terms such as “dematerialisation” within various schools of art; “In the face of institutional and market ebullience, the 1960’s saw Several forms of Revolt by artists against commodification, including deflationary Tactics against glorification. One may argue about each of these efforts, but nevertheless asserted hire artistic autonomy from dealers, Museums, and markets, rather than, say, producing fungible items in a signature brand of object production So-called “dematerialization”[3].

In general, Pop Art and Minimalism began as modernist movement that was seen as a philosophical paradigm shift and the split between formalism and anti-formalism in early 1970’s which made it be regarded as a transitional movement of postmodern art. It was influential to other form of postmodern art namely conceptual art, installation, intermedia and other multi-media with techniques such as bricollage, the use of words or text in the production of paper, collage, simplification, appropriation, performance art, reproduction of old styles and themes in the context of modern times and break the boundaries between “high art” and “low art” in popular culture.

Performance Arts received specific classification in 1970 as a ‘live’ art and differentiate itself from theater[4]. Performance arts also means that it is an art form that cannot be bought, sold or traded as a commodity. Performance artists sees itself as a movement as a way to bring their art directly to the public spaces thus eliminating the need for galleries, agents, brokers and any aspect of capitalism.


“I want to use public space to create a public voice for, and a public consciousness about people who are, in fact, the majority of the population, but who are not represented in public spaces in any visual way.”– Judy Baca: Chicana artist-educator-The great wall of Los Angeles, mural by Social and Public Art Resource Center

“By looking at the development in the world of art, it can be said that art has no longer seen as only solely for art, whereby art has found its place closer to the public space”.

In writing Dr. Jodi Kushins from the University of Florida, she stressed that artists should be placed as a public intellectual, as artists from visual to performing school is an educator who provides insight and raise questions about the world and the audience is active as a student who gives meaning and interpretation in the work they saw[5].

This clearly shows that art is not for aesthetics’ beauty alone but capable of developing a critical culture in a society. In writing of Dr. Jodi, she also explained that there was an increasing number of contemporary artists who conduct their projects directly involving the community whilst challenging the status quo.

Artist, Activist and Professor of Fine Arts, University of California, Judy Baca, are one of the founder of (Social and Public Art Resource Center) who shows an example of the relationship between art and society in the idea of “The Great Walls Of Los Angeles” by involving the people of all races, ages and background to produce murals depicting the history of Los Angeles, which was not found in any recorded history. In the production of the mural, he interviewed citizens about their lives, family history, race, and they still remember stories from relatives and older people, as well as historians and produce visual images from the collected data.

Multicultural State Hegemony, by Taring Padi (Indonesia)

Art is also a vehicle for mass advocacy and empowering the community on current issues, as a means of protest or political propaganda in the form of medium that is much more easily communicated to the public. By using art as a medium of public advocacy, it also open up a more relaxed ambiance while promoting a culture of critical thinking in a society. When art is used as a medium to raise the issues within the society, art will gain a special place in the discussions and public spaces. It would not only resonates around technical issues of art and design elements in art groups, but also involve a variety of outside factors as well.

In Asia Region such as Indonesia there are many examples of artists who develop a collective culture in artistic activities. Their art are no longer seen as individualistic, but rather expressing the ideology within when addressing societal issues. Thus this breaks away from the self-centered definition of “art for art” for it brings art closer to people. Indonesia has a very long and interesting history of the development of art and society. Among others are Taring Padi (lit.Fang of Paddy) which is a group of artists who make art in response to the idea of the sociological situation of Indonesia.

Taring Padi uses art as public advocacy to promote a culture that rejects commercialism of art and took art into public sphere in order to raise issues of environmental and social condition in Indonesian. The group is using visual to communicate with local people for example using comics, large-scale paintings and poster prints mounted on wood in public spaces, and distribute to the masses. Not only that they provide a platform of discussion regarding issues argued among artist but also opened up spaces for local villagers to engage in their art activities This is a method used collectively to provide exposure to rural communities on local issues and conflicts during Suharto era[6].



“To talk about freedom of expression, is not to limit it to speech only, but it should also include the right to freedom of expression through books, newspapers, spread pamphlets, theater performances, fine arts, the right of peaceful assembly, demonstration and parade”.

Furthermore, freedom of speech is the key to realizing democracy based on rule of law and the practical realization ought to cater fundamental freedoms while respecting human rights of others.

In the year 1991, traditional performance like Wayang Kulit and Mak Yong was banned in Kelantan by the state government which restrict and disband any culture related performance saying that it was against the teaching of Islam[7].

In 2002 authorities of Universiti Teknologi Malaysia has banned students from organizing Chinese Cultural Exhibitions and Performances at the hall by lifting permission given two days before the exhibition. The justification was campus grounds can only be used for academic purposes[8].

