Jean-Paul RIOPELLE, L'hommage à Rosa Luxemburg, 1992 (détail) [ * ]

Korean Aesthetic Consciousness
and the Problem of Aesthetic Rationality *

Kwang-Myung KIM [ # ]


Aesthetic emotions are reputed to be irrational, but, aesthetic emotions as mental phenomena bear complex relations to rationality. Emotions give us knowledge about the world. The aesthetic consciousness of Korean is the internal roots of the Korean's mentality. The aesthetic consciousness and the mentality are inseparably related to each other. The aesthetic consciousness as the analogy of reason, in the context of A.G. Baumgarten plays a role to extend the logical world. Aesthetic rationality is the common sense or the communicative rationality of it. For the argument of universality we discuss the problem of aesthetic rationality. Since the modern aesthetics, the problem of aesthetic rationality came on the stage of aesthetics.

Shamanism as the deep-rooted element of Korean mentality is the most authentic cultural legacy of Koreans. Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and other religious elements influence the unique nature of the Korean character together with shamanism. They play a decisive role in determining the Korean mentality or consciousness. For Koreans, nature is a mirror of the self and a world of meditation which gives life, restoring all things to their proper state. As a peculiar color consciousness, Korean monochrome is characterized by vitality, spontaneity and unconcern for technical perfection. Korean art also tends to be devoid of an artificial movement and this reflects dislike of disturbance, deformation and convention.

If we are to consider Korean contemporary art from an international perspective, we must define what it means to be Korean, i.e. our cultural habits and artistic elements hidden in the artist's unconsciousness. In this age of multiculturalism, the new interpretation on tradition makes it possible to merge the Korean art with the world stage. The extension of aesthetic emotion through experimentation shows us the change of aesthetic consciousness as a new possibility of interpretation.


Aesthetic consciousness or emotion is an undercurrent in art. Under aesthetic rationality we can understand the common sense (Gemeinsinn) or the communicability among different emotions. Generally speaking, emotions are reputed to be irrational, but, at the same time emotions as mental phenomena bear complex relations to rationality. Whether emotions themselves are reasonable or not, emotions serve as explanations, or justifications for other acts and states. Further, emotions give us informations or knowledges about the world1. So we need to drive aesthetic consciousness from the Korean art. At the same time, for the argument of universality we discuss the problem of aesthetic rationality. Since the modern aesthetics, the problem of aesthetic rationality came on the stage of aesthetics.

In the course of discussion on the problem, we realized Korean art has been virtually overlooked, while many are acquainted with the Chinese and Japanese art. Koreans acted not only as catalytic agents for the Chinese and Japanese cultures, but also developed its own aesthetic consciousness. Despite the impact of Chinese culture, however, Korean art has always managed to maintain a uniquely Korean quality, i.d. a tranquil and relaxed attitude, quite distinct from the elaborate and massive forms of China or the highly delicate style of Japanese art.2

First of all, we can raise the question, what the aesthetic consciousness of Korean is, in other words, what the internal roots of the Korean people's mentality are. Of course, the aesthetic consciousness and the mentality are inseparably related to each other. Secondly, through the research of aesthetic consciousness, I will try to find the existence of aesthetic rationality. Here, under aesthetic rationality I understand the analogy of reason, as in the context of A.G.Baumgarten. Rationality pursues the logic of the physical world and the objectivity of the appearances. Just with the help of the emotion or sensibility, rationality can extend the knowledge of the world and the possibility of communication between the world and the man. One concerns emotions as objects of knowledge. Here emotions play role as the way of knowing their objects.3

