CLASSICAL arts, such as the dances of Apsara, Chunpor, Tepmonorom and Sovanmuchar, and visual arts, such as painting, are careers that are difficult to find a market for. How can we make people interested in these fields and promote our Khmer culture?
The word “art” has a broad meaning; basically, it’s what a person does to express their talent as an individual. But in this piece, I will focus on classical dancing and visual arts.
Students who have just gained their Baccalaureat II are likely to study information technology, management, law, accounting, banking, tourism or the English language – subjects they hope will make it easier for them to find a job.
But artists and classical dancers struggle to find a market for their skills. To earn a decent income, they must become famous, and their accomplishments are mostly recognised by foreigners rather than by their own people.
Collage painter Leang Seckon and classical dancer Chumvan Sodhachivy, or “Belle”, are good examples of this.
These two well-known artists have the same point of view: “Even though we make a big effort to keep our traditional arts and our Khmer culture alive through national and international performances and exhibitions, most of the people who come to see us are foreigners,” they say. “But concerts of music that has been copied and pasted from foreign styles draw huge crowds.”
Painter and sculptor Pin Sopheak, who graduated with a BA in art in 2006, complains: “I have displayed works at art exhibitions a few times, but not all my pictures sold; it was hardly worth it after all the time I put into creating them.
“And the Cambodians who bought my pictures were just expressing their pity and support for me, whereas foreigners bought them because they appreciated the artistic accomplishment.
“Because it’s difficult to live on what I earn as an artist, I have a second job as a dentiform maker.
“I feel disappointed because I can’t make a living from my professional skills and what I have learned. Even though dentiform-making is also an art, it’s not what I want to do.
“Meanwhile, some of my schoolmates have become police officers and military police officers. And not many students are studying art.”
Classical dancer Im Leakhena, who graduated in 2005, also says it’s difficult to find work.
“I love being a classical dancer, but I can’t make a living from it; I have to run my own business to support myself,” she says.
“I have danced at national ceremonies, and abroad a few times, as well as at weddings. This was just for audiences of Cambodians who love Khmer traditional dance.
“Some of my classmates also wanted to become classical dancers, but when they married, their husbands no longer allowed them to dance because of the low salary.”
I think a few factors have contribute to the lack of interest in classical dance and the visual arts:
Fitst, the Royal Government doesn’t seem to value these skills. The University of Fine Arts 2 was moved to Phnom Penh’s Thmey area, and when heavy rain falls, some of the classrooms are flooded and lectures have to be abandoned. And sometimes even our national ceremonies don’t feature these traditional arts.
Second, many TV shows feature foreign dances and songs, which audiences prefer to classical dancing. We can hardly accuse Khmer culture of being weak if we all refuse to support it.
Third, there’s unreasonable prejudice in families, and society in general, against talented individuals who enjoy these arts. Just as some parents and teachers try to change a child who writes left-handed, they don’t let their children express their talents.
Prime Minister Hun Sen recently issued a letter urging young people to stop copying foreign music styles and instead develop this country’s unique cultural identity.
We should heed that Khmer proverb, “When culture dies, a nation disappears.”