In 2003, the authorities have canceled permits for “Vagina Monologue” theater, by first threatening to ban Instant Cafe Theatre. By using threat, they will not issue permits for them again in the future and investigate the company and form a body to inspect and review all scripts before allowing or dismissing the theater performances.

In the same year, a number of mural artists have also been detained by the authorities and they were forced to stop making mural. There are also several cases of detention of activists who produce stencil art on the street who produces political satire filled with the use of reconstructed icons and symbols. Murals and stencils were deleted by authorities and people still regards murals and stencil street artists as violating public area.

Teater Tok Ampoo

During the height of 1998 ‘reformation’, the local art scene saw the emergence of a student theater group movement that create the University Bangsar Utama (UBU). The emergence of theater ‘Tok Ampoo’ directed by Hishamuddin Rais were played across the country and sparked a critical way to look at political situation, but this theater was shut down in 2004 during a play in Kuala Lumpur.

 “Political theater and the art of satire that uses the concept of “Agit-Prop,” that is agitation and propaganda, is a form of expression presented in street protests, demonstrations or political activities. Agit-Prop theater is a branch of stage acting performances outside ordinary theater and often played out in public places without any plan (hence, also known as “Guerrilla Theater”), to express political expressions, especially those critical towards the mainstream, and draw a reaction of dissent and debate with the audience“. Tok Ampoo a Reform Theatre; Fathi Aris Omar, Director General of Malaysiakini.

 In 2004, we can see the emergence of independent art space run by artists themselves, as well as independent arts festival and the art collective groups. Young artists began to engage in activism and arts to raise awareness about issues affecting society through various medium, such as posters, murals, t-shirt DIY, performance art, music, poetry to raise and discuss issues of human rights and current social conditions. These groups was made up of young artists and activists.

Events such as Notthatbalai Art Festivals in 2004 are among events that combines multi-disciplinary arts, visual arts, music, performances, sculptures, photographs, installation art, murals and art prints. The teamwork between the two variants of young artists from Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM), Ili Farhana, Saiful Razman and Yeoh Lian Heng from the Lost Generation Space, has helped to made this festival possible. The first Notthhatbalai was held for 5 days which include visual art exhibitions, art workshops, dialogues with artists, and it received good response from various backgrounds peoples, as well as activists, and of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), writers and academics.

Among the main purpose of this event is to encourage artist to make art outside the gallery exhibition confinement and to highlight the concept of alternative art and activism in the arts. Indonesia’s well-known artist, are among the artists invited for that event was Arahmaini. She shared her understanding about the exposure of art, activism, the influence and role of artworks and artists in engaging with social issues to the public.

Moreover, performance arts begun to be held in public spaces. For example, event like ‘Stopover’, which took place in 2005 was intended for cultural exchange and exploration of performance art. The concept of cooperation carried out between Malaysia and Singapore with the support from activist group known as the University Bangsar Utama (UBU) which provide the space was able to held event consists of artists from Japan, comprising Seiji Shimoda, Makoto Murayama, Kazuhiro Nisjima, and the Singaporean artist Kai Lam, Andree Wescheler, Rizman Putra, Katak Kudung, Tang Da Wu and Juliana Yasin.

 “Two evenings with more than 15 performances were enough to educate me on the meaning of performance art. What took place in late May 2005 at UBU was rather ground-breaking. I meant ground-breaking here in our kampung called Malaysia, not in Pekan Paris, Sungai Thames or Tembok Berlin. What took place at UBU pushed the artistic boundaries further than Salleh Ben Joned urinating at a third-rate art show in 1971” – Hishamuddin Rais  the Edge, 2005.

Continuously, international performing arts events international independantwas held such as Satukali by Liew Kungyu and Ray Lagenbach of which known for its controversial and resulting in a stoppage and raided by authorities because they (police) claimed a few performances from artists touched the sensitivity of the public.

 Besides that, community art programs such as Kampung Berembang art project made use of discarded items like Cardboard and other medium to cast wayang kulit (shadow play). And from this combination, a shadow play was staged to express the experience of village children about how the trauma they have during the demolition and repetitions burning and witnessing their relatives and their friends assaulted, mosques destroyed and left with only ruins of their homes. This shadow play presented by the village children on the night of Berembang World Human Rights Day, December 10, 2006 on top of demolition site in Berembang, Jalan Ampang, Kuala Lumpur.