What is the deep-rooted element of Korean mentality? Shamanism is the most authentic cultural legacy of Koreans, but we have forgotten it in the course of acculturation, especially so-called westernization or modernization. In Korean shamanism, the concept of the boundary between the outside world and the village itself is much stronger than the world-centered outlook. The symbol of wholeness found in Korean shamanism is expressed through the motif of harmony or the union of opposites, a reflection of the relationship between Yin(-) and Yang(+) as the cosmic dual forces. Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and other religious elements influence the unique nature of the Korean character together with shamanism. In fact, they play a decisive role in determining the Korean mentality or consciousness. Throughout history, Confucianism and Shamanism have been in conflict with each other. Confucianism is based on intellectualist, aesthetic, and patriarchal values while Shamanism tends to construct a new order in the unconscious through religious spontaneity, emotional experience, maternal tolerance, and a breakdown of the existing society's ethical norms. Confucianism was adopted as the official norm during the 500-year reign of the Choson Kingdom (Yi-Dynasty), however; modern Koreans today continue to embrace this tradition, maintaining Confucian human relations sprinkled with touches of Buddhist, Shamanistic, Taoist., and even Christian beliefs. The unique character of each psyche is influenced by the individual's religion. However, because of its unique nature as a primitive, incantatory religion, I believe Shamanism is still alive in the form of a compound, in the depths of every Korean's mentality. In recent years, however, we have seen an increase in the number of Koreans for whom Confucian elements are relatively weak compared to Shamanistic elements. In these cases, a number of uniquely Shamanistic behavioral types appear in the form of what we could call 'Shamanistic human relations'. Unlike the uniquely Shamanistic elements linked to the ecstasy phenomenon, these behaviors seem to be the result of the influence of Korean history on Korean Shamanism. Korean Shamanism generally served as a mechanism by which human resentment brought on by the cultural gap between Shamanism and Confucianism was relieved. In contemporary society, Shamanistic elements have moved beyond the Korean practice of an exorciser to play a role in everyday human and social relations.4


In Culture as in fine arts, tradition, including shamanism, is not simply a legacy from the past. While associated with the past, tradition also acts as a vital force enriching life in the present and fertilizing the cultural soil for future innovation. Originality and universality are relative elements that interact with each other to shape the character of a particular culture. Any cultural group is bound to collapse if it stubbornly persists in its originality alone and rejects international university. Now, the blind acceptance or rejection of tradition are both undesirable from the viewpoint of creativity, for only a true understanding of tradition can bring healthy creative activity. Tradition should be replaced with transmission. The Korean aesthetic sense was very much at work in the process of selective acceptance of foreign elements.

The national awareness as so-called, modern consciousness surged during the 18th century, especially during the reigns of king Yongjo (r.1724-76) and Chungjo (r.1776-1800) and played a vital role in society and culture in general during the late Choson period. Just as many scholars of the time turned away from pedantic Neo-Confucian precepts in favor of the progressive ideals of  Practical Learning , painters began to base their work on the native scenes and life style of their country. New social trends brought forth a number of new artistic trends, which may be summarized as follows: Chong Son (1676-1759) and his followers adopted and transformed the techniques of the Chinese Southern School for use in the painting of Korean landscapes. Kim Hong-do (1745-?), Sin Yun-bok (mid-18c-early 19c) and their followers produced a large number of genre paintings depicting scenes of daily life with a sense of humor and affection, and Western Methods of painting were introduced to Korea via Qing China.5

We need an artistic climate that encourages a thorough understanding of tradition in order to form the basis for the development of new styles. Tradition is not an obsolete relic of the past, but it should be transmission as an organic thing that enriches the present and inspires the future. There has been little ground for a logical succession or transformation from modern to contemporary art in Korean art history, much less the establishment of a distinctive school of art. For Koreans, nature is a mirror of the self and a world of meditation which gives life, restoring all things to their proper state. It is this concept that gave rise to a unique Korean abstract art, the world of monochromatic painting. As a peculiar color consciousness, Korean monochrome is neither a product of 'anti-colorism' nor the expression of an indifference in color. It is meant to eliminate the sensuous and physical properties of color and, thus may well be called 'pan-colorism' rather than 'anti-colorism'. Like Oriental brush and ink paintings which encompasses the latent qualities of all colors, this world of monochrome represents spiritual space. The relationship between Korean monochromatic painting and Korea's indigenous view of nature should be obvious. If nature means 'to be exposed in its original state', it can also be construed as a return to the fountainhead. Korean monochromatic painting's elimination of all artificial illusory representations, including color, is what makes it so natural. This elimination should not be confused with the 'art of elimination' found in the minimalism of Europe and America, which is an artificial product of rationalized thought. It is this difference in Korean monochromatic painting that has paved the way for Korea's distinctively 'post-minimalist' art.

