Friday, September 19, 2008

Thursday, September 18, 2008

A matter of taste

The girls enter in Napoleonic Costumes, cream-colored cage crinolines that come down to the lower calf on the older ones and mid thigh on the younger girls, tiaras tucked into masses of textured and styled hairdos. They hold in their hands full-size violins and violas and bows, and gesture with them casually, confident of not dropping either, of nothing slipping from their prepubescent and barely-pubescent fingers. Two of the girls have wireless microphone receivers in the small of the back—like bows—and a peyos of wiring that snakes over the shoulder and then up to the ear and instrument. A little boy, pudgy-faced, runs around in an ornate bicorne hat, also cream-colored, and knickers and high-calf boots: Everyone matches, perfectly.

The sense of anticipation in the room is palpable, but not in the sense of excitement so much as curiosity: When will it begin? Soon, soon. Little side conversations about business and community gossip and whatever else flow out, in low voices.

The pomp begins once the cameras are in place, once the orange wires providing the live feed to the tents of food outside are properly unspooled and plugged in, the camera assistant holding extra coils in his hand, a second assistant training a portable spotlight just at the spot where the violinist-dancers will turn right to walk around the dance floor, their dresses turning pinkish for the camera. I am sitting just past this turn, and as the children go past the cameras will find me in the dark behind the spotlight, again and again.

I will be, over the course of the evening, in the background of many of these shots.

And of course, after the children march and bow their way to the stage, the bride and groom will enter, coursing the outside of the room and skirting the dance floor on a languid red carpet—or rather a series of rectangular red carpets, their edges taped together and to the floor with strapping tape to prevent trips, to prevent miscues.

So how did I end up at a wedding at the Purnama Hotel in Batu?

Well: I was invited.

My understanding had been that this was a traditional Javanese wedding; I was expecting lots of men in blangkons—the traditional Javanese hat—ornate hilted scabbards for keris tucked into a knotted cloth belt. Perhaps a sampur, a scarf I'd only seen worn by dancers making their way out of a wayang orang performance; and many men and women in jariks.

Instead, the people here are Chinese-Indonesian, and mostly Christian: Once the newlyweds are up on stage, a woman in a white-and-tan nun's habit comes out and gives a prayer in Bahasa Indonesia, presumably for thanksgiving and blessing of the newlyweds. Around me are a sea of standing bodies, eyes shut, heads bowed, hands clasped in front.

When we are all seated again I tell Anna, the 60-something hotel owner who has invited me, that I though I was in for Javanese pomp and circumstance, maybe for a gamelan performance or something similar.

"No, no," she laughs, "this is traditional Chinese wedding." Anna herself is Chinese-Indonesian, and friends with the bride's mother—the grup wanita (woman group) at the reception table, where Anna was handed a ballpoint pen as her party favor.

The affair, in general, is lavish: a table with huge white swans on it, uplit in green; spools of rich cloth in warm neutrals along walls and ceiling, with white Christmas lights looping to the center the chandelier in the center and cascading down the walls at the edges; geodesic domes of mineral water, in single-serving plastic cups; Corinthian columns; hanging flowers; Greek-esque statuary of little cupids; light cans on both sides of the dais for professional effects; and champagne for the honored guests.

There are also, as employees, an emcee, with a microphone far too loud, comprehensible but loud nearly to the point of pain; three professional photographers, two videographers (with the aforementioned live feed to the food tents) and two assistants; an unseen light and sound man; and a minimum of four coordinators-cum-hype-men, whose job it is to tell the crowd when to sit and stand, whose job it is to find young people to stand in the crowd when it's time to throw the bouquet.

Outside there are four food stations, serving: Indonesian-Chinese food, buffet-style; an Indonesian dish called Nasi Campung, made individually, like at a food stall; various bean-curd desserts, set out on a table; and a table that opens later and is mobbed by seemingly all the attendees under 30, which serves French fries. I have recorded this table as Hot Potato in my notes, but I think that was perhaps a handwritten sign at the edge of the white linen tablecloth, past the stainless steel inset pan filled with eight or nine different squeeze bottles of condiments, all frosted, translucent plastic without labels.

Also: A guest list, I am certain, that is in the mid-hundreds.

After the bouquet is thrown—in Indonesia, their is no slip, the idea likely being a little bit racy for the culture, so all the marriageable boys and girls are lumped together to pretend to lunge for it—a big bulky man ambles up to me and asks if I've had enough to eat, and where am I from?

"Ah, the US," he says. "How do you like traditional Chinese wedding?"

What to say? I say the most appropriate thing I can think of: So lavish, so expensive—the bride and groom must be so happy!

The man smiles with approval. On the outdoor stage where the bride and groom have just departed a country band recommences playing, out-of-tune banjo and all. They sing, first and with twang, "Take Me Home, Country Roads."

Back inside, Strictly Ballroom has broken out.

The dancing has now started, by which I mean that here "dance floor" refers to a reserved space for other people to dance. We stand alongside fake roses and plastic, prehistoric-size ferns, between tall plastic pedestals meant to look like stone and tall lamps meant to recall the wrought iron lamps of Europe; on the dance floor, in alternations, are the troupe of violin-playing girls from the Opening, now in different costumes and playing a remixed version of "YMCA," dancing synchronously, MTV-style, as well; now there is a single pair of ballroom dancers, prepubescent as well but in garish, sequined and ruffled clothes, recently back from a competition in Malaysia where they placed 2nd in the waltz and 3rd in the tango; now a cadre of adult ballroom dancers, in tuxedos and equally lunatic gowns, dancing a coordinated and almost Renaissance- or Buzby Berkeley-formal dance—entreaties to partner at all, though obviously this was coordinated long ago—to a medley of Piazzolla, Josh Groban, and Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On." On this las number, they perform steps I am utterly unfamiliar with.

