The function of Art in Korea

Art and culture in Korea tends to be a product for consumption, and increasingly a commodity. To have art on the wall is a way of showing others that one has more money, that one is more sophisticated, demonstrating that one is from a higher class. And sadly that culture, that art has been overwhelmingly Western because the West is assumed to be superior.

The problem is rather how does one establish a strong identity for Koreans? The solution is not a simple question of elementary school teachers telling students how great King Sejong was, or stressing how much feeling (정) Koreans have. The primary issue is rather for Koreans to see their culture, their art, as being something more than a commodity. Culture should not be something static, something that one “possesses” like bars of gold. Korean culture is not merely a collection of habits, ideas and patterns collected over 5000 years of history. That sort of culture is more the storage vault of an art museum.

The full range of that culture must be presented constantly for the present day, constantly reinterpreted for citizens of contemporary Korea. But making it modern does not mean making it into a commodity, something that can be sold to anyone. That sort of vivid reinterpretation of Korea’s past to meet the needs of the present is what is most sadly missing around us.

There are several ways to make Korean identity more vital. Let me provide one. If Koreans see that their lives are a model for what others do in other countries, that if Koreans care for the environment, are not wasteful and are not corrupt, that people in Vietnam, and Mongolia and Uzbekistan will see that model and emulate it (or vice versa will copy Korea’s worst habits). Then culture becomes something ethical, something bigger than just consuming for pleasure.

Korean cultural identity is what is produced in the process of applying the full range of Korea’s past to address the new challenges of the present day.

Being a Korean is the process of doing one’s best to find in the full complexity of culture and history parts that will make a better future. The sense of history, of mission, and of purpose can transform Korea and its identity. But it cannot be done by building big monuments to dead people. That past must be interpreted for the present, and above all for young people.

 

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