Naturalism is an attribute of Korean art because of Koreans' indigenous view of nature, i.e. the view of holding communion with nature. However, the relativity in this concept of naturalism gives way to errors in the interpretation of the characteristics of Korean art. Not only is naturalism a concept brought from Western art and often used as a synonym for realism but, in the strict sense, it is a version of modern realism. In this regard, it would be more accurate to say that Korean art, be it figurative or abstract, is more or less anti-naturalist. In fact, the concepts of figurative and abstract art do not exist in traditional Korean art.

A distinguishing characteristic of Korean art is not naturalist in the western sense of the term. The western meaning of naturalism is the science oriented term. And, if the tradition of Korean art is set against the background of a 'return to nature', I think a more appropriate term is 'pan-naturalism', because the nature portrayed in Korean art is not a product of an objective world, but an expression of an omnipresent view of nature bespeaking both the consciousness of human beings and the source of life. This pan-naturalism, working in concert with post-naturalism, makes it possible to call a work of art genuinely Korean.6

Needless to say, to call something 'Korean' brings up the question of Korea's unique tradition. When it comes to contemporary art, the question involves an almost unavoidable confrontation between tradition and today. This confrontation is directly linked with the problem of identity, a problem which has ramifications for society as a whole. The central problem lies in how Korean tradition can be restored and alive in today. That recollects the effective history of H.-G. Gadamer.  The true historical object is not an object at all, but the unity of the one and the other, a relationship in which exists both the reality of history and the reality of historical understanding. 7 In Korea, the problem involving tradition is presenting itself as a critical issue. Contemporary Korean art was saddled with an identity crisis from its outset. It behooves contemporary painters, then, to undertake the urgent process of overcoming this identity crisis. A more important task would be the restoration of the very source that originated Korea's indigenous traditional style. It is the real connection from the tradition to the transmission, from the past to the present.

Oriental calligraphy is more than an artistic technique; it is part of a broader philosophy, Taoism, which forms the basis of much of East Asian philosophy. Empty space is as important as any other content. It means the Taoistic Wu-Wei. Koreans have been conscious of five colors: black, white, red, blue and yellow.8 These colors are not perceived purely by sense. Rather they are conceptual colors that symbolize the Five Fundamental Elements forming the diagram illustrating the Taoist cosmos of eternal change. The five colors have lived within the hearts of the East Asian people since ancient times. Just as seven was a magic number to medieval Europeans, five is a magic number to the people of East Asia; the key to solve the mysteries of the universe. Black, white, red, blue and yellow are not simply colors; but are the basic principles of the universe. East Asian culture can be divided into cultures based on Zen Buddhism and Esoteric Buddhism. Zen culture tended to avoid the use of color; drawings from this culture were generally in Chinese ink alone. On the other hand, cultures based on Esoteric Buddhism made active use of color. This was especially true in folk art. Korean folk art is closely linked to a belief in the power of incantations. The iconography of traditional mandala (symbolic representations of cosmic forces central to Esoteric Buddhism) is one example of the dizzying use of color and form typical of these cultures. Its use of color is not meant to simply stimulate the human senses; it is meant to evoke a certain religious ecstasy through hallucination. The colors found in these paintings do not exist in a broader color harmony; rather they are bold and rampant, primitive and instinctual. Such paintings could be called expressionist in their use of these primitive colors. For example, in P. Cezanne, color is the place where our mind joins the universe.9


Ko Yu-seup, the renowned art historian, once said Korean art was characterized by its 'lack of refinement' and 'nonchalance'. He concluded that its lack of meticulous detail enabled it to be embraced by a wholeness larger than art and hence emanate a warm, comforting ambience. Ko's view is a simple but eloquent description of the characteristics of traditional Korean art. However, it is inadequate for clarifying the characteristics of contemporary Korean art. This is because art is influenced by trends and cultural changes. Today's art, for example, is conditioned to the existent social, cultural, historical and religious contexts. It is very difficult to comprehend a work without understanding the culture of which played an important role in shaping the personality and mental attitude of the artist who created it.