This goes on, in rotation, for quite some time, occasionally interrupted by the photographers' needs for certain formal photographs of the bride and groom with particular guests. Since the photographers must set up their tripods on the dance floor—which, by the way, is made of large red and white tiles, not softwoods—and the dancers get a reprieve from their constant costume changes and running back and forth between on- and off-stage.

This is more or less the common state of affairs at this wedding: that it is the cameras, and especially the video cameras, that are most important. People get out of the way when the camera sets up behind them, for a certain up-shot; the bouquet-throwing was held up nearly 20 minutes while problems with the video feed were worked out—a feed which travelled, by the way, to a screen 30 meters away—and enough young people brought in to make a pleasing crowd. Every pirouette and gyration of the girls is recorded; every dip of the award-winning dancers ("You know, they were just second place at Malaysia competition?"); when the cameras scan the crowd, pan across us, for reaction shots, the assistant tells everyone to keep watching the dancers and ignore the bright-but-diffuse light that he is now holding at us. The videos will edit out the moment when the groom brushes against the unsteady backdrop with his shoulder and sends it shaking, will not show the underdressed and miserable children who have been told they can't play in the nearby playground because it's too late, will not show the dishes piled on every half-unearthed boulder and flat piece of grass because the Purnama has not provided a designated place for them.

*

This whole event, to my eyes, is terribly tacky. This is to say: if this were happening in the U.S., I would consider it fair to say that it is, generally speaking, in Bad Taste. That it's gauche, and fake, and that the photographers and videographers running roughshod obstruct any spontaneous fun that might take place. A series of poor aesthetic choices, I might say, designed to do nothing other than to display wealth; an obvious set of choices where the desire is most of all to show that the most expensive options were chosen simply because they were the most expensive. No class, someone else might say. And yet, not quite bad enough to be kitsch, to revel in the idea of bad taste, to separate, as best we can, status, aesthetics, and pleasure.

This idea of Taste is, if you think about it, a rather odd concept: a way of spacing, ever so slightly, social status from class, from wealth. In the West, status is conferred with some combination of social, economic, and cultural means, though I might have more status in one neighborhood or space than in another, whether near of far. That I know not to flaunt wealth is an obvious social construction and value; that someone in Indonesia feels no such societal constraint is not unusual.

The matter of Taste is intricate and complicated, so complex indeed that the philosophy of aesthetics is long and long-winded and ancient—and still debated. That we have this complexity of Taste where simplicity would—and in other communities does—serve just as well says something about our own values. We could judge social status simply by price, as at this wedding at the Purnama: that class indicates power, and that displays of class status simply indicate displays of symbolic violence1, or the potential thereof. A simple strategy, less time-consuming that what we actually do in the West.

But you can also think of Good Taste and Bad Taste purely in capitalistic ways, in ways that are in fact even more capitalistic that the simple valuation above: that is, in these things as investments. A person with Good Taste in clothes is better able to evaluate the true value of a particular suit; whether the benefits that are conferred by others of the suit to him are worth the price he can buy it for. People with Good Taste are valuable because they are good investors; they have the potential energy of power.

Good Taste, of course, isn't just knowing what the majority of other people will think, I don't think; that is, I don't think it's about having a sense of valuation that is perfectly average. To drive home this idea of Taste-as-capitalism even more, the movement of tastemakers to the fringe, to find value in things that others don't like—or don't like yet—essentially a form of arbitrage. And just like in arbitrage, sometimes people Good Taste are wrong, their esoteric favorites not appreciated, but more often they are right.

So is this an argument for relativism? Is this to say that I should not feel a twinge of the unfairness of the world when a lazy puff piece on Asian travel from opinionistas.com ends up in the Best Creative Non-fiction Vol. 1, because our writings have the same inherent value?

The anti-Confucian Mohists wrote this nearly 2500 years ago:

There are three things that the people worry about, namely, that the hungry cannot be fed, that the cold cannot be clothed, and that the tired cannot get rest. These three are the great worries of the people. Now suppose we strike the big bell, beat the sounding drum, play the qin and the se, and blow the yu and the sheng, can the material for food and clothing then be procured for the people? Even I do not think this is possible. Again, every large state now attacks small states and every large house molests small houses. The strong plunder the weak, the many oppress the few, the clever deceive the stupid and the honoured disdain the humble. And bandits and thieves rise all together and cannot be suppressed. But can the chaos in the world be put in order by striking the big bell, beating the sounding drum, playing the qin and the se, and blowing the yu and the sheng? Even I do not think it is possible. Therefore Mozi said: The levy of heavy taxes on the people to construct the big bell, the sounding drum, the qin and the se, and the yu and the sheng, is not at all helpful in the endeavour to procure the benefits of the world and destroy its calamities. Therefore Mozi said: To have music is wrong.

But there are many things that do not feed the hungry, do not clothe the cold, do not feed the hungry, do not suppress bandits. Weddings, for one. And what if my entire town prefers to go to a wedding than to suppress bandits?

This wedding I might criticize for not being very good at being a wedding; but even there we might have a difference of opinion.

*

1 Meant in the same sense of Pierre Bourdieu, that when those with more symbolic capital—social, economic, and so forth—use it against those who hold less and use it to alter actions or agency.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Sunday, September 14, 2008