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[Opinion] The People’s Art

Posted September. 29, 2008 09:12,   


Big “geolgae drawings,” or placards covering a large portion of a building, frequently appeared at pro-democracy rallies in the 1980s. The placards heightened the mood with strong colors and writings critical of society. They were the works of painters, known as "minjung (the people’s)" artists. “The people’s art” started in the early 1980s with the idea that art should not remain within the confines of museums and galleries but should also contribute to changing society. The new form of art quickly spread to rallies staged by university students, laborers and activists. Besides the geolgae drawings, a variety of experimental artworks appeared such as flag drawings and murals and print works. The focus of their endeavors was to get art closer to the lives of ordinary people. The large number of minjung artists, however, vanished without a trace in the 1990s as if a typhoon hit them.

With the democratization of Korea and the collapse of communism, the people’s art also rapidly declined largely because the movement was a means of political and social change rather than an art. Critics say the artistic level of the works are inferior and lack creativity since they are ideologically driven and emphasize civic participation. All the hype and trends that it created turned out to be in vain. Kim Yun-su, the director of the National Museum of Contemporary Art, played a pivotal role in providing the theoretical foundation of minjung artists.

The once forgotten people’s art is again the talk of the town as the museum purchased 149 people’s art works, which accounted for 56.2 percent of the museum’s purchases last year. Any artist would be eager to sell their works to the museum. Kim, who is often referred to as the “godfather of people’s art,” should thus refrain from making biased purchases. This was far from the fair and balanced buying that the head of the nation’s leading public museum should have made.

He was elected mainly because he was favored by former President Roh Moo-hyun, rather than for his ability. Yet Kim, who is serving his second term, has strongly refused to step down despite the administration change. Certain minjung artists say their art lost its popularity because it did not remain true to the original intent of siding with the people, blaming key figures for exploiting it for political gain and taking advantage of state subsidies and benefits. A case in point is Kim, who has shown his dual nature by claiming to have a high moral standard. The museum’s biased purchases illustrate why art should not be politicized.

Editorial Writer Hong Chan-sik (chansik@donga.com)