If we keep viewing Korean art through the eyes of western aesthetician, we will be unable to see the shame that Korean contemporary art is nothing but a pathetic epigone of western art. Nevertheless, given the scene and sensibilities of Korean artists and the Korean public which is still dominated by the traditional thoughts of an agrarian culture; Korean aesthetics must be inherent in contemporary Korean art, regardless of its dominant Western influence. But we can here compare and pay attention to the problem of Korean disinterestedness or non- technique.

Korean contemporary art is caught between tradition and imported culture, trapped in a cultural melee resulting from the alternate colliding and diverging of modern and white or black, it sought to highlight the absoluteness of the painting surface. Man defines art as what is expressive of his experience, sensations and mental images, such as painting, literature, dancing and acting. The basic factor of art is the communication of emotions and, in this connection, aesthetician Jerome Stolnitz states that when an artist's feeling is transferred to a viewer or listener it becomes art.10 Beauty is the expression of a sensation based on a harmonized unity or unified harmony. Man's favorable response to harmony is rooted in his instinct for preservation of life.11 Beauty is a sensation empirically developed through natural phenomena related to human life.

Broadly speaking, styles of naturalism and idealism tend to alterate with each other throughout art history. In this context we can point out the naturalism of the Paleolithic Age, the idealism that prevailed between the Neolithic Age and the Iron Age, the naturalism of the classical period, the idealism of the Middle Age, the naturalism of the Renaissance period, and the idealism of the 20th century. The repetition of these two basis styles can be traced in Asia as well: the naturalism of the Sui and T'ang dynasties in China, the idealism of the Arabic world, the naturalism of India, the idealism of Japan and the naturalism of Korea. An artist of naturalist style adopts and develops a naturalistic pattern in shape, composition and effect. His standard of beauty is based on nature. Therefore his style becomes realistic rather than abstract. Outstanding examples of this style are Roman figure sculptures, sculptures of Sokkuram Grotto Temple in Kyungju city, and landscape painting of the Northern Sung Dynasty. Contrary to a naturalist, an artist of idealism perceives objects with his subjective feeling and materializes images, forms and compositions as he sees and feels.12

Anyone who has some knowledge of Asian art can easily discern Korean art from Japanese or Chinese art. But it is not easy to explain the difference in concrete terms point by point. D. Seckel defines 'Koreanness' or typical characteristic of Korean art by detecting : 1) The decomposition of form complexes into small elements like a mosaic work. 2) Flat in volume and graphically linear in surface design. Nevertheless, the underlying characteristics of Korean art are vitality, spontaneity and unconcern for technical perfection, i.e. nonchalance.13 Seckel finds the first tendency, namely the breaking up of design in a mosaic manner, in details of Punchong (mishima) vessels and a lacquer box whereas he detects the second tendency in the decoration of bronze bells, citing a bell dating from the Koryo Kingdom (918-1392). In the case of the latter, the ornamentation tends to become line-drawing, compared with the preceding Shilla period in which bells were ornamented with flying heavenly maidens and arabesque patterns in relief with sculptural effects. The second characteristic of Korean art noted by Seckel is a tendency of depicting a solid object in a flat plane. But this is a basic approach in all Asian art. In Asian art, there is a tendency to avoid nudity (nakedness). An artist prefers a man's figure with his clothes on. Sometimes a dress is more emphasized than the body. The drapery of a Buddhist image, for instances, cover the entire body. It generally falls in a soft line, spread out in elegant folds, creating a decorative linear effect.14 This linear tradition never died in the Buddhist sculpture of China even when nudity was rendered under an influence of Indian sculpture during the so-called Second Phase.

