There’s been a lot of talk recently about the failing popularity of Batik and how it might survive and prosper and continue on into the 21st century. One of its strengths and an advantage it has over other more conventional art media is the fact that it has many applications. Artists can produce basically the same quality of work but market the results as wall hangings, curtains, clothes, table cloths and so on. Beth and I survived one particularly slow period by making beach holiday board games, checkers and backgammon; a batiked checkerboard bag with a decorated border could be closed with a draw string and held white and black pebbles as pieces, the whole game acting as a bag to carry a book and sun glasses to the beach. And artists will be able to survive by being creative and trying out new ideas until one hits. The main thing is to be able to keep on batiking if that is what you love.
But the focus of this article is a call to raise the standards of the work that we batikers create. It seems to me that, along the way, our criteria for what we consider to be great art have slipped. I do not exclude myself in this at all- I too need to look hard at my work and to judge it with a freshly critical eye. Actually, I have always been my own worst critic- I don’t believe that I have ever painted a batik picture which I have been wholly happy with and have painted thousands of them in a 45 year career. I always start with a clear idea in my head about what I want to create and achieve, love each painting while I am immersed in it and going through the process- but am invariably disappointed when the wax comes off. No batik comes out as I wanted it to and I feel that I am a failure every single time. Of course, now and then I get a bit nearer to the perfection that I seek but the final result is almost always a big let-down for me. Luckily, I am, by that time, onto the next painting when I hope that I shall finally get it right, but after working so long in this medium, I am not holding my breath. No matter- I am in love with the journey, the process and the result is the booby prize. I learned long ago that the gulf between the artist and his public is a vast chasm and that the beholder sees what he or she wants to see in the artist’s work. I create entirely, selfishly, for myself and then toss the results out of my life and hope that they will stick somewhere. And I suppose that I can be wrong about the quality of my work, that I don’t really see what I have achieved- but privately, I don’t really believe that. As I said, I am my harshest critic. But unfortunately, at the same time, I am in the business of living from my work.
Which brings me to the point of this article- the urgent need to raise the bar, to take more chances, to set our sights higher and to improve the quality of our work. We all need to start to be our harshest critics if Batik is going to progress and improve and endure. Too often, I see batik paintings which are quite pleasant, nice little landscapes or still lifes or even abstracts which are just as good as average watercolours or oil paintings- but which, objectively, are no better and add nothing new to the painting canon. Simply because these works have been executed in the batik medium, a notoriously tricky, accident-prone, demanding and slow medium, they are often acclaimed as being fantastic or awesome. Batik must be judged as other more conventional media are judged if it is to be taken seriously. Of course, to even begin to master the batik medium is a feat in itself, taking years of patient study, endless trial and error and focus. I salute anybody who has taken this path but long ago I recognised that there is no mastery of this medium and that accidents will always happen and mistakes will always be made. One can only hope that the accidents can be made to work for one- but this cannot, by any means, be called mastery. There are Batik adepts but no masters. There are beginners on the trail, those that climb further up the mountain and those who try for the peak but probably never reach it. And that’s how it should be; we should not be in this business to get rich or achieve great acclaim, fame and fortune. We should do what we do because we have little other choice and we should be working to please ourselves and not the viewer. No great artist ever worked to please his public and survived unscathed. All the important artists in history were struggling within themselves, obsessed with this inner process and the process of their art and have only needed the public so that they could stay alive to go onto the next effort, the next painting. So we must never cater to the public or be satisfied with anything less than perfection- and of course, perfection is an arbitrary, subjective and mythical state. We shall never achieve it for it doesn’t exist but this search should stop us from ever being complacent about our work or wholly satisfied with what we create. Landscapes which are as good as some water colours are not good enough. Portraits which merely resemble their subjects do not cut it and abstracts, often derivative or throw-away in a medium which readily lends itself to interesting effects, are not necessarily great art. Perhaps all I am saying is that we cannot use the technique of Batik to excuse mediocre work. We must never confuse mere competence with innovation or originality. Just because we have learned how to do something difficult doesn’t make it good and above all we must continually reinvent our work- and ourselves- if we are ever to achieve anything worthwhile. If you enjoy painting seascapes and get good at it- stop immediately and take another subject on-board. If you get expert at portraiture and start to do nothing else, it may be time for a complete change. (Jonathan N.B!) If you learn to paint flowers which breathe like flowers should, throw them away and start again. The moment one starts getting comfortable with a style or a subject matter, one should cease immediately. For a time, I painted irises and sold them all effortlessly. One day I realised that I had to stop and move onto something else or I was doomed.
Miles Davis, the great jazz trumpeter who pioneered bebop, modal jazz, jazz funk and much more, was once asked why he had stopped playing ballads. His answer? – Because I love them too much. He never stopped shifting his ground, in reinventing his sound and, in the process, contemporary jazz and pushing the limits of the music all his life. Whatever it is that you do- you can do it better and differently! Of course, be aware of the past and what you have done before but it is the present and especially the future that counts in our art. If Batik is to be accepted as a valid and valued art form, the boundaries of what are possible must be continually examined and redefined. This is never going to be an easy task for any of us but in the end, the future of the medium depends on this. Becoming technically proficient is only the first step and in itself not enough- what one goes on to do with this challenging process is the trip and the adventure that all Batik artists should take.