In 2006, the theater called Baling (lit. act of throwing) by Mark Teh Chang, Yoong Chia, Fahmi Reza, Imri Nasution, Hari Azizan, Norman and Marion D’Cruz recreate the documented experience during pre-indipendence Malaya using voice. It was the collection of 1955 Baling peaceful speeches by journalist and activist Said Zahari intercepted by two of the main role in Baling Talk – Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman and Secretary-General Communist Party of Malaya, Chin Peng. It was a play to depict the British ‘Tools’ – weapons and propaganda are also explored, as well as personal experience during the Emergency. Prior to this theater, the study of family and friends of the main role were conducted.

Comparing the 90’s until the end of 2008, the freedom of expression of arts in Malaysia have seen changes in the context of freedom of expression involving the use of different art mediums. The flexibility of the authorities which regard to tolerating work of art were much better as it can be seen in their welcoming manner towards the work of graffiti throughout public space along Central Market (Pasar Seni). In Penang, the openness of civil society and the authorities prevails when accepting a 6 meter mural produced by young artists Zacharevic Ernest in conjunction with the Festival George Town 2012 as a work of art.

The relationship between art institutions such as the National Visual Art (BSVN) and independent artist are getting better when BSVN willingly host a performing art event called “Buka Jalan” (lit. Open Road) in early 2011. Consequently this effort has been a good cooperation to further encourage the development of contemporary art in Malaysia. With positive support and flexibility from BSVN, opportunities for arts as well as developing artistic critical thought within society can be realized.

Art used as a medium of protest should not be viewed negatively because they develop initial appreciation from ordinary people towards various art school of thought and provide awareness of current issues. Furthermore, the freedom of expression and contemplation toward art should be part of the responsibility of the “artist” in which he must understand the proper context of people’s sensitivities, especially regarding those artwork involving public spaces  and when dealing with specific community.

Art is a universal language capable of communicating with different walks of life, ideology and political understanding. The space for discussion on art and critical discussion of ideas should be encourage and further expand so that it can develop a culture of criticism and discussion between artist and art practitioners. Public awareness campaigns such as human rights education, voter education and election, issues on environmental and social issues or legislation, and the constitution can be constructed into a more creative media campaigns.

Awareness programs that uses art as a medium of awareness or advocacy will be able to develop the relationship between artists and social activists which foster a free and dynamic relationships that encourage direct participation from society in the art whilst providing a platform for dialogue on issues or campaigns advocacy.

As a nation that proclaims democracy, art should be liberated by placing art as public advocacy, arts and public spaces or art and community, all are at par with ‘art for art’. For this to happen, artists should be able to place themselves as a critical analysts or social critic. Curator or gallery should play a role in promoting their program to develop their own “network” with art student.

The effort to increasing awareness on the importance of art education with focus on the history of art, the production of works of art, art appreciation should be emphasized and given its initial introduction from early education and later strengthen in university level with a more interesting forms of learning and promote learning to develop thinking dialectic critical.

Art institutions such as BSVN and the Ministry of Culture could help change the perception of looking at mass mural or stencil as vandalism, to certify the works of local citezens who prefer to travel anonymously and to accept their work as art and a medium of expression and provides space and support to them. Art dialogues and activism should also be started and given the proper position not only in free space and gallery of art in private but also BSVN. As a national institution it will garner positive platform for the development of the art scene, where art and activism is open for discussion and activities should not focus mainly on the aesthetic part of art, but also issues associated with the society. Therefore, this will be a positive step in liberating ideas of art and democracy.

Artist have a big responsibility because art and culture is important in refining the perception and views that exist in the society. Their role is very cultural for their ability to change perceptions and fundamentally attitudes of the masses. Thus, in order to make this happen it requires commitment not only from the artists themselves, but institutions, galleries, public and the state.

[2] Performance Art – Art History, shelly Esaak;

[3] 3. Take the Money and Run? Can Political and Socio-critical Art “Survive”? Martha Rosler,

[4] Performance Art – Art History, shelly Esaak; By 1970,“Performance Art was a global term and its definition a bit

more specific. “Performance Art” meant that it was live, and it was art, not theater.”


[5] 5. Recognizing Artists as Public Intellectuals: A Pedagogical Imperative, Jodi Kushins; CultureWork – A Periodic

Broadside for Arts and Culture Workers; May 2006. Vol. 10, No. 2., Center for Community Arts and Cultural Policy,

Arts & Administration Program, University of Oregon. ISSN 1541-938X

[6] Teeth of the rice plant-Taring Padi,Heidi Arbuckle

[7] Freedom of Expression in Arts in Malaysia, pg 31, NationalHuman Rights Society (HAKAM) 2003

[8]  Ibid, p. 18

Ili Farhana was a guest writer, and this article was written and publish for exhibition catalogue “Power, Hope and Land” . Art Exhibition  was curated by Intan Rafiza, National Visual Art Gallery, Malaysia. Article in Bahasa: demokrasi dan seni tanpa sempadan?


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