Korean art as a whole is characterized by vitality, spontaneity and unconcern for technical perfection. This characterization of Korean art is valid, but remains still vague. More analytical studies from a new angle are required to support the theory. Yanagi Muneyoshi, an enthusiastic Japanese connoisseur of Korean art, has most passionately insisted on spontaneity as the main characteristic of Korean art. In the book <Korea and her Art, 1922>, he observes that the beauty of Korean pottery is a beauty that antecedes a concept of what is beautiful or ugly.  The beauty is not made by man, but endowed by nature , he contends.  It is born as a result of Korean potters' complete trust in nature of their freedom from a worldly ambition for human perfection . After all, this nonchalance that Yanagi sees as a virtue seems to accord with what Seckel means by spontaneity. Yanagi's aesthetic concept of Korean art and crafts revealed in his book represents the aesthetic views of ancient Japanese tea masters who adopted crude looking Choson vessels as their finest tea bowls. This feeling is shared not only by the Japanese, but by everybody today. Ko Yu-Sop is basically of the same opinion, as he defines the characteristics of Korean art as the qualities of 'technique without technique', 'Planning without planning', 'asymmetry', and 'nonchalance'. Here we can see also Kantian purposeness without purpose, lawfulness without law or conception without concept.  In most cases, a work of Korean art is probably not meticulous in minute details. It rather tends to embrace a wholeness, hence its savory taste in total effect. This nonchalance lies in the docile state of mind of Korean artists and artisans who love nature as it is .15

Another Japanese specialist in Korean Pottery, Tanaka Toyotaro, states that Korean ware is rather born than made.  There is no linking of hesitation on the part of the potter, 16 he adds. He also refers this point of view to spontaneity as an outstanding trait of Korean art. Evelyn McCune, an American art historian born in Korea, asserts that refinement and crudeness are the two polarizing qualities existing in Korean art. Both qualities reveal honesty and contribute to strength, or vitality.17 Here the honesty is purity, a trust in nature. According to R.Griffing, Korean art is solid, straight-forward and modest and there is no sign of the classicism of Chinese intellects nor the technicality of the Japanese.18 These interpretations by a number of scholars can actually be summed up in Seckel's terms-vitality, spontaneity and unconcern for technical perfection. Vitality is a strength, resulting from the nonchalance of a creator who is free from hesitation, and free from the conflict between the beautiful and the ugly. The strength is even enhanced as he reduces decorations and makes the best of the virtue of his materials itself, the texture and natural grain, for example, in the case of wood. This tendency is closely related, in the end, to the second and third virtues that we have often discussed, i.e. spontaneity and unconcern for technical perfection. Spontaneity is dual in nature. It involves an artist's attitude toward his work as well as his taste for a spontaneous quality. This love of spontaneity, for instance, is reflected in the tendency of leaving pottery an undecorated object, eliciting a delightful feeling of expanded space leading to the lack of artificial pretense. Korean art also tends to be devoid of an artificial movement and this reflects dislike of disturbance, deformation and convention.

The third and last virtue in question, unconcern for technical perfection, is revealed in Korean artisans' use of warped pieces of wood as beams, pillars and brackets in building a house. It is also reflected in a slightly deformed, crudely glazed bowl. Ko Yu-Sop claims that the savory taste of Korean ware comes from such qualities. G.M.Gompertz, an English specialist and collector, explains:  The Korean potters were often careless or inexpert in technique: they were more concerned in achieving an artistic effect and seldom paid attention to detail.  After all, this unconcern is closely related to spontaneity and docile adaptation to natural environments. It is not of fraudulent nature. There is honesty in it. An artisan uses a deformed piece of wood as a beam only when it can fully support the roof.


Korean art has been characterized by submission to the nature, and the lack of the artificial consciousness. Thus it has developed within the framework of naturalism. Naturalism as such is a vague term. To make it more precise, we must consider the Korean's basic philosophy lies not in a man-oriented idealism but in a naturalism oriented by nature. Then where and how have such characteristic of Korean art been formed? They have certainly come from the national character motivated by the historical as well as natural environments. The Koreans have lived in the mild, natural environment of a temperate region endowed with four distinct seasons. This natural condition led the northern nomadic tribes to become farmers as they settled in the Korean peninsula, which they made one of the three significant cultural areas in the Far East. The peninsular features mountains occupying four fifths of the total area. The mountains, however, are of modest height and have round peaks that make landscapes peaceful and the amiable. It is evident that such peaceful and beautiful natural surroundings nurtured love of nature in the minds of Koreans.

Its special historical background seems to have played a great part in the formation of their national character, such as acceptance of reality, resignation, optimism, trust in nature, escapism, and dislike of artificiality. But this reasoning looks insufficient to support our discussions on the character of Koreans and their art. A more satisfying answer can be found in a careful, synthetic consideration of various elements, such as topography, geography, history, cultural environment, and life style, that constitute a specific composite whole. The cultural tradition of a people derives from a composite mode of life formed over a long period in a specific pattern of environment. Characteristics of a cultural tradition contribute in turn to the formation of a cultural tradition.19

The artistic handicrafts made during the Chosun Dynasty are of high cultural value, but the producers of these works belonged to the lowest social class, and were not held in high esteem. This was one of the many factors-hindering development of art in the Chosun Dynasty. The lack of appreciation and inspiration from both within and without exposed in a way the very fundamental aesthetic feeling of the humble Chosun artisans. But it also slowly obliterated the long tradition of Korean art, and called for a rapid deterioration of traditional art as the Chosun Dynasty itself was coming to an end in the early 20th century.

In Buddhistic figural sculpture, the body, arms and particularly the face, are full and gracefully modeled, and unbroken lines run from the head to the tip of the toes. The drapery folds are depicted in animated realism, and the sensitive, human approach is immaculately perfected by technical excellence with an overall effect and pattern, definitely Korean. This idealistic naturalism has been the basic undercurrent in Korean art throughout the ages. The culmination of Silla sculpture is witnessed by the sculptures of the Sokkuram cave-temple that date from the mid-8th century. The main Buddha within the stone-built circular domed structure is a colossal seated Buddha surrounded by relief-figures of Disciples. The main Buddha, carved out of a single block of granite, is an imposing monument. It is, however, not awkward or stiff, and there is a feeling of warmth beneath the cold stone surface. The facial expression is a perfect combination of the spiritual Buddha and the historic man, creating an eternal peace and calmness. In every figure within the artificial cave, traditional Korean naturalism and a slight touch of conventionalism are combined to create a sensitive yet divinely spiritual religious statue.

The inlay technique of Koryo Ceramics must have been inspired by the artisan mentality and the lacquer inlay techniques, but the effect was a totally new one. Those various minor types were continuously produced during the period, and there also appeared celadon wares with designs outlined in gold over the glaze. In some cases, designs were painted in underglaze iron, that slip over an iron glaze to produce a metallic texture. And creating a distinctly Korean temper in painting was artist, Chong Son. He set his themes with actual Korean landscapes and became the pioneer of true Korean painting. His innovations are well illustrated in his sketches of the Diamond Mountains, which is a challenge to the followers of the Chinese schools. The art of painting was limited to the upper society and because of their attachment to Confucianism and Chinese culture in general, establishment of an independent Korean style was difficult to achieve.

A Punchong ware of Chosun Ceramics is made of clay with a considerable amount of iron contents. A slip of white clay is coated on the entire surface before applying the final celadon glaze. The vessel is then baked in a reducing or neutral fire. Thus the characteristic of the Punchong ware lies in the application of a white slip under a transparent celadon glaze that produces a refreshing taste and beauty unique to Chosun art. There are six varieties of Punchong ware according to the techniques of surface treatment. 1) The white slip is brushed over the vessel to leave the characteristic traces of a brush, 2) The vessel is dipped into white slip, 3) The designs are either stamped or carved and filled with clay to produce the effect of inlay, 4) Designs are incised in outlines over the slipped, or the space between outlines is scraped off, 5) Designs are painted in underglaze iron over the white slip, 6) Designs are scraped out in broad silhouette to be filled with white clay.

White porcelain became the main current of Chosun ceramics from about the turn of the fifteenth century. Koreans by nature are fond of plain, subdued colors, and white clothes were the main type of dress in ordinary Chosun society. Thus the popularity of white porcelain in the Chosun dynasty period should be understood as an expression of natural emotion. Chosun white jar, which is the combination of an imperfect sphere and the limitless space of plain white, demonstrates the naïve beauty of Korean art its best. There are five categories in Chosun white porcelains : 1) Plain white porcelains without any decoration, 2) Those with outline-designs done in black inlay, 3) The blue-and- white, 4) Those with designs painted in underglaze copper, 5) Those with designs painted in underglaze iron. Among these types, the blue-and-white was the most popular one among every class of the Chosun society. The type with underglaze iron was produced by private kilns as cheap substitutes for more expensive blue-and-white ware. Vessels with underglaze copper are limited in quantity probably because of the scarcity of the mineral paint.

In relation to Buddhistic metal craft, the most striking proof of the basic differences between Korean bells and the bells of China and Japan may be found in the treatment of the surface decorations. While Chinese bells are decorated by vertical and horizontal ornamental bands on the upper and lower edges of the bell. The complex handle of a crouching dragon and a vertical cylindrical tube attached to the crown of Korean bells cannot be found in temple bells of other countries.

The origin of the mask in Korea can not be traced, as in the case of other societies, back to primitive religious faith. The mask dance, which originated as a ritual play in the country, began to take the form of entertainment under the influence of Chinese mask dance play during the Three Kingdoms period (1c-7c, A.D.). Since its beginning in the Three Kingdoms period the mask-dance play has developed diverse characteristic according to each province. With the aid of various colors and designs the mask dancers could easily manage a number of expressive gestures and expressions. As the masks were valued for the disguise and protection they afforded in the plays, they were often employed in rituals to drive away devils and evil spirits.


Nowadays, it seems the art community has also been consumed by the wave of globalization that is sweeping Korean society in general. Today we've come to discuss the role of Korean contemporary art within the context of this globalization trend. Today, culture becomes more diversified and commercialized. I believe, the contemporary states are obligated to provide support for culture and art. Many people refer to 'openness to universalization or generality' as an important element of post-modernism, post-nationalism, pluralism, multinationalism. One of our most urgent problems is how to accommodate the needs of the world and of nationalism or ethnicity. We also must consider what contemporary Korean art is. Establishing that identity is one way of diagnosing Korean art.

Contemporary Korean art has always been struggling with the question of the priority between the socalled western modernity and the regional tradition. We see a worldwide tendency toward the exploration of the relationship between art and social realities. Korean artists are still searching for their own unique identity and struggling to respond to trends toward globalization while at the same time maintaining a sense of their own regional tradition. Korea's contemporary art movement has been overly dependent on Western ideas and too uniform in approach.

Korean artists have rushed to embrace Western artists trends and concepts, as well as techniques, and attempted to incorporate them into their own work. They tend to have a complex about Western art, which has in turn led to the debate over 'ethnicity' and 'universality'. This debate was especially important during the 1980s and continues to fuel the search for our own unique national culture and subject in artistic representation. Contemporary art as we know it today, came into being some time between 1910 and 1920 when Korean artists began to adopt Western art.

If we are to consider Korean contemporary art from an international perspective, we must define what it means to be Korean, i.e. our cultural habits and artistic elements hidden in the artist's unconscious. It's the identity problem. In this era of globalization, the question of Korea's artistic identity is attracting a lot of attention. While many point to the relevance of national identity, the question of the individual artist's personal identity also seems important. Korean artists must concern themselves with the specific issues. Namely, they have to take a broad view toward the idea of the visual media. And they have to transcend the narrow sensory, conceptual, and formal significance of painting to discover its fundamental character. They must constantly review their own society, and their own culture, for ultimately their art is rooted in their own national cultural sensibility. It's much more than a question of how we portray our Korean consciousness.

In the first half of the 1990's, Korean contemporary art has seen a clear tendency toward stylistic pluralism and creative individualism. While experimentation in the new media is encouraging, experimentalism should be a means of reacting to the mainstream, not a means of destroying it. In our modern world, the human consciousness is no longer dominated by a single tradition or ideology. The young artist's attempt to look at all aspects of life from an individual point of view is a valuable achievement in this age of fluidity. Beneath the individual lives, identities, experiences depicted by these artists lie many more layers of truth to be revealed and redefined in the future.

As in the case of western avant-garde, experimentation makes our reality reflective. Experimental methods make the art world free from the restrictions of tradition. Each method strove to break with traditional limitations, although there were many variations and degrees of experimentation. It is only the relic of the past to reject the stream of change. Something new comes off not from the separation between the past and the present, but from the historical continuity. In this age of multiculturalism, the new interpretation on tradition makes it possible to merge the Korean art with the world stage.

The extension of aesthetic emotion through experimentation shows us the change of aesthetic consciousness as a new possibility of interpretation.


* Improved and revised Paper that was presented at State University of New York / Buffalo, Colloquium, Department of Philosophy, October 22, 1996.

1. Ronald de Sousa, The Rationality of Emotion, The MIT Press, 1990, p.1.

2. Before the exhibition  5000 Years of Korean Art  in the United States from 1979 to 1981 and  Treasures from Korea  in Europe in the year of 1984, Korean art was little known to westerners. The late Sun-u Choi, director of the national Museum, once metaphorically said:  Chinese art is like an actress, dramatic and showy, Japanese art is like a geisha girl, delicate and colorful, Korean art is like a wife and mother, earthy, warm and rarefied .

3. Ronald de Sousa, op.cit., p.9.

4. Bou-Yong Rhi, Shamanism and the Korean Psyche, Koreana, vol.6/No.2. 1992. p.32-35.

5. Hwi-Joon Ahn, The Korean Painting Tradition, in: Koreana, vol.6/No.2 1992. p.11.

6. Yil Lee, History & Characteristics of Contemporary Korean Art, in: Koreana-Korean Art & Culture (ed. Korea Foundation), vol 9, No.2, Summer 1995. pp.4-8

7. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, trans. by Garret Barden and John Cumming, New York: The Crossroad, 1982, p.267.

8. These colors, so evident in the brilliant tanch'ong paintings found in palaces, temples and shrines, are conceptual, symbolizing the Five Elements in the Taoistic natural order of eternal change.

9. June-sang Yu, Light and Color in Koran Art, in: Koreana, vol.9/No.2, 1995, pp.10-12.

10. Jerome Stolnitz, Aesthetics, MacMilan, 1965, p.43.

11. Won-Yong Kim, The Beauty of Korean Art, Seoul: Yolhwadang, 1978, pp.7-9.

12. Won-Yong Kim, Philosophies and Styles in Korean Art & Culture (ed. Korea Foundation), vol 1, No.1, 1987, p.26-27.

13. D. Seckel,   Some Characteristic of Koraen Art , Oriental Art, Spring, 1997, pp.52-61.

14. W.Willetts, Chinese Art, Pelican Book, 1958, pp. 372-377.

15. Yu-Sop Ko,   Characteristic of Korean art  , in his Essays on History of Korean art and Aesthetics, Seoul: Tongmungwan, 1963, p.6-8.

16. Tanaka Toyataro, Yi Dynasty Ceramics, Tokyo, 1944, pp.257-8.

17. McCune, The arts of Korea, Tutle Co., 1962, p.20.

18. Asia House Gallery, The Art of the Korean Potter, The Asia Society, 1968, p.13.

19. Wong-Yong Kim, op.cit., p.32.

Previous Article /
Article précédent

Top / Début
Table of Contents / Table des matières
Next Article /
Article suivant